On the floor of the Democratic National Convention last Wednesday night, before the near-unanimous roll call that formally installed John Forbes Kerry as the party's presidential nominee, delegate Sylvia Olveda burst into tears.

To get to Boston, she worked her way through the multi-tiered caucus process, sat through endless meetings, canvassed for votes from other party activists--all so she could pay for the privilege of being a delegate for Howard Dean. She believes in Dean, because "he was the only one who stood up" when people like her needed a politician to stand up for them. Howard Dean is "what a Democrat should be."

Now, as she expressed her desire to cast her vote for him, those around her on the floor, with increasing forcefulness, told her she had to vote for Kerry--that it was imperative the party unified behind its nominee.

But... John Kerry voted, after all, for the war.

"In my conscience [Dean] was who I wanted to vote for," she said. So she dithered, and anguished, but basically stood firm as the pressure on her to fall in line mounted.

It took a hastily arranged conversation with an elected official from the Vermont delegation, Dean's home state, to convince her to not break ranks. Olveda and other Dean delegates had met with Dean on Monday behind closed doors, where the former frontrunner told them he was now supporting Kerry, but "said it was up to us [how we voted]," Olveda recalled. When she stressed this to the official from Vermont, he took out his Blackberry and pulled up a follow-up statement issued by Dean, in which the former Vermont governor made clearer his desire that his delegates support Kerry.

It worked. In the end, Olveda joined the other Dean delegates in voting for Kerry. She smiles as she tells me this, but it's hard to miss the lingering pain etched on her face.

Olveda's may be one small story in a very big, event-filled convention, but it stands as a microcosm of the party itself in this apocalyptic election season. While the main theme stressed publicly at the convention was "party unity," Olveda's story is one that's closer to the narrative arc of many liberal Democrats. Dated Dean, married Kerry, though for those on the left it is clearly more of a shotgun wedding, or at best a marriage of convenience, than a lasting union.

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In Boston, a city of elegant brick architecture which exudes a sense of history, the FleetCenter, opened in 1995, is a modern concrete monstrosity that looks like a massive cinderblock dropped from on high onto the bank of the Charles River. I spent the better part of four afternoons and evenings there last week, along with the 4,000 plus Democratic delegates, thousands of other party hangers-on, and 15,000 credentialed media members.

The speechifying begins each afternoon around 4 pm, but the day starts much earlier, as the delegations convene for breakfast each morning to hear speeches from an odd mix of celebrities and politicos--from Carole King and Richard Dreyfus to Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich.

Afternoons are spent bouncing around town. There are an endless array of political meetings and press conferences to attend--a roundtable presentation for the media by Kerry's Vietnam crewmates, say, where they angrily denounce Republican-sponsored attacks of Kerry's service record.

After the speeches end each night around 11 pm, there are dozens of parties, large and small, of varying quality. I attend a large, raucous Rock the Vote party at a club next to Fenway Park on Sunday, an extremely lame Microsoft reception at the Kennedy Library on Monday night (no hard liquor, inadequate food), a Music for America punk show at the Middle East in Cambridge on Tuesday, and so on. Evenings end late, around 3 am typically, and it's back to the hotel for a couple hours of sleep before the next day's breakfast.

The convention, at least in its official, FleetCenter aspect, is largely an exercise in tedium occasionally leavened by short outbreaks of moderate excitement. On Monday night, actress Glenn Close, comporting herself like a graduate of the William Shatner School of Hammy Overacting, comes up to the podium to deliver a prose poem tribute to the victims of 9/11 that is so treacly fake that it actually has me cringing. But at least that was memorable; most of the time attendees are subjected to obscure politicians I've never heard of and hope to never hear from again.

"It's like being a sports fan. And it's baseball, the slowest of the sports," is how Ellen Meserow, 34, a Dean staffer during the primaries who is here as a member of the party's credentials committee (which apparently doesn't do a whole lot), describes the proceedings.

Meserow's metaphor is an apt one. I sit through an endless blur of political speeches for seven hours a day, occasionally good ones from big names--Bill Clinton and Al Sharpton are the best--but mostly dull. The speeches have been carefully scrubbed by the Kerry camp of any anti-Bush heat, and the speakers come across as unusually disciplined in presenting a blandly moderate, smiley-faced vision of unity to the viewing public.

I eat egregiously overpriced stadium food and hanker impotently after cold beer and a cigarette (no alcohol is being served on the premises for the duration of the convention, and it's a long journey from the nosebleeds, where I am sitting, to get outside to smoke). I stroll the concourse, threading my way through the milling throngs, watching political and media stars saunter by: Bob Graham, Jesse Jackson, David Brooks, David Broder.

But, aside from Kerry's speech on Thursday night, nothing that happens this week is of any lasting significance. The real story, to the extent there is a real story at the convention, is the Democrats themselves. Democrats want to win, yes, but do they want to win badly enough to put aside their differences? The public face of the party conveys unity--but is all the togetherness only skin deep?

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On Wednesday afternoon I sit in the lobby of the Boston Radisson, with former Dean campaign staffer Meserow. Though wearing a sticker that reads "Another Dean Delegate for Kerry," she's feeling a little pissed off about some comments made at the delegation breakfast by Harold Ford Jr., a centrist Democratic congressman from Tennessee and an early Kerry supporter. Ford, upon entering the ballroom, spied the Howard Dean T-shirts sported by delegates, and started off by saying he wanted to make sure that everyone knew they needed to be on board with Kerry.

