Opening With a Whimper


BOSTON—Last night’s labored efforts at the Democratic National Convention to make the sheepish John Kerry into a Greek hero were saved only by Bill Clinton’s masterful speech—the usual touch of false populism, but otherwise remarkably free of bullshit. Al Gore, looking heavier than usual, was his typically embarrassing self. Jimmy Carter, reviled as the president who went down under the Iran hostage crisis, has been elevated from pious do-gooder to a new role, that of the party’s wise elder. The surprise: Hillary was little more than an empty suit.

The convention opened peacefully, with the security police inspecting purses and backpacks by hand, and removing such lethal weapons as umbrellas, water bottles, and bananas. There were sporadic and pathetic demonstrations outside the FleetCenter. Inside, thousands of starstruck reporters surrounded such luminaries as Jesse Jackson, sought autographs from the always smiling Dennis Kucinich, and gathered in an eager circle to laugh with Al Sharpton. The convention had little to do with politics. There was no debate of any sort. The delegates behaved as if actors in an infomercial—politely holding up signs, applauding as if on cue, and dancing around in the aisles. Children were a motif, and they paraded in and out of the hall. Mention of 9-11 drew appropriate moments of silence. The party is trying to make national security—9-11, the Iraq war, and the war on terror—into some sort of a plank. But this means new lines for the audience, and they seemed a bit unsure of what to do.

Overall, the Dems look like a party of mannequins, stick figures in parody of some earlier political time. Awkward, unreal, a bunch of Manchurian candidates practicing their faux cheerful lines. All nasty references to Bush had been removed from the speeches. Only the most decorous criticism was permitted, and only then by Clinton and Carter. And Clinton rose to the occasion: the Republican president had wasted “an amazing opportunity to bring the country together under his slogan of compassionate conservatism and to unite the world in the struggle against terror” after 9-11, and the conservatives instead set out to “push the country too far to the right and to walk away from our allies.”

It was all too clear on the first night that the party remains without a base. All talk and no action. Under Clinton, the Dems became a party of competing lobbies. But even the corporate lobbies have gone to the Republicans.

Aside from possessing an impassioned hatred of Bush, the party is a collection of slogans wrapped around the Democratic Leadership Council’s shrill insistence that put-upon yuppie soccer moms can be the foundation of a new middle class. Since the DLC runs the show, that’s the program. Michael Moore and Flint, Michigan, represent the old working-class exhibits in the Museum of the New Deal. Dennis Kucinich, a seriously successful Democratic politician in Congress who crosses the aisles to unite members of both parties in ad hoc coalitions against such enemies as the World Bank and NAFTA, is considered in a kindly manner: nice guy, even an interesting guy, but a weirdo New Age consumer of veggies. Ralph Nader, who has methodically and sometimes successfully attacked the corporate rich, is portrayed as an enemy, a spoiler. The delegates hiss at the mention of his name.

After watching Michael Moore’s film, why should we vote for a candidate and a team who literally promise more of the same war? And who literally sneer at the working-class values and programs of the New Deal? Perhaps Teddy Kennedy and Teresa Heinz Kerry will answer that question when the delegates gather for the second session this evening.