In a city with a history of air quality issues, the event kicked off with tightly scripted festivities, even as outsiders raised concerns about a team member’s relative youth. A massive show of police force was present to minimize any potentially embarrassing protests. The theme of the day was “One World, One Dream.” Oops. That was the Olympics. The theme of the day was “One Nation,” but other than that, everything else I wrote also applied to Monday’s opening of the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
I went to the convention with the hope of finding out what actually happens in a convention that can’t be seen on TV and why a college student, namely an MIT student, should care about the convention. It took a while for me to even try to get those questions answered.
Security was tight around Denver. Barricades and fences funneled convention attendees into the Pepsi Center. The scene could have been from a movie depicting a stream of refugees fleeing some catastrophic event, except in this case, the refugees were often wearing suits and ties. Eventually, I made it through an airport-style security checkpoint.
I entered the Pepsi Center, after showing my press pass once again, but I didn’t know what to do next. Attendees were mingling throughout the concourse. Getting into the seating area required passing another security check, and my “Hall” press pass did not allow me to go in. I decided to find the unassigned press area, rather than aimlessly wandering around.
The press center was set up in the practice court. Rows of tables were filled with press and laptops, all facing a large TV showing what was going on in the convention. After going through the trouble of getting a pass to the arena, I was not going to just sit down and watch it on TV. Besides, I didn’t see any open seats. I exchanged my “Hall” pass for a 30-minute “Floor” pass, which would allow me to go to the lower level. Yes, I thought, I’ll get to hobknob with Congressmen and the cast of “The Daily Show.”
I entered the 100 level of the stadium and quickly discovered there really was no open floor space in the convention. I was stuck in a walkway, along with my fellow refugees, er, attendees. Several elevated press platforms were near the walkway, holding celebrities including Wolf Blitzer, Katie Couric, and David Gregory. But there was no time for star gazing, because the security kept yelling at us to keep moving. The job was made tougher when Caroline Kennedy started speaking, and several people stopped moving to listen to the speech or to take photos.
The state delegations were arranged almost randomly, but there was a clear pecking order: Colorado, Illinois, Delaware were up front. Where was Massachusetts? It was up a level. I tried to make my way up there, but of course, that was above my “Floor” pass permissions. I exited the seating area, and turned in my “Floor” pass before the 30 minutes was up. I had enough of being treated like cattle.
It turned out that my “Hall” pass would get me into the 300 level, so I headed up there to watch the surprise speech by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). No seats were available, but I was able to get into another walkway, and security was not present to tell me to keep moving. Kennedy clearly captivated the audience. Everyone was watching, and back in the hallways, people stopped talking and were all focused on the numerous television screens. Maybe this is why people go to conventions.
I went about asking people why they decided to go to the convention. Many were excited about Barack Obama’s candidacy. Mark Epstein, from New York, thought it was “time for a change,” and that conventions served to get the base excited. He came as a guest of a delegate, and he felt that going to a convention was a “life experience everyone should experience.”
Lindsay McLaughlin is an Obama supporter, as well as a registered lobbyist from Washington, DC. He was clear on delineating the separation of the two roles. He felt he was attending as a supporter, not a lobbyist, and he notes that he’s been canvassing for Obama on his own time. The convention will “celebrate [Obama’s] candidacy” as well as help America get “comfortable with Obama,” he said.
So, why should college students, especially MIT students, care about this convention?
“Students should care about the future,” said Lorraine Hariton, a delegate from Palo Alto, Calif. A convention is just “one element of the election,” and students should make sure to vote.
Her son, Glen Weyl, a postdoc at Harvard University, chimed in that the convention can help inspire MIT students to find solutions to the global climate and national health care problems. MIT students, in recent years, have been lured by Wall Street, and there needs to be more private initiative to go into public service, he said.
Innovation and education are the way to solve our problems, Hariton added.
Hariton was sporting a “Hillary Supporter for Obama” button. I asked her about the reported rift between Hillary Clinton and Obama supporters. The press exaggerated the divide, she said. As an example, her son pointed out a fundraising event she held for Obama with Clinton supporters. The press played it as a conspiracy to stab Obama in the back, Weyl said.
The planned roll call vote for Clinton is an attempt at unity, not division, Hariton said.
Another Clinton supporter, Phyllis Hunt from Columbus, Ohio, also agreed. She “loved her,” but after seeing his speech in Germany, she respected him for the same reasons she respected Clinton, she said. There were a few people at the convention with “Hillary for President” shirts, but it did not seem like they were a large contingent.
I began making my way out of the convention, having seen enough of the Pepsi Center and getting the quotes to make the editors happy. On my way out, I saw former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta. After I figured out who he was, I tried to chase him down, but he disappeared into the seating area, which was above my “Hall” pass. Former presidential candidate Bill Richardson was doing interviews and signing autographs. He attracted a lot more attention than Mineta.
My convention experience was educational. I had the opportunity to see inside the seating area, and I realized the floor is really crowded. I got to hear two Kennedys speak in person. Other than spotting some famous Democrats, it wasn’t too much different from watching it on TV. I’ll watch the next two days from the comfort of my own couch, rather than dealing with security and never finding an open seat anywhere in the Pepsi Center. As for the Obama speech at Inveso Field? That’s a different story. I’ll be OK with standing up for that.
David D. Hsu ’98 is a former Tech Editor in Chief.