Witnesses To History In Denver

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - September 03, 2008
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VP nominee Biden visited the Deleware and Hawaii delegations at their hotel
VP nominee Biden visited the Deleware and Hawaii delegations at their hotel

DENVER - Five thousand delegates to the Democratic National Convention descended here last week, accompanied by 15,000 print and television journalists, bloggers, protesters and enough heavily armed Colorado police, firefighters, security personnel and Secret Service agents to have provided another expensive American surge in some faraway land.

They gathered, of course, not to nominate a presidential candidate, but to sell one: Barack Obama, Hawaii-born-and-largely-reared, the pride of a huge majority of the 37,000 Democrats who overwhelmed the Hawaii Democratic precinct caucuses in February. They came also to lick wounds of the longest, closest Democratic primary season in years, one in which Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton fought to a virtual draw, but from which the young man from Hawaii eked out a statistical victory.

They also came to skewer the man the Republicans will nominate in Minneapolis this week.

And they came to hear speeches - speeches that would sell, soothe and skewer, given by some of the best orators in the business of politics - most notably the nominee himself.

Just four years ago, Obama was an Illinois state senator seeking election to national office. His 2004 keynote speech vaulted him into the Democratic presidential nomination this year. All present at the 2008 convention wondered whether he had an acceptance speech that would take him to the presidency itself.

Day 1: The Hawaii delegation, the Delaware delegation (represented in the Senate by vice presidential nominee Joe Biden), Arkansas (former home of Hillary and Bill Clinton) all found themselves in a Marriott located 45 light rail minutes south of Denver’s city center. That’s where small state delegations with few electoral votes to mine are sent. In addition to the train trip, Hawaii’s delegates walked three-quarters of a mile through barricaded streets, bag checks and body scans in order to gain entrance to the Pepsi Center, home to the NBA Denver Nuggets and site of the DNC. It wasn’t fun.

But inside the hall, delegates found respite, plus a seat on the floor and an emotional night of speeches. Caroline Kennedy began it by introducing a film on her Uncle Ted, the third-longest-serving senator in history - now afflicted with brain cancer. When the film ended, Kennedy appeared on stage to a two-minute standing ovation.

On MSNBC, Chris Matthews said: “We have finally seen a Kennedy grow old.”

“Anyone who knows the history realized what an extraordinary moment that was,” said Hawaii delegate Chuck Friedman. “It marked the end of an era in the history of the Democratic Party. The Kennedys shaped a whole chapter of Democratic politics and policy. The last half-century would have been very different without them, and they helped open the door for Barack Obama.”

Much of the night was spent in praising and defining Obama. His sister, Hawaii School for Girls teacher Maya Soetoro-Ng, spoke eloquently of their upbringing by a single mother and his role as her big brother. Various Chicagoans who had seen Obama’s work as a community organizer and state senator gave testimony to a convention crowd that wasn’t always listening.

Faye Kennedy, believed to be the first black delegate from Hawaii, and Jennifer Tsuji
Faye Kennedy, believed to be the first black delegate from Hawaii, and Jennifer Tsuji

That changed when Michelle Obama took the stage. She talked movingly of her parents, of their devotion to her brother and herself, and of the devotion she and her husband have to their daughters. In her most moving line, she said that Obama the presidential candidate who can move European crowds of 200,000, “is the same man who drove me and our new baby daughter home from the hospital 10 years ago this summer.” He “inched along at a snail’s pace, peering anxiously at us in the rearview mirror, feeling the whole weight of the future in his hands.”

“I had been crying buckets since Caroline Kennedy took the stage,” said Kallie Keith-Agaran, an Obama delegate from Maui, “but that line about looking in the mirror on the way home really got me. The story of her dad that she told: I had seen her compassion before, but I didn’t understand it. Her dad helps explain it.”

Melodie Aduja, an alternate delegate from Windward Oahu, heard echoes of the Islands: “Michelle was wonderful; her speech was so moving. Her parents’struggle to do the best for their children, then the need for those kids to give back to the community, was similar to the stories of many successful minority groups in Hawaii.”

Day 2: Sen. Joe Biden, Obama’s choice for the vice president, also liked Michelle’s speech. Biden rode out to the sticks to speak to his Delaware delegation - not on the light rail, but in a 13-SUV motorcade carrying a small army of secret service agents.

