I built a newspaper tent.
The Denver sun is blaring and I'm out of water—even though last night's two hours of sleep, the altitude, and a sludgy hangover are demanding it. If leave my seat I won't likely get it back. Upon entering Mile High Stadium at 1:30 this afternoon I discovered my assigned seat was absolute shit, blocked by scaffolding from the pseudo-celebrities at CNN. I didn't come all this way to spend a potentially historic moment stuck behind this goddamn thing. No, fuck that. I'm finding better seats.
Luckily I did, just four rows back. And there's no way I'm moving now, piss be damned. Perhaps in the most dire circumstances, I'll ask the sweet old black grandmother from Alabama to kindly turn her head while I fill a discarded water bottle with urine, then tuck it neatly beneath the seats of the yuppie kids from Massachusetts.
There's still hours to go. Jesus, what am I doing here? What happens if, 45 years to the day after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama doesn't live up to the hopelessly high expectations we've placed upon him? My God...
Twenty-seven hours on a bus is a long time, no matter who you're with (including perfectly lovely local political activists from the Bus Project). Late last night—barreling through Idaho and Wyoming—Bus Project staff and volunteers gathered in the back for a strategy session. They want to hit this convention hard: morning meetings, daily quotas for making connections, and more. And only one or two of the 20 are guaranteed any access to the actual convention. The rest will be left to wander the streets and crash parties.
Finally, on Sunday night, we're here. At the welcome BBQ, I have a few beers and test out the theory that high altitude increases the chance of getting drunk. (It doesn't.)
I call a cab. Wait. Nothing. I call another. No one's answering. Wait. It's been almost two hours, and still nothing. I have a meeting with MTV later (I'm working for them too), and no clue what to do.
"How are you going to get around?" a guy at the BBQ asks. I don't know, the bus? "No, no, no, you can borrow my bike," he offers. What? "You can borrow my bike." Wow, OK. That's amazing. Do you want some collateral? "No, it's nothing. I trust you." I've known this man for about five minutes. Thank you, Denver.
Massive media tents surround the Pepsi Center as people and golf carts swirl between them like ants. The arena itself is a chaotic hive. People on Blackberrys crash into each other and the walls. Mobile TV studios jut out into the concourse: CNN, BBC, CBS, and all the rest. Bodies zoom past and many look familiar. What news show is she on? Is that a Congressman licking nacho cheese off his fingers?
On the arena floor, the no-name daytime speakers are a cold bore. One after another, toeing the company line: "Barack Obama Is the Change We Need." On TV, you can't see the audience ignoring them.
Then big-timers head to the podium, like Caroline Kennedy and Uncle Teddy. Flash bulbs pop like twinkling stars. Finally we're paying attention. It's emotional, Kennedy's voice is cracking and weak, but he swears he'll be around when the guard changes.
And then there's Michelle, all six feet of her in an aqua dress. She's striking—that neck, the hair, and those enormous smiling eyes.
Michelle's story—coming from a working-class family and a father with cerebral palsy—sets the tone for the week: The Obamas are products of the American dream, a dream that's falling apart. The convention, and the election, are about more than that, of course: There's also the changing of the generational guard and the fulfillment of Martin Luther King's dream. At 26, I try to grasp these things, but I can only know so much.
Next to me is an older black gentleman, wearing pinstripes, a hat, and a mile-wide grin. He's rocking back and forth, joyously rubbing his hands together. "Man," he whispers, "that's something." His eyes are glassy and they bring home the gravity of this remarkable situation clearer than words ever could.
I speed to the Rock the Vote party at the Opera House, which I'm covering for MTV. There's a VIP after party downstairs and I keep hearing about Senator Dick Durbin's shindig. It's where I'd really like to be, but no one can get me in or even tell me where it is. I want to see congressmen with whores and high-grade cocaine, but am rebuked: The convention is where congressmen bring their wives. I turn around to find my whiskey missing. A minute later, at the stroke of 2 am, some asshole wrestles the beer from my hand. Denver's liquor laws are worse than Oregon's. Everyone's looking for a party that doesn't exist.
I wake up to a phone call that makes my entire day: I got in to the Huffington Post lunch at the decadent Brown Palace Hotel. On the menu: Grilled salmon salad with blackberries, caramelized pecans and blue cheese, followed by coffee, tea, and tarts—and wine. This is how all days at the convention should begin, and for many of the blue bloods, celebrities, and greed heads in this room, it is. I bypass the press section, and grab a seat.
Indeed, a few glasses of wine and a lean meal set the day right. In the audience I see Chevy Chase and Harry Shearer. Mmm, more wine, please.
As lunch wraps, the panel begins. The topic is new media, and features Arianna Huffington, George Stephanopoulos, Representative Rahm Emanuel, will.i.am, Fred Armisen, and others. Charlie Rose moderates.