It's a comment that strikes the Dean people as arrogant and condescending.

"We were sort of insulted," Meserow says. "But that's the kind of thing I now expect from the Democratic Party. The DLC [Democratic Leadership Council] and the Southern Dems have been dominating this party for so long and sitting on the message."

While Meserow may not be much of a Kerry fan, she's nevertheless on board because she hates the direction Bush is taking the country. "Bush is doing irreparable damage," Meserow says as she explains her determination to work for Kerry's election. She admits that, as political neophytes, Dean backers may have failed to understand how the political system works: "We naively thought we had all the answers."

When I ask her how she feels about Kerry, her response is bloodless and rather tactical. He "brings some strengths to the ticket" and will appeal to "a different kind of Democrat, people more integrated into the process" than the outsiders who flocked to the Dean banner.

There is another group of delegates that are even more lukewarm about the Kerry candidacy: supporters of Dennis Kucinich. While Dean long ago endorsed Kerry, and has been playing a role in the Kerry campaign, particularly with respect to its efforts to keep liberals from defecting to Ralph Nader, Kucinich kept his campaign going long after the nomination had been decided.

However, Kucinich has strongly endorsed Kerry in the week before the convention, and when he addresses delegates on Monday he goes out of his way to stress party unity. "We are one, we are one," he says. Speaking with reporters during an impromptu press conference afterwards, he continues in the same vein: "There is not any difference of opinion about electing John Kerry. We made our points, but we are not going to be divided."

Still, Kucinich supporters face intense pressure; delegates who say they are going to stand firm and vote for Kucinich have been strong-armed with threats that future progressive candidates will be sandbagged if they don't come around to Kerry.

The message obviously struck home. The final convention tally: 4,255 votes for Kerry, 37 for Kucinich. If the show of unity is not perfect, it is close enough.

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Of the dozens of orations the delegates were subjected to, the only speech that really mattered was Kerry's 50-minute oration on Thursday evening. It turns out to be a masterpiece of carefully crafted positioning, offering something to all the party's factions and ideological groupings without losing the overall thrust towards a soothing centrism. It succeeds, as it is intended to, in allaying the fears of undecided and disengaged voters disaffected with Bush's narrow rigidity, but concerned that Kerry lacked a tough enough core to serve as commander in chief. On stage, Kerry made it look easy, but a closer reading of the speech showed his success in performing what amounts to a delicate and risky operation on the electorate's collective brain.

He got off to a brilliant start, flanked by Vietnam crewmates as he implicitly contrasted his own biography as a war hero to Bush's sketchy military service: saluting the crowd, he stated, "I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty." He came across as rock solid on terrorism: "I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president. Let there be no mistake: I will never hesitate to use force when it is required... As president, I will fight a smarter, more effective war on terror." On homeland security and the war on terror, Kerry smartly and effectively attacked Bush from the right, calling for better preparation to face the threat of attack and for a larger, better equipped military.

But that wasn't enough--not given the internal dynamics of the party Kerry represents. The party's left flocked to Dean last year because they were desperate for someone who could articulate their disquiet about the country's post-9/11 frog march to the right under the manipulative rule of Bush Republicanism. They were wary of Kerry for the same reason; they rightly saw him as a central cog in a malfunctioning Democratic machine that rolled over in the face of Bush radicalism with little more than a pathetic whimper.

Here is where Kerry's speech excelled, because while it lacked the soaring rhetoric of Obama or the barn-burning excitement of Sharpton, it contained much for liberals to love. Kerry scorched Bush, driving straight at the president's vulnerabilities, in a way reminiscent of the early Dean: "I will be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war. I will have a vice president who will not conduct secret meetings with polluters to rewrite our environmental laws. I will have a secretary of defense who will listen to the best advice of our military leaders. And I will appoint an attorney general who actually upholds the constitution of the United States."

The press and commentariat loved the speech, which was important, and will color their coverage of the race. But so did the people in the hall, particularly those who were wary of Kerry before.

Meserow cried all the way through the second half of the speech. "Honestly, I finally felt like I was part of the party," she told me later. She understood the centrist thrust of the message, but she also felt Kerry had understood the liberal yearning for a major correction of course.

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The party may be unified, but it is a temporary state of affairs. They are unified for now--unified against Bush. If Kerry wins in November, the intra-party fireworks are likely to begin anew, this time even louder and with more intensity. The support of the left wing of the party has not been given to Kerry freely. They expect payback, and they will begin demanding things the moment Bush is gone (if he is gone).

Nonetheless, these are battles deferred in the face of a common interest in ousting Bush. Right now, for these people, the promise of change has overcome the fear of betrayal. As Howard Dean fan Lawrence Winnerman puts it to me one afternoon in regards to the delegates, "We're the throngs of people standing there [on the convention floor] with hope shining in our eyes."

This was the central story of the 2004 Democratic National Convention--that scripted, intricately planned, and largely drama-less exercise in Brechtian agit-prop. Though it may be more "in spite of" Bush than because of Kerry, unity has triumphed over ideology, pragmatism over idealism. And despite its fractious infighting, self-serving leaders, and nasty turf wars, the Democratic Party has decided--at least through November--to make public peace in the face of a common enemy.