Said Biden: “I think they’ll write about Michelle Obama’s speech as the single most important event of this campaign. She opened a window to the American people to see what this couple is about.

“This guy Obama’s the real deal. He’s got a sixth sense. He’s gonna transform America. He’s gonna transform the world.”

Biden joked with his Delaware “family,” hugged many of them, told them several times that he loved them, and apologized for not being able to hang around and be with them. “Sorry I gotta run, but they tell me the vice president has a big house down there in Washington and a big yard. I’ll see ya’ there.”

Tuesday night at the convention belonged to Hillary Clinton, but the daylight hours every day belonged to lobbyists and caucuses. The former paid for much of the convention and its sideshows: delegation meals, receptions for valued congressmen, glitz and glamour all over the mile-high city.

The caucuses offered something for everyone. On one convention day, for example, the African-American caucus met, so too the Asian and Pacific Islanders, the Hispanic, the Ethnic (for some reason, they needed to meet separately), the Gay-Lesbian-and-Bisexual, the Senior, and the Rural caucuses.

On Tuesday, Hawaii delegate Kate Stanley attended the Women’s Caucus, where she heard speaker after speaker “stress the importance of getting behind Obama and the vital role women would play in getting him elected.”

The Hawaii delegation at Barack Obama's speech, including, far left, Donna Mercado Kim, Al Lewis in hat, and Sen. Dan Inouye
The Hawaii delegation at Barack Obama’s speech, including, far left, Donna Mercado Kim, Al Lewis in hat, and Sen. Dan Inouye

Stanley was a pledged Obama delegate, but most of the women in the Pepsi Center that evening had come to hear their heroine of the previous primary season: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

And she came - despite weeks of speculation by the political nattering class to the contrary - to pledge her troth.

At the outset of her speech Tuesday night, Clinton declared herself “a proud supporter of Barack Obama.” Then she thanked her supporters throughout the country for their 18 million votes, insisted that while she respect senatorial colleague John McCain, but didn’t want his policies guiding the nation, and urged the delegates and the nation unify behind Obama and “think about your children and grandchildren on election day and vote for possibility and hope.”

Clinton alternate delegate Ann Freed grew emotional talking about the speech. “She hit every single point. She made the Obama people happy by being a team player. She made those of us who are in mourning proud - several times. And she gave us hope that we can win and end this let-them-eat-cake and survival-of-the-richest government.”

Clinton superdelegate and former Hawaii state party chair Richard Port agreed: “There was a lot of sincerity in what she said. Television cameras don’t lie. This wasn’t something she had to do. She did it with enthusiasm on her face. She knows how very damaging four more years of the Republicans in office could be.”

And Port insisted that, if given the chance, he would stick with Clinton on the roll call vote of the states. “I’ve wanted to vote for a woman for president for decades,” he said. “It’s complicated. I’ll support Obama for president and work hard for him. But I’m 71 years old. I may not get another chance to vote for a woman. I’ve supported their greater participation in politics since the early 1980s. Casting my ballot for Hillary is very meaningful for me.”

Day 3: Port got his chance, and he took it. On Wednesday afternoon, when the roll call came to Hawaii, Sen. Dan Inouye and delegate Kari Luna cast Port’s one vote for Clinton and 26 for Obama. “I was a little nervous,” said Luna, the 32-year-old delegate who announced Hawaii’s vote. “But I was honored to stand beside Sen. Inouye. He was the oldest member of the delegation. I was the youngest.”

When the call of the roll reached New York, Hillary Clinton asked that the Convention nominate Obama by acclamation. With that Barack Obama became the first African American to be nominated for the presidency by a major political party.

Wednesday night the Democrats big oratorical guns came out, and their target was John McCain. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who lost to George Bush four years ago, laid out the differences between Obama and McCain. “That was a good speech,” said former Hawaii Gov. John Waihee. “It was edgy. He’s still mad about what happened to him in 2004.”

Then came former President Bill Clinton. Clinton owned the closest thing the Democrats had known as charisma between John Kennedy and Obama, and it was on display this Wednesday in August. His speech was all about the domestic and foreign policy failings of Republican rule and how prepared Obama was to be president.

