The Blog

"D" Is for Dysfunctional

Kerry's sister, Edwards's daughter, and their disabled, gay, Native-American brothers and sisters.

6:30 PM, Jul 26, 2004 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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Boston

DOZENS OF CAUCUSES met on Monday in the Boston Sheraton. Walking through the door was like walking into the worst possible combination of a family reunion and Kerry pep rally. Hundreds of delegates and activists milled around in the lobby and exchanged greetings uncomfortably, unable to remember each other's names. Everyone was relieved when the sessions got started and they were able to break off into smaller, more homogeneous groups.

My first stop was the Native American caucus. Slipping in behind Charlie Rangel (D-NY) I try to remain unobtrusive. It's easy to do, because Rangel is already in full barn-burning mode, having burned the barns of several special-interest groups already that morning. Before he makes it to the podium, a Native-American amputee runs up to him for a quick snapshot. The rest of the crowd gazes on adoringly, peering over their impossibly high cheekbones. By the time Rangel is introduced, it's clear that the crowd is in love. "My brothers and sisters," he says to the group of about 120 Native-American delegates, activists, candidates, and sundry hangers-on, "they need us." "They," it seems, are John Kerry and John Edwards--and white Democrats in general. Rangel's subsequent remarks about the virtues of the Kerry-Edwards ticket are greeted with what the less-than-politically-correct reporter might call a "war whoop." Rangel thanks the assembled crowd for "giving us an opportunity to live in this country." The crowd cheers, though it's not clear why, since later speakers emphasize the unfairness of "them" living on "our" land.

I can't stay to hear more, though, because the Asian/Pacific Islander Caucus is just letting out on the other side of the hall. As the Asian and Pacific Islander delegates stream out of the conference room, numerous sub-groups are advertising their events. Though the Democratic party is all about unity, the Asian delegation apparently is not. There's a South Asian reception in a couple of days, to which only those who were conspicuously members received invitations, for example.

As the APIC crowd files out of the Republic conference room, they are replaced by the Disability caucus. But I decide to return to them in bit, since the logistics of getting dozens of motorized wheelchairs into a hotel conference room (without running over the tails of the seeing eye dogs) are time consuming and wildly uninteresting.

In the meantime, big things are happening down the hall with the AFSCME, whose giant green banner proclaims "We've got the power." A woman named Lorraine greets the group with a cheerful, "Good afternoon, my brothers and sisters." Lorraine, it seems, has gotten the memo--everyone's family at the caucus meetings, fellow union delegates most of all.

Front and center at the union event is a cute joke that's making the rounds through the caucuses. Four life-size cardboard cutouts of Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, and George W. Bush are sharing the podium with Lorraine. At their feet sit a small pile of bags of rice. The Democrats, we learn, are "going on a No CARB diet. No Cheney. No Ashcroft. No Rumsfeld. No Bush. And certainly no [Condoleezza] Rice." In so doing, their goal is to "lose 869 pounds of unwanted fat."

The way the AFSCME has chosen to express their distaste for these particular CARBs is to have each of their speakers pick up a bag of rice (get it? Rice?) and chuck it at the cutout of their choice.

Leaving the union reps to gleefully stone (excuse me, rice) the effigies of the current leaders of the free world, I decided to check back in with the Disability caucus.

Things seemed to be going smoothly. Everyone is now cheerfully sporting buttons exhorting their fellows to "Roll to the Polls-Vote Democratic" and the official program is underway. The tables are segregated by disability. Blind in the back, deaf in the front, presumably to take advantage of the translation services provided by one of the ubiquitous sign-language interpreters.

A New York city councilman speaks, saying that New York and the Democratic party are "working for disabled people because we know there is no such thing as a disabled person." At least one person seems unperturbed by this apparent contradiction. Miss Wheelchair America, who is wearing a sash with her title and an impressively sparkly tiara, was also at the Native-American caucus. She was pleased, she said, to find that the two events were across the hall from each other. But not surprised. "We're all one big family here," she says with a smile. Clearly she got the memo, too. Miss Wheelchair is interrupted by the high-pitched wail of audio feedback. Something has gone wrong with the taped statement from Kerry, and those with hearing aids wince, looking like they're about to fall to the floor and writhe in pain. After a few more squeaks, the Kerry video statement is finally up and running. It's the usual pro-ADA boilerplate, and the only person who looks less enthralled than the delegates with the speech is the video presence of Kerry himself. But when it's over, he gets a raucous round of applause--complete with deaf claps, which involve holding both hands in the air and flashing them open and closed.

BACK AT AFSCME, Gerald McEntee, the president of AFSCME, is resplendent in a Kelly green T-shirt, green and white scarf, and matching straw hat. He asks his union "brothers and sisters" to welcome Kate Edwards, oldest daughter of the vice presidential candidate. She has clearly been briefed in advance about appropriate sartorial choices, and is much lauded for her stylish green blazer by a vocal woman sitting behind me. Kate cuts to the chase, saying those magic words "y'all are important." She is then offered a bag of rice, which she hurls at the Cheney cutout without a second of hesitation.

The Women's Leadership Forum luncheon is in the Back Bay Ballroom next door. They've got cheese, crackers, a passel of female senators and John Kerry's older sister. Alice Germond of the DNC introduces Peggy Kerry. "Sisters," she says, "I will be brief." And, blessedly, she is. Peggy commits her "little brother" to a whole slate of "woman-friendly" policies, including a litmus test for judges, and instant revocation of the "global gag rule" upon taking office.

Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington takes the stage to note that the WLC is also on the No CARB diet. Since "women in America know about dieting," she says, this should be an easy concept for them to comprehend. The audience munches on its crackers and nods.

IN ANOTHER PART of the Sheraton, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Caucus meeting is underway. There is notable overlap with the Firefighters Union and (oddly) the Puerto Rican delegation. Barbara Boxer was the opening speaker, but many of the volunteers are too busy handing out buttons in the back to listen to her speech. The hardest job in this conference room is the delicate business of handing out the "I'm a Transgender Delegate" buttons. The speakers refer variously to the gathered crowd as "brothers and sisters," but nearly everyone seems to respond to the label "sister." This is the most orderly of the caucuses, though the specter of the Bush administration is raised to satisfactory boos across the board.

All of these caucuses pale in comparison with the Veterans Caucus. More rally than caucus, James Carville is already so angry he could spit (correction, is spitting) by the time I make it into the back of the packed room. He is introducing Max Cleland. Cleland "will be avenged" by Kerry's election, says Carville. As Cleland takes the stage, he is interrupted by the Veterans for Peace who are shouting unintelligible slogans from the back of the room. But he quickly regains the audience's attention to tell them that John Kerry understands the true meaning of (wait for it) "being part of a band of brothers."

The one-armed Native American photographer looks on a pair of women reach out to hold hands in the row next to me. Several disabled veterans sit in the aisle with "Veterans for Kerry" signs in their laps. They all watch as Carville rants and raves, and there's a warm glow in the room. They are, after all, just one big, happy, completely dysfunctional family.

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