Strangely enough, of all the political pros on stage, will.i.am makes the biggest splash. He compares new media to "passing a baton." Where old media was like a game of telephone—people shared the message and transmuted it—new media's form stays intact from the source. Of course, it's also about getting more people involved and blah blah blah.
After the panel I dash to snag interviews. Armisen says it's his first convention and the fact that he does an Obama impression on Saturday Night Live has made things a bit surreal. I ask will about showing up the pundits, which he downplays. "We're all just people trying to make a difference."
Later that afternoon, I stop by a nice little cocktail party held by the Bus Project. They're all costumed to promote their "Trick or Vote" event coming up in October. It's only day two and I've seen them everywhere.
Back in the convention hall that night, Senator Hillary Clinton enters to some four minutes of sustained applause. The words over the P.A. whiz past my ears like a tepid breeze. Finally something of note: When Hillary asks, "Were you in this just for me?" a few incredulous fools scream back "Yes!"
She does what she's supposed to. All are delighted, foaming at the mouth over the now unified party, as if Clinton's words were a surprise. Whoop-dee-doo. I head back to my hotel to sleep.
It's morning, and in a 24-hour diner over the highway and just off skid row I slug seven cups of coffee. Now we're talking.
At the arena, I score a temporary floor pass and join the Oregon delegation for roll call—the long process to officially nominate someone. It takes forever as states like Montana and North Dakota prattle on about their sleepy notables. Suddenly, to thunderous applause, Hillary appears and joins the New York delegation, where she grabs the mic, moves to suspend the rules, and suggests the crowd nominate Obama "by acclamation."
And so begins the party. Clinton's maneuver amounts to an important statement: Screw the numbers and sympathy, it's time to kick ass with wild abandon. To me it speaks louder and more tangibly than anything Hillary said in last night's speech.
Later I return to find the stands packed for Bill Clinton's speech, and I stake out a spot on a stairwell. On stage, the impish petulance President Clinton cultivated during the primaries dissolves, and his charisma returns. He finally admits that in his own race he was labeled too young and inexperienced. I can almost see the trail of grime washing off into a drain hidden beneath the lectern.
Then John Kerry appears and, four years too late, delivers the best speech of his life. As a former veteran and friend, he slugs McCain in a way no other can. For whatever reason, I remember little of Biden's speech, aside from the earthy, relatively truthful tone in his voice.
Skulking around the club level afterwards I find Jesse Jackson wrapped by a gaggle of reporters and fans. I ask, in kinder terms, what the hell he's doing here: Why, after getting caught trashing Obama on TV—where Jackson whispered he'd like to cut Obama's balls off—would he show up here?
"I wanted to come tonight and tomorrow night especially," he said. The pointless deflection continued, dancing on flat feet.
I meet a date at artist Shepard Fairey's cultish Obama exhibit, but when I arrive the party is mostly over and that's fine. I need respite from all these Democrats. She takes me to a local dive where we drink cans of Schlitz and dance wildly to bad '80s tunes. Still, we haven't escaped the convention completely: The corner is roped off for Susan Sarandon and her entourage.
So here I am in the middle of Mile-High, sitting in my newspaper tent, wondering what it all means. I fear a letdown—that unless Obama tears off his jacket to reveal angel wings or Jesus feet, I may crash. I glance up, and the malaise begins to lift.
The stands are bristling with thousands upon thousands of people from across the country. Perhaps this fire, which burns dangerously close to cultdom, is the real triumph—that democracy itself can be invigorating. That, after years of contempt and disgust, we still actually care.
A string of speakers and performers cruise on and off the stage, but under Obama's approaching shadow few—with the exceptions of Stevie Wonder and Al Gore—have any resonance for the giddy crowd. As the sun begins to set, the hot Denver air cools, the sky darkens, and the spotlights begin to glow. Then things get surreal.
On stage, a backdrop of Grecian columns have begun to glow, and between them the Chosen One, the projected divine, finally appears. Shrieks, flashbulbs, hopes, and desires are all thrust upon him. And as he accepts the nomination, I feel the air rush out of my lungs and my eyes well up. This is the moment.
But the speech doesn't soar in the high winds of Obama's previous orations. It is down to earth, hacking a way through an overgrown political jungle. Although I acknowledge the pragmatism, it is not my ideal. William Safire later wrote that Obama "made history, but failed to come up with a historic acceptance address." Others deemed it "post-racial." Either version could be true.
After the closing fireworks blew and soundtrack stopped, the stadium quickly emptied. I went down to the floor, wandering amongst the darkened stage, empty chairs, and piles of spent confetti, trying to reconcile what I had just seen. To borrow from Hunter Thompson, this generational wave has either crested, or is still rising. Only years from now will we really know for sure, but I believe the wave is still on the move—even if it has changed shape.