By Max Winter
MONDAY, AUGUST 25, 2008: DISPATCH # 1
[Note: The following is a series of emails about TV coverage of the Democratic National Convention sent to House founder Matt Zoller Seitz by his friend Max Winter, a New York City-based poet and a poetry editor for the literary magazine Fence.]
As I dig into these notes, I feel it's important to say I'm an outsider, politically; there are probably many people who, if awakened at 5 AM and splashed with ice cold water, could talk me under the table about politics, roll over, and go back to sleep. However, I've been interested in politics this year, in a way that I haven't been in some time. Part of it has obviously been the clash between the two leading Democratic candidates--one African American, one female, both complex, both viable. But beyond that, think about the timing. After 8 years of an administration about whom no amount of negative adjectives would be sufficient, whose previous lambasting has been so elaborate and so comprehensive that adding to it would be sheer redundancy, we find that the two leading Democratic candidates for President are a woman and an African-American man. Good work, Americans--where the heck have you been? The dialogue becomes, rather than who's the lesser of two or three mediocrities, as it was in 2000 and 2004, something else. Who do you trust? Who's more interesting to you? Who seems like they could win, not just in our imagination but in reality? Which is an interesting switch, to me at least--and will doubtless affect future elections.
The notes I've made below are spontaneous and sporadic--I tried to respond to events and comments that pushed buttons for me. If I sound a little dour, it's because I am a little dour. This is an important year for Democrats, and my standards for performance at this convention are high.
7:00 p.m.: On CNN, Wolf Blitzer is announcing that Ted Kennedy will speak tonight--given the comparisons the media and others have made between Obama and JFK, the appearance is being presented as poignant before it occurs. Why? Can't its poignancy stand on its own? I'm also hearing, now, dribs and drabs about the Michelle Obama speech--she plans to speak about her husband's personality, rather than his political potential. The rhetoric about her speech, on CNN and elsewhere, is tempered with caution, as if everyone were nervous about what she might say. Republican strategists, I'm sure, are awaiting the speech like a sort of gift basket of gaffes.
On MSNBC, a table full of commentators has just showed up on the screen. They're all smiling, and probably not just for the cameras. I've been struck, this election year, by the dominance of commentators. Everyone but everyone--me, even!--has something to say. The blogs are humming with energy, MSNBC is more sensitive to stimuli than the most sensitive amoeba, the newspapers bring out the bold caps every time Obama looks serious during a speech. These reporters know they are going to be talking plenty tonight, and they're very, very happy. I tend to stray towards CNN on big political nights because the events seem somehow less filtered. Granted, Wolf Blitzer is antagonistic, but the anxiety of the commentators to speak on MSNBC is practically bursting out of the screen--is this a good thing or a bad thing? The amount of talk has resulted in some very firey monologues (cf. Keith Olbermann), but I can't help but fear that these commentators, who some look to for moral fortitude, are more weathervanes than compasses, excited by whomever happens to be ahead. They like to pretend, the Olbermanns and the Maddows and the Matthews, that they are shaping the consciences of their viewers, but I always suspect they're on the spiritual "take."
One interesting result, this election year, is that the media has hung on language more than at any time I can remember. As a writer, I respond to Obama's language because it's generally used very well. Obama has gotten plenty of praise for his poetic speeches, and more power to him for them. One could question their construction--their repetition, their occasional vagueness--and yet they often make me a little misty-eyed. Originally I thought I was just being sentimental, that maybe I'd gotten Obama fever. God forbid--I'm a lifelong anti-sentimentalist--but no, actually, the real reason was that I was moved to see a public figure using language effectively for the first time in my not-so-short life.
When statements become news events—for instance, Obama's comments about gun-clinging rural Americans in San Francisco, or his wife's "proud of my country" remarks—I tend to perk up. Sure, the attention paid to word choice is an indication that the commentators aren't inclined to find much else to talk about, but on the other hand, perhaps paying more attention to the way our politicians speak might be a way of improving them (as politicians); in the long run it might ratchet up public expectations of leaders, or at least of the words that come out of their mouths.
