August 25th, 2008

Part One: The Baggage They Carried

by Philip Baruth

Part One:
The Baggage They Carried

You have to pack carefully for Denver, in late August of 2008. Very carefully. You have to pack more or less as if your life depends upon it, because — in more than a few versions of the ongoing story of Senator Barack Obama and his uncharted Democratic National Convention — it does.

obama II, 2/10/07

Which is to say that you’ve got both your physical and your narrative baggage, and the chances are excellent that between them they’ll trigger a $50 weight penalty when you hit the United Airlines gate a little after dawn on Monday morning.

On the physical end, it’s not just socks and shoes.

You’ve got the things that people have pressed into your hands at gatherings around the state, objects and talismans they want you to keep on your person: a pinkish worry stone to rub “if it turns out there’s a riot or something”; a campaign button you admired, showing Barack and Michelle and their girls lounging on a lawn somewhere, beneath the line, “America’s First Family”; a tiny unflattering plastic replica of Ann Coulter because “if she’s in your pocket then she can’t possibly show up in person.”

You’ve got the stack of invitations, which began arriving the moment you were elected delegate. None of these invitations are to the madcap parties you sort of half-expected. None of them are from Democratic celebrities or movers and shakers.

Not one. No Al Gore, no Bono, no Oprah or Bonnie Raitt.

No, your invitations all come from painfully earnest organizations hosting Long, Serious Panel Discussions about all of the things that make for uneasy listening: race, war, health care, famine, stolen elections, squandered surpluses, and peak oil, the end of American life as we know it.

On the brighter side, you’re invited to tour an exact replica of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay — something you fully plan to do — but what does it say that this mini-prison looks like the most fun of anything anyone seems to want you to attend?

You have to carry all of these things, and that’s just the physical baggage. The narrative side of things is just as heavy, and just as dicey.

Two overarching and intertwining media narratives have taken shape in the long months prior to this Convention, and they now not only dominate the pre-Convention coverage but have inevitably begun to shape the events themselves.

One of these is The Making of History, and the other is Violence in the Making, and at this point each carries with it the indelible stain of the other.

It is no coincidence that Barack Obama will accept the Democratic nomination on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech. Howard Dean and the Convention planners knew full well that whether Obama secured the nomination or not, this cycle would see an African American advance much further in the campaign process than ever before.

And had Hillary Clinton pulled the nomination out of her hat, no doubt Obama would have introduced her on that same night with a tribute to King. Each major Party has its icons, and icons have anniversaries, and so the 28th of August was circled on planning calendars years ago.

Of course, Hillary did not pull it out, which led to the hasty elevation of another anniversary to the planners’ calendars: on the 26th of August, Hillary’s own historic candidacy will be honored, even as all assembled commemorate the 88th anniversary of women acquiring the right to vote.

But for all of their staging and management, these historic elements are also undeniably authentic.

In the Convention Hall and in tens of millions of living rooms, they will feel spine-chillingly real because they are nothing less, and they highlight great changes in American society that cannot be denied.

And maybe because that sense of historical significance is so clear, and so weighted to the Democratic side of the aisle, a twin media narrative has formed to counterbalance it: all of this Hope can end only in confusion, in chaos, in violence.

How many times, for instance, have you heard reporters invoke the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago? You even heard audio this week, a young Dan Rather being sucker-punched by one of Mayor Daley’s “thugs.” Granted, Obama hails from Chicago, and so maybe you could have expected nothing else.

But it’s a lot more than the Chicago parallel.

For months, Rush Limbaugh has gloated over the possibility of riots on the streets of Denver, of Hillary’s forces stealing the nomination and tearing the Party to pieces. A few weeks back, a preacher from Focus on the Family taped a now infamous YouTube clip, exhorting the faithful to pray for “torrential, flood-the-intersections” rain come Thursday night.

Additionally, there’s been a running drumbeat of coverage about the arming of the Denver riot police.

They’ll be packing all sorts of high-tech crowd control devices, you’re told: goo-guns, which shoot a quick-drying glop that renders resistance futile; pepper-ball guns, which offer a sub-lethal two-fer, the initial impact and the disabling cayenne dust; microwave cannons, which give protesters the novel sensation that their skin is on fire.

(And then you always have to worry about the various combinations of weaponry: if the riot police decide to coat you with goo first, then lightly pepper you, and then microwave you for four to five minutes, you could wind up a Lean Cuisine entrée, serves 6-8.)

At the worst extreme of this Violence in the Making narrative, of course, is the Kennedy connection.

It’s no accident that Hillary Clinton’s quick comment about RFK’s 1968 assassination generated a firestorm a few months back — it sparked a narrative already building silently but surely beneath the surface of the campaign coverage.

John F. Kennedy also stepped out of the comparatively narrow confines of the Convention Hall to receive the nomination at a larger arena. Clearly, by moving Thursday’s speech to Invesco Field, the Obama camp wants to highlight that connection, as they’ve sought to play up connections to Camelot throughout.

But pull almost any Kennedy thread for long enough, and eventually you find that the concept of assassination is tangled up somewhere, inextricably, in the weave.

The making of history, and violence in the making. Unavailable separately, limited time offer, which makes for must-see TV.

All of this is a lot of baggage to carry, when you think about it, and you need to wedge it into a very small suitcase these days. And then you have to schlep that bag all the way from Vermont to Colorado, and then another full Mile High.

You’d have to be insane to agree to lug all of it, all of that way. You’d either have to be insane, or absolutely committed to seeing Barack Obama put his hand on the Bible and take the oath of office on January 20th, 2009, as the 44th President of the United States of America.

Or both.

[This post appeared first on “The Deal in Denver,” a special event blog set up by the kind folks over at the Burlington Free Press. You can visit that site, for more and different coverage, by clicking here.]