Denver at one mile per hour: a convention dispatch

I am at the Democratic Convention in Denver, and it hasn’t been easy. No city can prepare for a one-time event like a convention and hope to do it right. The volunteers in their orange tee-shirts try to help, but the streets are clogged with vehicles, barricades disrupt normal traffic flow, and the sidewalks are hopelessly jammed with people who have no idea where they’re going and no idea how to get there. Think “leaving a professional sporting event” and superimpose it on an entire city for four days. It is not a pretty sight and not an enjoyable experience.

After using one of the free rental bikes that the convention is providing, and having some teens in an SUV shout, “Get off the road, old man, you’re going about one mile an hour,” I returned to my pedestrian status and made my way through the hawkers selling “Barack-Abye-Baby” sleepy suits and the phalanxes of helmeted, jackbooted police who almost outnumber the pedestrians. It was 85 degrees and rising.

Due to a bit of good luck I had a pass to get into the Pepsi Center where the convention itself is being held. So I decided to put the travails of the day behind me and go through the check points and barricades to hear what I could of the speeches.

It was like nothing so much as a rock concert in a big arena. Crowds surged around the walkways pushing and jostling and buying nachos and limp pizza. People sold buttons and tee shirts and Democratic paraphernalia destined to collect dust in closets all across America .

I found my designated section halfway to the nosebleed section on an impossible sideways angle to the speaker’s platform. The platform was like a thrust stage in a mega-church, with a podium on a five foot high half-circle that protruded into the audience. The speakers came out one by one from behind a curtained area.

On either side of the speaker’s podium, set back and raised, were darkened seating areas for a few important folks. One side was filled with a house band that had the musical tightness of a Muscle Shoals session group. Between speakers they played hard driving instrumentals that were blasted through the darkened arena while spotlights strafed the audience. Just after I found my seat the band launched into a high energy, trumpet-and-sax led five minute jam of James Brown’s “Gonna Have a Funky Good Time.”

I felt like I was on a different planet. James Brown blasting. Lights strobing and strafing. An entire arena on its feet waving American flags in unison. Men in blue business suits thrusting their arms upward to implore the audience to get up and party. Yet, in spite of myself, I was beginning to have a funky good time.

Caroline Kennedy came out. Haloed in the speaker’s light in the otherwise dark arena, she seemed wraithlike and almost ethereal. She spoke softly, giving a personal testimonial about her “Uncle Teddy.” When she finished, a video tribute to Ted Kennedy appeared on monitors throughout the darkened hall. It was filled with his voice and his vision and his hope. It seemed like a eulogy for an era.

As the video finished, the arena became silent. Out of the darkness a voice on the speaker system announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Senator Ted Kennedy,” and the senator, like an aged, wounded lion, was led to the podium. Spontaneously, the entire audience rose as one and let out a cheer that had more love in it than anything I had ever heard. It was the cheer of thanks from a generation.

I found myself cascading back to 1963 when I stood, confused, at my high school locker as my civics teacher walked by and said, “The president’s been shot.” I felt myself tumbling through time, seeing the dreams of my generation shot on balconies and podiums, watching my friends come home wounded and broken from a war that should never have been fought, standing helpless as my country turned from one of vision and caring to one of self-aggrandizement and self-absorption. And then I looked down at the man, fighting a battle now that he cannot win, and realized that I was looking at the link to the hope that my generation had lost, and watching him hand that torch of hope – the hope he himself had never lost — to the generation that is now coming into its own.

I did not stay for Michelle Obama’s speech. I gave my arena pass to someone else so they could hear her shape that hope for a new generation.

I walked out into a Denver night that seemed cooler and more hospitable. The lights of the prairies to the east twinkled like distant stars. The shadows of the mountains to the west loomed up like peaceful, silent monuments.

Maybe, I thought, the teens in the SUV were right: maybe it’s time for me to get off the road. After all, I am a little wobbly and I do move about one mile per hour. Time to let those with a sense of urgency get moving.

So, now it’s up to them.

I wish them well. Their struggles will be no less than ours, their dreams no less real and visionary. I only hope that they will remember the courage of folks like Ted Kennedy as they travel, and use his vision to guide us further down the path of this strange and crazy journey called “democracy”.

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