Postcards From Boston

Postcards From Boston

Little Richard and the Dems


Numerous Nation writers andstaffers joined thousands of delegates, journalists, activists and othes last week in Boston. Among them was a rotating cast of Nation interns. In between ferrying and distributing copies of the magazine’s special Democratic Convention issue to the Fleet Center and various events around town and searching for parties, the interns found the time to pen the postcards below, talking about some of the things they did while in Boson.

Little Richard and the Dems

We were already on our third drink at the open bar of the Boston Globe party when things started getting weird. This was after the chubby little girl in her huge feathered headdress had fallen asleep in her chair,but well before the line to ride the indoor Ferris Wheel began to clear.

It was the Saturday night before the Democratic Convention, and inside the Boston Convention and Exposition Center the decor of the newspaper’s welcoming party was decadent-end-of-the-Roman-Empire. This involved, despite the “Taste of Boston” theme, a very un-Boston-like mishmash of Bedouin tents and steel scaffolding. To make matters worse, as guests rode down the escalators from the entranceway the party appeared, beneath the vastness of the Center’s airplane hangar ceiling,very much like a ant farm. The walls flashed brightly with photos of Red Sox stars and pastel flags that looked as if they’d been photocopied from some kid’s eighth grade geography textbook. People lit their way along the snaking blue carpets with goofy, neon margaritas in their hands. A fountain streamed chocolate.

Earlier that afternoon, at the Boston Social Forum, everybody we met was jittery, sincere, a plug that fit no particular socket; here, the thousands of bored, tipsy newsies had about six outfits between them, and networked as easily as Ethernet-ready laptops. By 10 folks were already heading for the exit, hoping to grab a gift bag full of Lady Gillettes and special-edition DNC Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

But up on stage,Little Richard was just getting going. Laughing, he shouted out, “I was the only Jewish guy in the kitchen,” and then started in on “Tutti Frutti.”

With the volume turned way down, he sang to hardly anyone at all. Meanwhile, his sharp-dressed staff weaved through the crowd of drunken, groping journos, handing out books of Bible quotes titled Finding Peace Within: A Book For People In Need. Enclosed in each one was a signed photograph of the man himself gazing up at The Man Himself. His autograph read: “God loves and cares for you. Please don’t forget that. Little Richard.”


“The Free-Speech Zone”

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” read a chalking in the middle of Canal Street on Monday evening, just outside a narrow entrance to the now-infamous “Free Speech Zone” (FSZ).

The Zone was a rectangular penwith Green Line subway tracks overhead. “CAUTION WATCH YOUR HEAD,” warned the spray paint on a steel beam that stretched across one of only three exits, less than six feet above the ground. The city-provided sound system pointed away from the Fleet Center. Two layers of fences and a layer of netting (purportedly to block a urine squirt-gun attack) separated the inside of the FSZ from the delegates arriving by bus on the other side.

A federal judge had opined just days earlier that “one cannot conceive of other elements put in place to create a space that is more of an affront to the idea of free expression.” That same judge, though, turned down requests to alter the zone to make it less restrictive–without evidence of a specific threat.

The FSZ was–or at least should have been–as much an affront to the delegates and the concept of a political convention as it was to the demonstrators inside it. On Wednesday, a group of about a dozen delegates went to the site and spoke out against it. Most ignored it. Monday evening’s rally for Palestinian rights was one of few during the week that actually capitalized on the Zone: Speakers inside drew a connection between the fenced-in demonstration site and the fenced-in life lived by so many Palestinians currently. Speakers criticized Kerry: “We need a new policy, not only a new face,” said Phyllis Bennis, of the Institute for Policy Studies.

There was no way that the 200 or so people in attendance–distracted by the circumstances–could hold anything like a normal rally, and certainly no way they could connect with the delegates.

A few hundred feet away delegates who arrived by taxi or on foot had to walk down the sidewalk of Causeway Street, an unsecured area, to the other entrance to the Convention. Protesters there were prohibited from using amplified sound and had limited space, but were otherwise free to bring their messages to the delegates (and did, if in small numbers). The situation made it clear that the FSZ was no security measure at all.