“Sixteen years ago ... the Republicans said I was too young and inexperienced to be commander in chief,” said Clinton. “Sound familiar? It didn’t work in 1992 because we were on the right side of history. And it won’t work in 2008, because Barack Obama is on the right side of history.”

The evening ended with the formal nomination of Joe Biden for vice president and his acceptance speech. Biden began with sentiment, stories of his mother’s advice, a little humor - Irish pol talk. Then he launched into McCain, arguing that the presidency requires “more than a good soldier.” On Iraq and a laundry list of other issues, Biden shouted that “John McCain was wrong - and Barack Obama was right.” The delegates chimed in on the refrain.

Sen. Dan Inouye and Kari Luna announcing the Hawaii delegation's votes during the roll call of states
Sen. Dan Inouye and Kari Luna announcing the Hawaii delegation’s votes during the roll call of states

Then music, cheers, a standing ovation, wife coming onto the stage, microphone in hand. “Honey, I have a surprise. Look who’s here.” She points to the other side of the stage. Surprise? Hardly. There stands Barack Obama. The delegates go wild. And the night is pau.

Day 4: Hawaii Democrats Al Lewis and Ed Hasegawa have attended the last three Democratic conventions. Among regular convention-goers, Big Al has garnered some fame for his lauhala hats, green palaka vest bedecked with campaign buttons, and hula skirt.

“Four years ago, I wore a cellophane skirt,” said Big Al, “but people kept telling me it wasn’t authentic. So this year, I shipped up ti leaves from Hawaii, but the skirt I made was too heavy for me to walk around in. It’s OK. I’m just so happy to be here.”

Hasegawa knew Obama’s father; they were students at the University of Hawaii together in the early ‘60s. “I think Obama is Kerry, Clinton and Carter combined. Carter’s humility. And I think he’s the best hope for peace in the world.”

Lewis and Hasegawa joined the rest of delegation for breakfast on Thursday, the day Obama would accept the Democrats’nomination for president. “Seventy-six thousand people screaming and yelling,” said Big Al, “the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. Unbelievable.”

What do delegates expect from Obama? “What can top last night’s speeches?” said Maui delegate Jennifer Tsuji. “Obama’s been working on his speech for two weeks. I’m sure it will be good. As a delegate, I’m just ready and willing to get moving on this campaign.”

Said Jo-Ann Adams: “I think he’s going to focus on particulars and, like Kerry did last night, contrast his positions with those of McCain. Of course, he’ll be inspirational and he’ll acknowledge the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech.”

Along with the Arkansas and Delaware delegations, Hawaii’s Democrats listened to after-breakfast talks by Congressman Neil Abercrombie and Obama’s sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng. The first offered laughter, tears and inspiration; the second offered her brother - as humanly and lovingly as she could.

The crowd began to gather at Invesco Stadium, home of the NFL Denver Broncos, in mid-afternoon. Convention delegates got preferred seating on the field, but the rest belonged to Obama faithful - and the count may have reached 80,000.

Eighty thousand believers energized and young. While waiting for Obama, they waved huge American flags; they waved small American flags. They did waves around the stadium. They danced in their seats. They sang along to Bruce Springsteen’s Born on the Fourth of July.

As prime time began, huge screens on each end of the stadium introduced Obama with a heart-tugging biographical film. As the film ended, Obama walked onto the stage, and his audience gave out a full-throated roar.

In accepting the Democrats’ nomination, Obama went on the attack, excoriating President George W. Bush for the failures of his administration. “We are better than that,” he said. “We are more decent. More compassionate ... We rise and fall as one nation.”

Then he got specific. He promised to eliminate the capital gains tax for small businesses, cut taxes for 95 percent of taxpayers, end America’s addiction to foreign oil and spend $150 billion on renewable energy - and much more. Obama invoked Dr. Martin Luther King and the need to restore the “dream” to all Americans.

And the crowd roared and roared. In many ways, the week had been a speech contest with some excellent competition; but as most expected, Obama won it.

When he finished, fireworks went off, streamers fell, and Michelle, the Obama children, and Joe Biden and wife Jill joined him on the stage. Loud, pulsing music enveloped Invesco, and the crowd cheered like the Broncos were going to the Super Bowl.

Then he left, though you felt the crowd would have cheered him into the morning hours - and far, far beyond.

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