7:58 p.m. Bill Maher says, with characteristic good humor, and perhaps not in precisely these words: "The American people get stupider and stupider every election year...The American people get the leaders they deserve, and they don't deserve very good leaders." Although he's a smart-aleck, I always enjoy what Maher has to say, and I frequently agree with him. When asked if there was room for cynicism at this election, he managed to stump both Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews by replying, "Yes." He's not wrong about the Americans, really, and he's not really wrong about our right to look askance at events like this one. Poets William Butler Yeats and Delmore Schwartz tell us, "in dreams begin responsibilities," and this election year, we have quite a few dreams--with no lasting guarantee that the responsibilities will be carried out. It's all very well for the Democrats to congratulate themselves--what else is a convention for? But after the convention, what lies beyond that sort of self-congratulation?
8:30 p.m. : Nancy Pelosi: It was admirable to begin with the House speaker's salute to Hillary Clinton--and somehow proper. Though Clinton was reviled and scorned throughout much of her race against Obama for "divisiveness," her complicated relationship with the truth, her stiff manner, et al., her lack of cool set an example, opened up the possibility that there might someday be more important things than a candidate's image. Fat chance, I know, but...
Ah, would that Nancy Pelosi's speech had showed as much strength as her praise-ee.
This seemed a strange start to an event expected by many to be full of energy. Her delivery was wooden, and at times seemed almost half-hearted. There were moments, particularly towards its opening, where she seemed to be rattling off a list of stock phrases rather than expressing anything of any importance to her. Additionally, the list of accomplishments of Senate Democrats--a bill ending the import of toxic toys, improvements to the GI Bill, an act guaranteeing protection after 9/11--seemed paltry and negligible, only pointing up, to this listener, the much larger issues about which the Senate has done nothing satisfactory: FISA, the impeachment of Bush, the investigation of illegal firings of U.S. attorneys, ending the war...? Also, it was an oddly defensive move, a little like a letter you might send out at Christmas updating friends and relatives on events in your family. I ask again: what about Iraq?
Her sound byte, "Barack Obama is right and John McCain is wrong," was an oddly simple statement, almost childlike, that seemed to be the main evidence of backbone in her speech. She didn't say it, however, with what seemed to me enough conviction--could she be unaware that her own political future depends, in a sense, on the Democrats' performance in the convention? As faith in their party among Democrats over 24 evaporates, wouldn't it behoove the party leaders to show a little more passion, or excitement?
9:30 p.m.: Ted Kennedy: Although left-wing U.S. history smiles crookedly on the Kennedy clan, it's admirable that the Massachusetts senator had the gumption, despite the fact that he was probably in a great deal of pain, to come on stage and express himself as forcefully as he did. The difference between him and those surrounding him is most likely that he has a clear idea of his beliefs. Can we say that about any of the other Democrats in Washington currently? If we could, wouldn't things be different?
The question the commentators have pounced on is whether the speech signifies a passing of a baton/torch/hot potato from one important family to another. It's important to remember that the baton is a little dirty, the torch has sputtered over time, and the potato has cooled. The legacy being passed on is questionable--and so I'm wary of reveling in metaphorical afterglow. Obama's techniques--the 50-state strategy, his use of the Internet--are unique to him, as is his image, which is, despite similarities to the Kennedy image, distinctive as well. Kennedy gives a cheek-smacker of a speech; if it doesn't satisfy the expectations one would have of such a family, he gives a nicely poetic delivery, drawing on the moon voyage and succinctly deploying other images of travel (such as a compass set "true"). Short as it is, it adds a note of sincerity and dignity to the night. These are impressive achievements, and for me, they're sufficient.
10:30 p.m. : Michelle Obama: A strong speech, all told. The pressure on her must have been great indeed, given her impassive, some say grim demeanor at other times. I understand that--for years, I was the guy told to "smile" even when I was thinking perfectly happy thoughts. The world isn't kind to people who look too serious (as The Dark Knight taught us).