Howard Dean is No Diva

According to Barbara Lee, (no relation to the California Congresswoman) a Boston-based philanthropist and the organizer of the Revolutionary Women Boston 2004 rally, the event’s point was to demonstrate “the extraordinary power of women in politics” and to send the message that “normal women can reach for the stars.” Lee also wanted attendees to leave the event having learned that “politics goes with fun.”

There certainly were extraordinary women present. The lineup of speakers featured Nancy Pelosi, Madeline Albright, Carol Moseley Braun, Hillary Clinton and a musical performance by Liz Phair. (As a mother of four, Pelosi was supposed to represent the “normal woman.”)

Two huge escalators carried the 4,100 attendees from the entrance level and poured them in masses onto the conference floor. Deafening, upbeat music made conversation a challenge. (This seemed particularly annoying to the exhibitors who filled the perimeter of the floor and had to shout to attendees standing on the other side of their table.) Despite the difficulties, I took some time to investigate their wares. Besides Friends of Hillary selling pink T-shirts with the Senator’s face pictured on the front Che Guevara-style, free condoms from the Family Planning booth, Barbara Boxer boxers for $12 andsome free stuff stamped with pro-woman logos, there wasn’t too much there.

After playing “Sisters are Doin’ it For Themselves” by Aretha Franklin andtheEurythmicsthree times, the music died down anda veryun-Diva-like person took the stage. Howard Dean gave a good speech,urging women to run for office, any office–even library trustee. Then camemore music. This time it was “Get Ready for This” by 2Unlimited. (Lyrics were omitted in this version. When I located the song online, I found out why: “Super, dope, deaf, and even outrageous/if I was an animal, they’ve kept me in cages/so get ready for this! Ya’ll ready for this?”) Enter Madeline Albright, who exhorted the crowd to get out the vote in November.

When I left the Conference Center with my free Revolutionary Women bag under arm, I thought about whether politics really does go with fun.I didn’t want to think that the only way to promote women in high office was to try to make them seem as flashy as Hollywood actresses. How could this flatter someone like Albright? Politics shouldn’t have to be stylish or glamorous. Women in politics should generate support because they are impressive politicians and leaders, not because they are divas. And women should be motivated to support other women in politics and run themselves because they want to see change, not because it is chic.

On my way home, my ears still ringing from the sound system, I realized I was feeling a residual buzz from the event. The train was crowded with “revolutionary women” easily identifiable by the black bag in hand. Seeing my own bag, some of them would smile knowingly, or say to me, “you were there?” When I reemerged above-ground I saw those black bags everywhere. Indeed, revolutionary women had infiltrated the Convention city.


“Stop Looking for Free!”

Hoping the party wasn’t over, a woman and her friendly entourage descended onto Boston Commons, joining the strolling tourists and dog-walkers who peppered the grass at Sunday’s DNC protest. “Were there more people here before?” she asked anxiously. I deferred to my new acquaintance–a dutiful reporter who had showed up on time. “No,” he answered quietly.

We had left the Boston Social Forum only minutes earlier with many copies of The Nation to give away and high hopes that Sunday morning’s progressives would be around State Street and want complementary copies of our double issue.

Alas, we quickly retreated to Old West Church–cardboard box of issues a little lighter–where a tribute to Paul Wellstone and panel discussion were taking place. Later, sprawled out on a carpeted love seat in Northeastern’s Law School dorm, I gazed out at the Museum of Fine Arts. “Games for the Gods: the Greek Athlete and Olympic Spirit,” the banner billowed. Too late to visit the oracle, I joined the others to hit the town.

“Stop looking for free!” the cabbie advised, as we sat in traffic. “Why don’t you find one of those college parties with cheap beer?” In Boston, only the cab drivers knew where they were going. Everybody else was lost and looking. Determined to find an open bar that wanted us, we squirmed in the back of the stalled cab as Bill and Hillary’s motorcade passed. Our rejections from the Blue Dog Democrats’s party and the AOL-Time Warner soiree had been rough but we were around the corner from Fenway Park, where our preconvention credentials and Nation letterhead would have sway with the people running the DNC Late Night affair.

But the strip of grey-painted back entrances, backdrop for the droves of suits, pearls and flashing cameras, proved to be our final obstacle. Jerry Springer, twice! And Teresa Heinz’s kid? No, John Edwards’s daughter. No one else is getting in for now, the security guard confirmed. Ben’s coming.


