Boston - The balloons have popped, the metal detectors are gone, and the city has gone back to normal after the combination fiesta/coronation that was the Democratic National Convention.
The verdict is that John Kerry's acceptance speech was better and more substantive than expected. He's for health care and restoring civil rights (an allusion to anything-we-do-is-right Attorney General John Ashcroft) and against the back-door draft that forces reservists to go to Iraq, though some observers say he didn't spend nearly enough time talking about how to ease the disaster in that country.
But did the event as a whole add up to anything beyond a four-day celebration for party activists? Well, yes. The democratic wing of the party, as Howard Dean defined the progressive wing, was not merely present and tolerated as an irritant. It took a leading role in defining major issues like the role of the U.S. in the world, the environment, affordable health care, gay rights and reproductive choice.
The speeches were filled with platitudes, but there was more daring and provocative substance than at the last two Democratic conventions, and a more invigorating cast of characters. Dean was there, urging Democrats to run for any office they could find. Progressive prophet Michael Moore urged voters to vote Kerry, not Nader. (Yes, Moore said, Kerry did vote for the Bush resolution that led to the invasion, but if he'd been president the attack on Iraq never would have happened.)
The celebrity presence - Ben Affleck, Richard Schiff (The West Wing), Richard Dreyfuss, Alec Baldwin, Cynthia Nixon, Bianca Jagger and the Kennedys - and all the parties you couldn't get into made me think of the Toronto International Film Festival, except that here the stars were accessible, wandering around the Sheraton lobby.
Inside the convention hall, Rev. Al Sharpton's off-script remarks, all high drama and searing substance, brought the house down. When he talked about the chicanery of the 2000 election in Florida that disenfranchised so many African Americans - something Al Gore failed to mention in his speech - you could feel the buzz. The reason, he said, that African Americans take what happened in Florida so seriously, is that "our vote was soaked in the blood of martyrs. This vote can't be bargained away!"
Newsweek trashed Sharpton for his improvised riff, yet powerful Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe embraced him.
Where to go after such excitement? There were several choices: another Rock The Vote bash, a schmooze-fest with Democratic governors at Ned Devine's Irish Pub or a chance to hear the earth move. Carole King was performing in a hotel ballroom in support of Chicks Rock, Chicks Vote. Twenty-something women dressed in short black dresses and dangerously high heels cheered Elizabeth Edwards (wife of VP candidate John) and other speakers from sponsor Lifetime Television for Women, who brought home the fact that 40 million women didn't vote in 2000. And then it was time for classic King.
Women, specifically the usually invisible category of single women, are one of the groups the Democrats are going after. "They're more likely to be receptive to our message," said Elizabeth Edwards in a speech at the women's caucus.
At the Latino caucus, Dolores Huerta, who worked with Cesar Chavez in the California farm workers' movement, announced that she had 11 children, then added that she didn't think every woman had to be and was pro-choice. Henry Cisneros, former chief of HUD (Housing and Urban Development), pointed out that the Latino population is growing in the very states that could go either way. "In Nevada, we lost by 20,000 votes last time, but there are 200,000 Latinos. It is this generation of Latinos that is going to break down the door," he said.
At an outdoor lunch of wraps and pizza at Boston's unspoiled wharf, speakers from and for Americans for Democratic Action talked about what's at stake. Barney Frank, the Massachusetts congressman who has been openly gay for years, took on the Ralph Nader issue. "Nader said there is no significant difference between Bush and Kerry. A woman's right to choose is not significant? Gay rights are not significant? Whether or not you cut taxes for the rich and cut back on basic services - is that not significant?"
Frank noted that electing Kerry as prez is only the first step. "It gives us the right to do some very hard work - aggravate the hell out of him." Yet he and others on the left of the party insist that Kerry is a lot more than an "anyone-but-Bush candidate."
At a panel in a packed church in Cambridge that included Joe Conason (Salon.com), Sidney Blumenthal (former New Yorker writer, Clinton aide and author of The Clinton Wars), Toni Morrison and comedian/talk show host Al Franken, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spoke with anguished fury about the Bush administration's strip-mining of laws intended to protect the environment.
"We have a president put in office by large polluters. He has done their bidding. We have never seen anything like the damage they have done," said Kennedy, the head of Riverkeeper.
"We are living in a science fiction nightmare," he said, explaining that asthma levels have doubled. "I watch my kids gasping for breath because someone gave money to polluters." By contrast, Kerry, he said, has a fine record on the environment.
Within the last year, noted Conason, a spate of books have been published, from Franken's Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them to Senator Robert Byrd's just-published Losing America. Byrd, now over 80, is one of the country's most outspoken critics of the war in Iraq. Conason says these books have flowed in to fill the huge gap left by the "ruthlessly single-sided media."
Another panel, sponsored by The Nation, which now has the highest circulation of any political weekly in America, had editor Katrina vanden Heuvel calling the upcoming election a "referendum on the greatest foreign policy debacle in U.S. history.... We are not here," she added, "to complicate John Kerry's journey to the White House."
That panel included Senator Gary Hart, Congressman Dennis Kucinich and a very angry Ambassador Joe Wilson, whose wife was exposed as a CIA agent in retribution for his saying there is no uranium in Niger. He thanked The Nation for countering the Republican National Committee's smear campaign against him and noted that the ominous message to Americans is "Should you as a citizen speak the truth, be afraid - be very afraid."
"This is the most important election in our lifetime," seemed more than a platitude. The differences between the Democratic and Republican parties, at this point in history, have never been bigger. (Barney Frank said that if his Hebrew were better, he'd say Kaddish for moderate Republicans.) And those in Boston, in the Fleet Center, at the panels and caucuses, at the parties, knew it.