Like Pelosi, she smartly begins with a reference to Clinton--she must recognize, as would anyone, the accomplishments there. And in the narrative she gives, of getting to know her husband, of going out for ice cream with him, of the basketball game with her brother, as familiar as it might be to anyone who reads the papers, there is a sense of two individuals, two people, and in fact two families getting to know each other. The characterization of the Mister seems to fit what we've seen of him on stage. Sure he's a little cocky--that's okay. Cocky and winning (or at least holding his own) is ultimately better than humble and losing, a familiar scenario for past Democratic candidates.
Whatever degree of skepticism one might have about the all-too-good Obamas, part of their job is to represent themselves well, to present a good and likable face to the public. And that is accomplished here, by a long shot. There's host of issues lying beneath the speech--our familiarity with the story she was telling, our worries about her presence, and what's up with the kids? Although they are cute, and the family is likable, and this is all perfectly legitimate and within range of normal convention activities, I can't help but wonder if this is the year to ramp up the cuteness. I won't tarnish the image with too much skepticism--because after all, the message here is about intimacy, and warmth, and, to a certain extent, the imperfection that comes with being human. I find myself liking her after the speech--she seems sincere, energized, communicative, and most importantly, awake. Presidents' wives, in my lifetime, have seemed vaguely anaesthetized, and it's nice to think we might have a different version this year.
TUESDAY, AUGUST 26, 2008: DISPATCH # 2
7:00 p.m.: As I'm tuning into the strange truncated speeches from female senators only, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski gives a stronger start to the evening than Pelosi did, her main point being the importance of equal pay for equal work, which she proclaims in a remarkably strong, booming voice. Barbara Boxer also makes a memorable statement--brief but energetic and emphatic--stressing energy and ending the war, and both in simple terms.
Oddly enough, the boys, and the women who act like boys, are now shutting out Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill. She was a possibility for Vice President, beloved by some, seen as a strong female politician, and she's being shut out. TV viewers need to have more of a glimpse of their possible future candidates, primarily as education--all too often, we head into voting with little knowledge of who we're voting for, other than what our friends and family have told us. Look, for instance, at the numerous interviews with Obama supporters a while ago, in which they had no idea what he had done in office or, really, what his platform does. Choirs, as nice as they can sound sometime, don't brook improvisation easily. As Americans, we need to be informed. It sounds like a cliché, but in many senses, it's true.
7:40: I'm watching CNN and suddenly wondering why Rudy "art bugs me" Giuliani is being given air time. I understand fairness to the opposition, but, um... On a night like this, he's being set up to be booed and reviled almost immediately. I never minded him too much as a mayor of New York, though some did, tremendously, but here as elsewhere, he's a nay-sayer.
On MSNBC, Ed Rendell is being asked what Hillary has to do to win over her supporters. I wonder if the candidates watch the news, and if they are protected, in any small fashion, from knowledge of how much pressure is on them. Sitting at home, watching the television, few of us speculate on the sheer difficulty of repeated performance. My last stage work was done over 20 years ago, a meaningless part, but one that filled me with dread. Even if you loved the game, and the crowds, and the cause, I'd have to imagine that this sort of work would take a tremendous psychological toll on the wrong person.
Chris Matthews is now asking Lisa Caputo if Clinton will talk about why she lost the nomination. Why would she talk about why she lost the nomination? Why would anyone talk, on such a night, about why they lost? Why would he even ask such a question? One could easily attribute the amount of sheer chatter in this convention to anxiety and nervous energy--although on the part of the commentators, it's hard to say if the nervousness is over the stakes of the election or over what their next story will be.
Matthews has just asked Caputo about HRC's running in 4 years, Caputo is laughing at him. Somewhat of a relief, given that it's a dumb issue to bring up. Matthews needs to be teased, or better yet, laughed at, more often.
