Party Politics — a Convention Preview

Election 2004 | Access/Network
“Many Americans are said to choosing their President based on whether they would enjoy a beer with them. If that question was ever relevant in American politics, it is not now.” So said Hillary Clinton at one of the welcome parties this Sunday evening, “A Community Celebration” co-sponsored by a number of the Jewish organizations. Senator Clinton continued by articulating the fundamental questions a voter must confront this election: whether the President would address the issues of the education system, inadequate health care, giving proper focus to the war on terror, etc.

Of course, the question is not completely irrelevant, given the correlation between the people who have a drink with their elected officials at parties like these. My patron for the party had been in the VIP room, handling the night’s speakers– Boston Mayor Tom Menino, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senator Joe Lieberman, along with scores of elected officials. I was in the main room with my friends, playing the up-networking game with a lot of people. It goes like this: yes, you want to speak to a particular person, but isn’t there someone more important to meet? And the same people play the game with you. Though the networking eventually tapered as the quality of speakers grew. The crowd got focused as Joe hit his stride (with Hadassah by his side), and then was absolutely transfixed when Hillary took the podium.

There were three people I encountered who were not drinking. One was myself. I wasn’t drinking because I was a bit sick to my stomach having gorged myself on the smorgasbord of milchik delicacies– cheeses, hommus, tabouleh, mushroom strudel, sushi, carved tuna. And the reason I gorged myself was that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast; today I had been busy from a DemocraticGAIN conference to the Kerry convention HQ at Park Plaza, where I pinch-hit for a small delivery job, which ended up taking two hours. By the time I returned the rental car, I had to bike back home to Brookline to change, and then drive my car back in to the World Trade Center in Boston’s seaport district (unlike its namesake which stood in NY for three decades, the WTC Boston is not a towering complex of office buildings but just a large hall usually used for parties.) I took a breakfast granola bar in with me in the car, but it was still in its wrapper when I passed it along with my pocket vitals around the metal detectors to get in.

One of the bartenders couldn’t drink because she was on duty. After the festivities wound down, my friend asked for a drink and an impression as well: “Do you think Hillary had good things to say?” She served her answer with ice: “If that’s what you like.” It was not her place to elaborate further, and we didn’t press. My first thought was how unfortunate it was that she couldn’t care less about hearing Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, I thought back to the perhaps-infamous Whoopsy-Whoopi fundraiser in NY (which a rambling caller to C-SPAN this morning pointed out as an example of liberal “extremism”). It’s people like the catering staff whose presence keeps the speakers honest.

Reality came to us again outside. A tanned, dark-haired man in his forties with a pencil-thin moustache walked by and saw me in my suit. He asked me whether he could get into the party was inside. I told him it was winding down. What type of party? For Kerry, a number of the Jewish organizations. He was from Lynn, he told me. Where I was from, he asked? Brookline, I answered. Both towns are overwhelmingly Democratic, over eighty percent. But while Brookline commuters will hop the Green Line into town as normal this week, Lynn will serve bear the commuter rail passengers from the North Shore now transferring to a bus instead of continuing into North Station. There’s a party at Government Center, I suggested, the Boston Pops will giving a free concert. Aagh, he sneered, and walked away. Everyone appears to partying in town, and he wanted in.

Is there something similar all these voters want? I can offer a guess, based on reading the Globe‘s neat photo spread of delegates this morning. Tell them they’re important. The most fun I had today was revving my rental Kerry car around town, lugging the precious cargo that two other volunteers had picked up, making questionable traffic maneuvers under ever-present eyes of three levels of law enforcement. I felt important, empowered. I expect to have more fun driving the shuttle tomorrow as a volunteer than actually showing up inside the convention.

But I think that many of the populists, well represented in the blogger community, would disappointed if they are expecting to feel empowered at all moments. For anyone who’s a big player in their local campaigns, this is now the big leagues. It’s time to see how the people higher up on the access ladder than you are doing their own up-networking. I hope this doesn’t turn off people to party politics; since parties, particularly those of the catered sort, aren’t going away anytime soon. I think it should give institutional climbers– of which I count myself one– a window into how the big leagues really work. But that shouldn’t distract us from outreach efforts to bring in new people.

Incidentally, this event was the first time this weekend I was asked to produce photo ID. I write this not to expose the lax security elsewhere, just as a sense of relief that we still trust people in this country. Someone could have shown up as “Jon Garfunkel” at the Park Plaza and started taking some volunteer assignments. Another person could have gotten in by dropping my name into the DemocraticGAIN workshops, and then into the Jumpoff party at Avalon this evening– where I sent some surrogates, who have yet to report back. I was partied out, and I couldn’t say I honestly completed the GAIN training. And if you believe me, I thought of the fellow from Lynn who was in the dark about all the parties. So I visited a friend and watched the Sox-Yankees baseball game. And there he was, the junior Senator from Massachusetts, looking comfortable on television for about the first time this political season. He chatted amicably with ESPN’s Jon Miller about the hopes for the Red Sox, and the state of baseball in general. I think the average fan could imagine himself having a beer with him.

Note: This is my first essay which is cross-posted to GreaterDemocracy as a blog post. I usually write on my Civilities website, in which I favor an essay form and resist the frequently-updated, stream-of-consciousness style that is common in blogs. I’m not sure where this fits, but it’s a diary which covers most of today, with a little theme running through it. As with blog publishing, I have spare resources for fact-checking and editing, so I will check with a reporter from the Phoenix on the exact words of the Hillary Clinton quote above.