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The almighty convention: More than a state fair and Purim rolled into one — a desire for change

Michelle Obama & kidsThe ultimate challenge at a political convention is to determine exactly what is real and what is not.

The big party conventions are, after all, the state fairs, the Purims, the amusement park parties, the jamborees, of the political process — and a big share of the political process is, as all of us know, image, spin, even illusion.

To the degree that politics is perception — a product as slickly packaged and adroitly promoted as Coca-Cola, Madonna or Vegas vacations — no greater monument to that art exists than the almighty convention.

That became clear the moment any visitor entered the Pepsi Center during this week’s Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Never mind the mind-numbing wait in the long lines getting in, the airport-like security checks, the mobs of delegates, the VIPs, the reporters and guests milling around outside and in the lobbies.

In the central arena — a zone usually reserved for hockey and basketball players and their fans — the intended effect is immediately achieved. Here you are technologically embraced, welcomed into a many-marveled world of spectacle and sensory overload.

The stage from which the speakers address the hall is a potent presence, designed not only to look majestically imposing on millions of television sets, but to literally tower over and dominate the tiny humans who gather beneath and before it.

It is adorned with arches of electronic color — mainly blue, not surprisingly — and bathed in brilliantly pure light, so that no one will be tempted to look away for long.

Lest anyone doubt the importance of the events which take place here, there are visual reminders of the world’s incessant attention. Encircling the round perimeter of the arena, like colorful rings around Saturn, are the suites reserved for the big television media, each announcing its presence with electronic logos.

Their names are immediately familiar, and easily associated with their respective areas of influence — CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, BBC, CSpan — even Al Jazeera, which must be a relatively new addition to the exclusive club.

Beneath these halos of digital wizardry, the floor and stands themselves — the place where the delegates do the actual nuts-and-bolts work of the convention — almost appear prosaic and tame.

Here are the traditional vertical signs announcing the states’ carefully plotted seating areas, the long phalanxes of folding chairs, the constant coming and going of delegates and staffers, reporters and photographers, all mingling together like busy bees in a populous hive.

The convention’s harried activity transpires beneath a pervasive blanket of noise — the booming microphones on stage, where speaker after speaker gets up and does his or her thing; the incessant drone of thousands of voices; the tight band which pumps out hot little takes of rock and soul tunes in between the speakers.

It’s all incredibly well coordinated and timed, orchestrated as professionally and spectacularly as any Broadway production — high politics as high entertainment.

The core difference between Broadway and the DNC, however, is obvious. While Broadway makes no pretensions about its fictional foundation and its love of deliberate illusion, the DNC is ostensibly about a monumental reality — assuming the leadership of the United States of America.

The pervasive theme of that ambitious endeavor — change — was impossible to escape at the DNC. It was everywhere, from the signs the delegates waved at the cameras to speech after speech from that majestic stage

Is this hope and struggle for change genuine, or is it, like the razzmatazz in which the DNC was so colorfully draped, nothing more than concept as commodity?

One looks for signs vindicating the truth.

On Monday night, as Michelle Obama took the stage to make the case for her husband’s presidency, an electric current ran through the hall that had nothing to do with technology and everything to do with humanity.

The thunder of that crowd, and the smile that appeared on Mrs. Obama’s face when she was welcomed by it, were elements that could not have been prearranged or orchestrated.

The bond that developed between speaker and audience caught both unaware — the spontaneous cries of “Michelle!” from invisible delegates, the occasional catch in the speaker’s voice when she spoke of her late father and the examples he set — these were not part of the program.

Was nostalgia part of that chemistry? Did Mrs. Obama’s poise and grace and warmth remind some people of another first lady, Jackie Kennedy, just as her husband reminds many people of Jackie’s tragic spouse?

Or was something utterly new going on, the keen awareness that no African American woman has ever stood on the precipice that Michelle Obama now occupies?

Either way, the sense was strong in the Pepsi Center after Mrs. Obama’s relatively short speech and the touching presentation of her daughters to the convention, that a relationship had been born — a bond forged — and regardless of how November turns out, it’s a relationship that is likely to endure.

There was more thunder — even louder and more sustained — the next night, when Hillary Clinton took her own moment under the spotlight. Here, there was drama and suspense aplenty, exactly the sorts of things that careful programming and sophisticated gadgetry cannot control.

It must have been a difficult and challenging moment for the former First Lady, but she did not seem daunted.

Hillary Clinton at the DNCMrs. Clinton said all of the things about Barack Obama and party unity that she was supposed to say, and threw any number of pointed barbs in John McCain’s direction, all while conveying the calm and confident sense of control that marked her own determined quest for the nomination.

The ubiquitous commentators and talking heads were divided in their analyses. Some claimed she was warm and sincere in encouraging her followers to give their support and votes to the man who defeated her; others said she was expeditiously gracious at best, hiding her disappointment and anger only for the sake of her own political future.

Only Mrs. Clinton knows what truly dwells in her heart, but the sincerity of her supporters was undeniable, from their cheers to their tears. That they desperately wanted her to become the first woman to assume the US presidency, and were heartbroken when that didn’t happen, was written on hundreds if not thousands of faces in Denver on Tuesday night.

The change that Mrs. Clinton’s supporters want will have to wait.

The change that Obama’s supporters want may yet come to pass.

But one thing that Denver’s DNC made abundantly clear is that the desire for that change — perhaps even the desperate need for it — is very real.

That could be read on the tear-streaked faces of women holding Hillary signs in the auditorium air. It could be seen in the wide smiles and unmistakable expressions of pride on the faces of young African Americans who sense they may be about to witness the fruition of their ancestors’ fondest dreams.

That was the true beating heart of this convention, and no amount of elaborate bells and whistles, no measure of color, noise or spectacle, could obscure it.

IJN Assistant Editor |

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