Electrifying Oratory

The speeches given by Elijah Cummings and the Reverend Al Sharpton were amazing oratorical feats that were enough to convince anyone on the floor Wednesday night that the Democratic Party could and would reach the “Promised Land.” Sharpton’s speech followed on the heels of Cummings’s time at the podium, turning the measly forty minutes I was able to use a floor pass all week into an amazing thundering hailstorm of sermons from the Party’s most prominent African-American leaders.Their electrifying oratory was so powerful it would’ve been heard just fine even without amplification.

Their speeches covered the gamut of Civil Rights discourse: Cummings talked about his sharecropper parents and Sharpton aggressively challenged Bush’s record, dissed Clarence Thomas and defended Brown vs. the Board of Education, all at the same time. And of course, who could forget the faith. The two men spoke of faith more convincingly than George Michael ever did, and reminded everyone that the Republicans aren’t the only ones who can be buddies with the Lord.


Bob and Jon’s Oysterfest

For most of the New Jersey delegation to the Democratic National Convention, Thursday night was spent cheering John Kerry with a drink in hand at the Union Oyster House, the oldest restaurant in Boston. Bob and Jon’s Oysterfest, hosted by Congressman Bob Menendez and billionaire Senator Jon Corzine, offered lobster salad sandwiches, raw oysters and the restaurant’s famed New England Clam Chowder–along with the omnipresent convention open bar. All over the city, at similar fetes thrown by publications, corporations and delegations, Democrats reveled in the most unified party they’d thrown in years.

New Jerseyans started their Thursday at a breakfast sponsored by Jersey Central Power and Light. Women swooned at the arrival of the Dems’ new celeb-in-residence Ben Affleck, and Senator Corzine and Governor Jim McGreevey shared the stage with a representative of the state’s energy industry. The party continued later in the day at The Black Rose, a pub that offered delegates the chance to hobnob with state notables like famed ex-governor Jim Florio. But the main event was the Oysterfest, which began with crowds of those unable to snag passes into the Fleet Center huddled around television sets watching Kerry’s speech, with bottles of Bud Light and plates of shrimp to amp up their enthusiasm.

When the speech closed, the DJ opened with “Born in the USA,” delegates and elected officials began to stream in from the Fleet Center, and a line of those who aspired to party with the Garden State’s representatives formed outside. As the night wore on, the party grew in size and strength. Governor McGreevey agreed to pose for pictures on the dance floor but did not dance. Senator Corzine remained on the upper level of the restaurant, while Congressman Menendez shook hands as he made the rounds downstairs. By 2 am, the party had to wrap up, subject to Boston’s mandatory closing time. Reality would set in soon enough–New Jerseyeans would return home to discover that Newark’s Prudential Building had been targeted by terrorists–but Thursday night was about the free gear, the chance to mingle with the state celebrities and the promise of what might be accomplished once the party was over.


Color Barriers in Boston

In Boston at the DNC, little was of more importance than the color of one’s credentials. With credentials, you were a somebody, or at least you could pretend to be. Without them, you were out on the street, a creature of the city banished to the largely boycotted Free Speech Zone.

And while the theme of the week may have been a party united, the reality inside the Fleet Center was a delegation divided. The Democrats were even so kind as to categorize a brand new hierarchy of hues. Blue (podium and backstage access), not surprisingly, trumped red (floor access). The color purple (building access) looked with envy upon green (hall access). And the yellow brick road (perimeter access) led one around but not into the FleetCenter.

Color mania was everywhere. I watched as one couple took a picture with a young staffer simply because he had a blue podium pass. I watched as Ben Affleck’s celebrity credential (his face) allowed him access to the floor despite a fire marshal ordered closure. And I watched as a single security guard turned away nearly fifty people in half an hour as they tried to climb the credentialocracy.

No matter what one’s God-given color, no one seemed satisfied. I had a purple pass (except for brief moments of social ascendancy when I would swap for a green), but I knew I deserved more. It was a simple matter of mind over color. The reality is that without a name or a picture ID, any credential could belong to anyone. So I talked my way to the elite Suite level for a cocktail and a seat for the Clintons’s addresses and I sauntered onto the convention floor to hear General Wesley Clark on Thursday. And when I looked to be the odd man out of The Nation’s credentialed contingent, I simply coerced an extra credential out of an oversupplied convention staffer. (So much for this being a National Security Special Event.)


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