The Magazine

Amateur Hour at the Fleet Center

What happened when the cameras weren't on.

Aug 9, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 45 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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AT 4:15 ON MONDAY, July 26, Miss Teen New Mexico takes the stage at the Democratic convention to belt out a stirring rendition of the national anthem to the nearly empty Fleet Center. What it stirs, mainly, is a sense of dread. Looking for my niche in the teeming journalistic ecosystem, I've settled on the quaint concept of ditching the receptions and covering the convention--the parts you don't see on TV. The sessions are gaveled to order each day at 4:00 P.M., and there are hours of events before prime-time coverage begins. Happily, there are almost no other reporters around. Horrifyingly, the festivities quickly reveal themselves to be a hideous hybrid of StarSearch and C-SPAN.

An endless parade of female/minority/swing-state candidates and officeholders step up for their three minutes at the podium. They announce their name, rank, serial number, and why they love John Kerry. Then a giant hook pulls them offstage. Reasons for their devotion to Kerry range from "He's going to make America strong at home and respected abroad" to "We can trust John Kerry with our nation's future."

To entertain myself, I start a tally of the speakers who refer to "the Kerry presidency" in the present tense. But somewhere around 30 I lose count--and interest. There's a reason for the mind-numbingly dull speeches from the Democratic farm team. The Kerry campaign wants it that way. Even reliably spunky Democrats like Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Jesse Jacksons senior and junior seem muted, leading me to suspect that the DNC is handing out Xanax backstage to calm potential troublemakers.

After a fruitless quest to secure a dose for myself, I return to my seat in time for one of the many musical interludes scheduled to break up the monotonous chatter. Over the course of three days, the delegates will be treated to not one, but two performances of "Yankee Doodle Dandy." The first is by Boston bagpipers, the second, a mere 24 hours later, from the Middlesex County 4-H fife and drum corps. In between, a pit orchestra wails out convention classics like "Everyday People," "Dancin' in the Street," and "We Are Family." The delegates who have arrived early get down and get funky. The arrhythmic arm wave is much in evidence, as is the white man's overbite. Diversity onstage notwithstanding, the delegates are uniformly bad dancers. There is an inverse correlation between the number of sequins, feathers, and stuffed donkeys on the hat of any delegate and his ability to clap on the beat.

At the desk next to me in the "writing press" section of the arena, a salt-and-pepper-haired reporter from U.S. News & World Report is also getting his groove on. His groove consists largely of the rhythmic tapping of his pen. But he is on the beat at least, and has also clearly drawn the convention-coverage short straw. I decide a little pen-dancing is forgivable and indulge myself.

H.L. Mencken, I think, was only half right in his famous observation about political conventions: "One sits through long sessions, wishing heartily that all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell--and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour."

I'm still waiting for that "gorgeous year" feeling to kick in sometime during day three, when I notice that the sheep-like tendencies of the delegates have reached new lows. They have failed to comprehend that if one is not, say, a firefighter, then enthusiastically waving a poster that reads "Firefighters for Kerry" is somewhat disingenuous. But the delegates cheerfully advertise their membership in any number of interest groups in the space of an hour by waving anything they are handed. They brandish and then toss aside the generic "Kerry-Edwards 2004" poster in order to take up "Pro-Kerry. Pro-Edwards. Pro-Choice" banners, which they then exchange for yellow T-shirts and placards from the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). They pull off the T-shirts in time to grab "Teamsters for Kerry" posters. Multiply all the wardrobe changes by 12 hours, and you'll begin to sympathize with Mencken's plea for delegate damnation.

But posters and T-shirts aren't the only freebies being handed out. Just as the delegates are struggling to pull the firefighter shirts over their heads without mussing their "Kerry '04" face paint, a friendly girl with a ponytail comes by and hands me a jar of salsa. It's not just any salsa--it's "Governor Bill Richardson's New Mexico Salsa," and it bears his likeness on the label. I begin to wish heartily for a massive delegate food fight to break out.

But the delegates' attention is elsewhere. They are transfixed by a deeply bizarre video playing on the enormous monitors behind the podium. Clips of firemen fighting raging blazes are interspersed with shots of IAFF members happily waving Kerry-Edwards signs and cheering. A perky musical soundtrack accompanies the video. No one seems quite sure whether they should be pumped up, or sobered by the challenges our nation faces. They opt for polite applause as IAFF president Harold Schaitberger takes the stage.

THE DELEGATES, to their credit, grow ever more inattentive to the amateur hour speakers as the week progresses. They mill around chatting and taking pictures of each other's growing collection of anti-Bush buttons and pins. By Wednesday, they rouse themselves to cheer only on rare occasions. When the name of their own state is mentioned from the podium, most delegations manage at least a feeble hurrah. The exception is New York, whose delegates are apparently too cool to show up before 9:00 P.M.--ever.

The only other way for the B-team at the podium to get a reaction is to say something particularly outrageous about the president. Mayor Donald Plusquellic of Akron, Ohio, for example, asks the delegates to "think about it, our kids are being driven in school buses over bridges that are in danger of collapsing." It's unclear why this would be Bush's fault, but the delegates give Plusquellic their best "we-hate-Bush" cheer.

In a similar vein, nearly every African-American speaker over the course of three days utters some version of the line: "Every vote counts and every vote must be counted." This means at least a dozen daily uses of the line. No one quite comes out and says, "Republicans are racists who rig elections," but the message is clear, and the delegates cheer mightily.

And then there is the glorious moment, at around 6:00 P.M. on Wednesday, when amateur hour at last achieves the exalted Menckenian heights of self-parody. David Paterson, New York state senate minority leader, is trotted out to the podium. He is from Harlem, he is black, and--wait for it--he is blind. He is the personification of the minority constituency trifecta, and the crowd loves him. "I've been waiting for this moment for 40 years," he says. And then he tells us that he has "a vision for New York state." Seriously.

After the raucous round of applause for Paterson, my spirit is broken. I don't even have the oomph left to pay attention to Dennis Kucinich, who is scheduled for 7:45, right before the 8:00 cutoff, when the amateurs finally cede the stage.

As I stagger out of the Fleet Center, clutching my laptop and my jar of salsa, I breathe in the cool evening air, thankful to be free. But then an icy fear grips my heart. The Republican amateur hour is only four weeks away, and someone will have to be there to bear witness.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.