For a behind-the-scenes look at this year's Democratic Convention,
In These Times turned to Bob Burnett. A longtime social activist
in the Bay Area and supporter of the magazine, Burnett is also one
of the founders of Cisco Systems. The following is a diary of his
trip to Los Angeles.
DAY 1: SADDLE UP, PILGRIMS
Los Angeles. The Lourdes of the West - where Americans
come to bathe in the healing waters of glamour and fame. And here
Al Gore will come to accept his party's nomination and (we hope)
get a transfusion of energy for his lacerated campaign. Lord, heal
this candidate! Please grant him a new personality! (Somebody say,
I'm here to see if I can find a reason to be enthusiastic
about Gore. As this campaign has developed, I have found it increasingly
reminiscent of 1968, when we all were so angry at the Democratic
Party in general, and Hubert Humphrey in particular (a decent man,
strikingly similar to Gore), that we didn't vote (or voted for third
party candidates) and got Richard Nixon elected. That again seems
an increasingly likely scenario: Many of us will abandon the Democrats,
and Dubya (with the campaign of Clinton, the soul of Nixon, and
the mind of Quayle) will be elected.
So I probably will vote for Gore - unenthusiastically.
But I want some reasons beyond abortion and gun control. Maybe,
before the week is over, I'll find these reasons. I hope so.
My day starts at a conference on "The Impact of Information
Technology on American Democracy" at the Biltmore Hotel. The most
interesting panelist, journalist Farai Chideya, points out that
the Internet is still the province of the white establishment and
asks what we are going to do to close the digital divide. The most
unexpected response comes from Gerald Levin (yes, the same Gerry
Levin who, as CEO of Time-Warner, engineered the merger with AOL).
He says the answer is not merely putting more computers in schools:
We actually need to pay teachers more and give them more training.
A lot of discussion ensues about how to get young
people involved in the political process. They're not tuning in
to the parties' Web sites, and there's fear that they find the current
political scene dull and irrelevant. Nobody seems to notice that
young folks have used the Web to mobilize anti-WTO protests and
organize cultural events like the "Burning Man" festival. A lot
of brainpower is used trying to come up with an apt assessment of
the Internet. They don't get close. araphrasing Chairman Mao, however,
Macintosh guru Guy Kawasaki makes a lame attempt: "The Internet
will bloom like 1,000 flowers."
Later, I head to the Beverly Hills Hotel for a party
thrown by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and paid
for by a clutch of real estate interests. (Full disclosure: My wife
Kathy and I were invited to this and other events because we gave
money to the DSCC.)
The speeches are predictable: We'd be better off with
Patrick Leahy than Jesse Helms as chairman of the Foreign Relations
Committee. We Democrats are the real reformers. We're responsible
for the economic prosperity (the one caused by the Internet revolution;
the one that doesn't seem to be reaching half of society - but no
one talks about that). Blah blah blah.
Afterward, during the schmooze-a-thon, everyone is
worried about Gore. Does he have a chance? Will adding Lieberman
to the ticket make a difference?
DAY 2: A TALE OF TWO CONVENTIONS
To get into the Staples Center for the Democratic
Convention, you have to take a special security bus and pass through
three checkpoints and a metal detector before entering the building
(a lot like attending high school in L.A.). A half-mile away at
Arianna Huffington's Shadow Convention, you park across the street
and try to get past the guy handing out Worker's World.
Get ready for a quiz:
At which convention were these words spoken?
1. "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow."
2. "How can we call this prosperity, how can we talk
about justice, when so may of our children go hungry?"
3. "We built the bridge to the 21st century, and we're
not going back."
4. "We live in a culture of violence, a culture of
racial and economic apartheid, a culture of sexism, and a culture
of greed, addiction and materialism."
5. "If you want to live like a Republican, vote like
OK, pencils down.
At 5 p.m. the Democratic Convention begins with a parade
of prominent women. It segues from senator to senator until Maryland's
Barbara Mikulski introduces Hillary Clinton. Her theme is: "I have
too done something!" She actually has her own record of accomplishment,
she insists, particularly the defense of children.
Earlier in the day, I heard author Jonathan Kozol speak
of the horrifying conditions in which poor children live. He remarked
that the only politician who hadn't lied to him about helping these
kids was Paul Wellstone. There was no mention of Hillary.
A few days ago, I asked some friends in Berkeley if
they would vote for Clinton if he were running again. They said
they would. ("He may be slime, but he's our slime.") They all believed
Clinton could defeat Dubya in the general election.
Clinton makes a rock-star entrance into the convention.
The picture flashed on the huge TV monitors shows him slowly walking
into the arena, while a list of his accomplishments scrolls across
the bottom of the screen. ("Economy up 35 consecutive quarters"
... "Teen pregnancy at lowest rate in 30 years" ... Sexual harassment
up 42 percent ...) By the time he finishes his interminable stroll
through the bowels of the Staples Center, the crowd is near hysteria.
Even by Clinton standards his speech is a tour
de force. The theme is simple: The Republicans do not understand
the economy. They do not understand that "the purpose of prosperity
is to grow a community." Al Gore must be elected to extend his legacy.
After the convention, I attend a party on the Paramount
Studios backlot with Kathy and a few thousand intimate friends.
The host is California Gov. Gray Davis (motto: "Vote for me or go
to prison"). At the end, the governor appears on stage with the
Clintons. He presents Bill with his very own "Oscar." And so we
say good-bye to Bill. Or do we?
