Kicking off the Democratic Convention

Behind the News with Bill Ritter
August 24, 2008 7:20:27 PM PDT
I remember the first time I stepped onto a political convention floor. It was July, 1972 in Miami Beach. The anti-war Democrats were convening in the same hall where their pro-war Nixonian Republicans would gather a month later. The contrasts could not have been starker.

Women, gays and "peaceniks" were welcomed by the party that would nominate George McGovern - this, just four years after these same people had been silenced in Chicago by a mayor who ruled the convention as undiplomatically as he ruled his city and his police force.

The political dynamics aside, I remember clearly stepping onto the air conditioned convention floor from the sweltering Miami summer heat. I was an unpaid stringer for a public radio network, armed with a notebook and one of those clunky old tape recorders that looked a little like a World War II combat field phone. My assignment was to gather some sounds of what was happening behind the scenes - and record my own observations.

I was in journalistic heaven - my first real assignment.

But the thrill wasn't just the reporting part. That, too, was clear to me. There was a huge rush being inside, watching delegates hash out issues, with a fervor that a then-22-year-old could relate to. An our-time-is-now feeling.

(Of course the time at the time belonged to Nixon. It was a lopsided election. McGovern carried only one state. In fact, in the months that followed, as the Nixon Administration began unraveling in the Watergate scandal and a war in Vietnam that it would soon lose, the bumper sticker popular among Democrats read: "Don't Blame Me, I'm From Massachusetts.")

Back to the convention floor - I remember it in much the same way I remember walking into a major league baseball park for the first time - that feeling that you're suddenly in a bigger-than-life arena, where the normalcy of day-to-day living is on hold, however briefly, and that something magical is taking place.

Years later, I still get that feeling as a reporter.

I have brought my 13-year-old son along with me; his first convention. And I'll be watching closely to see his eyes widen when he steps onto the floor of the Pepsi Center (the name for the convention hall).

Now to Denver itself. It is, as it always has been, simply a magnificent place. They call it the mile-high city because of its elevation; but the truth is that the mountains surrounding this city is what helps make it spectacular - and they are far higher than a mile above sea level.

For those who haven't been in downtown Denver for a while, the place has changed.

Especially transformed is downtown, or lower downtown. LOBO is what the locals call it. And this 2008 Democratic Convention is perhaps the biggest thing to ever happen to LOBO - with its hip hotels and restaurants, nightclubs, biker lounges, and enormous public facility that unabashedly promote the corporations that paid for them - the aforementioned Pepsi Center, Coors Field, Invesco Field - all within a stone's throw of each other, and all helping to rejuvenate a once-lackluster section of the city.

Quite a scene at the airport when we arrived: Convention officials are there, greeting delegates and visitors and the media (about 35,000 in all, including 15,000 members of the press), and welcoming them to the city named after John Denver. (No, not that John Denver, the other John Denver; you remember, the territorial governor of Kansas in the mid 1800s. Sheesh, did you miss history class that day?)

Democrats tend to have more zanies show up than Republicans at their conventions. I'm not drawing any conclusions; I'm just sayin'.

And the wares for sale reflect that. The t-shirts especially. The most outrageous one we've seen has a picture of John McCain, with the words "Electile Disfunction." I assume the first error was intentional humor, but the second I suspect was simply poor spelling.

Speaking of poor spelling - when the DNC (that's Democratic National Committee to us common folks) announced that Sen. Joe Biden's home state of Delaware would now seat its 23 delegates closer to the podium than they had been before - standard operating procedure for the homestate of VP nominees - they spelled the state "Deleware."


There's certainly a huge police presence here. One blogger called it police-state-like. I won't go that far. But it is an impressive outpouring of troops in jet-black uniforms, with 39-inch batons, automatic weapons, what appear to be paint-ball-like guns to "tag" suspects, riot helmets and storm-trooper boots.

The federal government forked over $100 million to be divided equally for security between the Democratic and Republican conventions. And judging from the number of feet on the street, they don't appear to be letting that money sit around.

There are officers from police and sheriffs departments across Colorado and the Mountain West states. The funniest scene - and maybe funny isn't the best word - is an SUV with specially built platforms around three sides, where these SWAT-like troops are standing as the vehicle cruises the streets.

That's all prelude, of course, to the big story inside the convention, which officially kicks off Monday.

There is no shortage of drama here, and most of it involves Hillary Clinton. The woman who did not get the nomination is playing a huge role at this confab - including allowing her name to be placed in nomination. Yes, I know, some of her supporters think this will be a cathartic experience to pay homage to how close the Senator from New York came to being the first woman nominated by a major party for the Presidency.

But ask just about any political expert and they will tell you that this is no way to build party unity, especially for someone who is a relatively unkown political entity. To build support for Barack Obama, the conventional wisdom goes, means focusing on Obama, not Clinton.

But who knows? Maybe Obama will prove to be an effective convention manager, which is the main objective of this gathering. The reasoning being - if he can't manage his political party's own convention, how in the world can he manage the country? If he can't deal strongly with an opponent he defeated in his party's primaries, how will he be able to deal with some of the world's stubborn strongmen?

These are not idle questions, and embrace much of what Sen. Obama's political burden is this week.

And these questions, and this burden, will be the focus of much of our coverage this week. I'm here, as are our political reporter Dave Evans, and our Weekend Anchor Sandra Bookman. Together, we will be reporting on our morning, noon, 5, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts.


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