7:55 p.m.: Rahm Emmanuel is now being shut out by the boys on both CNN and MSNBC, oddly enough. I've always liked Emmanuel; he seems to have a fighting spirit. Sometimes, it makes him quite pugilistic in confrontations with other Washington personnel, but his strength is distinctive. I don't know if he has presidential potential--he has too rough an edge, and perhaps his aggression is better suited for administrative work. Still, having grown up during the time when speakers like Mario Cuomo were able to conjure up significant anger, and gumption (as he did when he spoke at the 1984 Democratic Convention), and having watched all of that anger slowly drain away from the party, I tend to go on the alert when I see signs of life in the underbrush.
8:27 p.m.: James Carville's mood has shifted, a cue for relief, as far as I'm concerned. Carville was angry last night, accusing the Democrats of playing "hide the message"; his spirits lifted somewhat with Ted Kennedy's and Michelle Obama's speeches. Now he seems guardedly optimistic.
9:00 p.m. Who is Mark Warner, exactly? I asked the same question about Bill Clinton, and about Barack Obama (though not about Mario Cuomo), when they gave their keynote speeches. It's an odd spot, in the convention--sort of a "getting to know you" spot. He has an upbeat, clean, presence. He's a confident speaker, clear-eyed, level-headed, and enthused. But I can't say I'm excited by him. There's something in his delivery that's all too familiar. I've seen it in modern Democrats before. He's hesitant and a little too polite.
He's stressing science and alternative energy quite a bit, a subject which has come up repeatedly tonight and last night. The issue hasn't crystallized as much as it should have during this election year; the connection between weaning ourselves off of foreign oil and onto other forms of fuel has not been made as crystal clear, and simple, as it needs to be in order to stir emotion in the voters.
Simplicity--how important that is. Obama has made quite a lot of hay out of simplicity, driving home the same handful of monosyllables. This probably arose from his careful study of prior Bush campaigns. The Republicans used simplicity--easy, memorable phrases--and look what they accomplished. Progressive Democrats such as Matt Bai have praised the Republican campaigns for their efficiency, and the compliment is deserved. They don't lose out on opportunities, while the Democratic Party seems hell-bent on it.
10:40-11:15 p.m. : Hillary Clinton: Christ, I said a lot of rather harsh things about the New York senator over the past few months, thought a lot of harsh thoughts, read a lot of harsh editorials, and read some near-obscene and half-literate statements in various comment boxes about her, but Hillary Clinton gave an awfully good speech tonight.
After several minutes of applause, she makes a remarkably strong start. What you first notice about the speech is its tremendous focus. There isn't too much fat here--she gets right to the point--support of Obama--right away, states it unequivocally, departs for a bit to describe her supporters, and then comes back to it. The speech is direct, it's eloquent, it's confident, and it's angry. Yet she's smiling. Her "keep running" quotes from Harriet Tubman, a stirring and unexpected touch, is the point in the speech when she could honestly be said to have the audience in the palm of her hand--they're all standing, they're all cheering, and they're all completely absorbed.
It's interesting, throughout, to watch Bill. He's serious, he's completely still. Talk about absorbed! And when she mentions him, well, that's the peak for him. He leans back, he smiles... he's getting a huge, huge kick out of this, and it shows.
Towards the end of the speech, she asks her supporters, in a move that's already become the subject of much commentary, to consider why they voted in the first place. In my conversations with my own family members, who differ, among each other, on who they wanted in office, I used to say the same thing--we need to be respectful of whoever wins, we need to be supportive. I wonder if the audience is listening?
As I write this, I hear on TV that McCain has already released a new ad and issued a statement that Hillary's speech has done nothing to negate her criticisms of Obama during the primary campaign. Sound like deja vu?
But hey: James Carville has cheered up! Completely! That's a good sign.
This night is a clear improvement over the last. My question, since yesterday, has been not so much "Where's the love?" as "Where's the anger?" The necessity for anger, or for passion, or energy, or whatever it is the Democratic Party has been missing for so long, has never been greater. I'm hoping the rest of the convention goes just like this.
Max Winter is a New York City-based poet, critic and editor. His poems are collected in the volume The Pictures and have been published in the Denver Quarterly, Volt, The Yale Review, Octopus, The Paris Review, Boulevard and elsewhere. He is a poetry editor of Fence.