How can we miss you if you won't go away?
DAY 3: NO CHOICE
During the day Kathy and I go to a luncheon hosted
by the largest Democratic PAC - Emily's List, which promotes pro-choice
female candidates (and of which we've been longtime supporters).
There's a certain note of desperation in the speeches. The number
of women in Congress has greatly increased in the past eight years
(California alone has two women senators and 11 women in Congress).
But voters turn out for the top of the ticket. That means if Dubya
wins, women will lose.
Dianne Feinstein steps onto stage. I'm not a big fan.
While we are close to the same age, she has always seemed to come
from a different century, the world of Queen Victoria not Queen
Latifah. But her speech slowly wins me over. She takes a more personal
tone than I've heard before: She describes what it was like in the
'50s, when she first entered the work force, and her first political
campaigns of the '60s, when female supporters had to get their husband's
permission before they could write a check.
When she talks of the world before Roe v. Wade,
the room gets very still. She recalls a time when her sorority sisters
passed the hat because one of them needed an abortion. She remembers
women she knew who committed suicide because they were pregnant.
My own personal history is pushed in my face. I have agonized over
an untimely pregnancy and accompanied a loved one to an abortion
clinic. So this election is about choice. Will we continue to fight
for equality and women's rights, or will we return to the Dark Ages?
At the convention we go everywhere by bus - very slowly.
But this gives us lots of time to chat with the conventioneers.
I'm struck by what good folks they seem to be - maybe not radicals,
but each working in their own way for change in their communities.
But they don't understand what the protests are about.
"What are they so angry about? Why don't they protest against the
I enumerate some of the issues being highlighted:
globalization, economic inequality, environmental degradation, draconian
drug laws. The others on the bus say they too are concerned about
these issues. They ask: "Why are they protesting against us?"
DAY 4: MONEY TALKS
I listen to a presentation about "The Progressive
Caucus on the Democratic National Platform" at the Shadow Convention.
Hecklers frequently interrupt their presentation, shouting out helpful
advice such as: "Leave the Democrats, vote for Nader."
It turns out that the Progressive Caucus tried to
add four amendments to the platform. They called for providing universal
heath care, narrowing the gap between rich and poor (by raising
the minimum wage to a living wage), requiring that international
treaties provide stronger labor protections, and stopping production
on the "Star Wars" missile defense system. Sounds good. When they
attempted to present these amendments to the platform committee,
of course, they were steamrolled by the Gore folks. There wasn't
even any debate.
Gloria Allred, a Hispanic political commentator and
convention delegate, says the Gore campaign is intent on keeping
the convention as vanilla-flavored as possible, only offering up
a few carefully chosen facets - like being pro-choice - to differentiate
themselves from the Republicans. She's disheartened and disillusioned.
"We're what's left of the left," she notes ruefully of the Progressive
Caucus, which has been banished to the sidelines.
She still plans to vote for Gore.
Also at the Shadow Convention, Wisconsin Sen. Russ
Feingold notes the rise of visible symbols of corporate influence
at the Democratic Convention (from the American Airlines hospitality
buffet to our free tube of sunscreen courtesy of The Gap). He calls
it vote buying and warns that we're becoming a "corporate democracy."
Back at the main event, our seats are sponsored by
Delta Queen Coastal Voyages. When all of the Democratic women in
Congress come out on stage, one of the Delta Queen lobbyists asks,
"Who are those women?" Kathy tells him, and without missing a beat,
he asks, "Where do they stand on maritime policy?"
Joe Lieberman's acceptance speech is received at the
convention with the same level of rock-star enthusiasm that greeted
Clinton. The speech is about tolerance. It's touching to hear the
personal stories of Joe and Hadassah, how their families fled persecution
and came to America. He segues from this to his experience as a
civil rights worker with Martin Luther King and then promises to
support affirmative action: "Mend it, don't end it," he says.
He's personable and believable. This convention really
needed him. Now the stage is cleared for Al Gore.
DAY 5: MOJO PROBLEMS
All week there has been an unstated apprehension among
the Democrats about Gore's acceptance speech. They've been praying
that he will be less wooden and more personable, leaving the party
faithful with some fire in their bellies and showing the public
that he is a real leader. I've come to think of this as Gore's "mojo
problem." He doesn't keep his mojo working. By way of comparison,
Bill Clinton doesn't have this problem (if anything he's got an
Gore doesn't disappoint the faithful. He enters through
the packed arena, shaking hands with people in the crowd. It seems
to loosen him up. His speech hits its stride when he proclaims,
"I am my own man."
The balance of the speech enumerates a detailed list
of ways Gore will help working families. He will provide affordable
health care. He will make a strong commitment to education. He will
raise the minimum wage. He will protect the environment. He will
defend civil rights, affirmative action and abortion rights. He
pledges that his No. 1 priority will be campaign finance reform.
I believe him.
Al definitely has got his mojo working. The folks
at the convention are encouraged
It's too soon to tell whether Gore really has cured
his mojo problem. He is a strangely inconsistent candidate, and
it's possible that his campaign will go in the toilet before November.
It's also possible that he will blow away Dubya in the debates and
win the election handily.
After a week in L.A., I'm convinced that those of us
on the left will have to swallow our principles and vote for Gore.
He is far from the perfect candidate, but he is a decent man. He
has a chance to win if the left supports him. The consequences are
just too dreadful if we don't.