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    Convention thoughts from Tom Webb

    Friday, July 30, 2004

    Farewell, Boston 

    The race for the airport is underway Friday, after John Kerry's acceptance speech last night. My airport cab driver, whose meter was suspiciously not running, offered unsolicited thoughts about the week.

    "I wish every week was DNC week," he said.

    Why's that? Doing good business?

    "There's no traffic. All the Republicans were scared away, and they have all the cars."

    I don't know about the Republican car-owning/scaredy-cat myth, but he was right about the traffic. Everywhere I went during six days in Boston, there was almost no traffic, with the exception of when we had to detour around a Falun Gong parade.

    Boston is an old eastern city, and the idea of a traffic-less downtown seems strange. But between the security fears, the road closures, the dearth of non-DNC visitors and all those fleeing Republican car owners, it was unexpectedly smooth sailing all week.

    My Middle Eastern cab driver also observed that people overseas seemed to pay more attention to these American political events than the natives. "It really affects them," he said.

    So it does. My fare to the airport came to $29.50. Or so he said. Maybe he charged a little extra for the observations.

    Thursday, July 29, 2004

    Updates R Us 

    With the Democratic convention coming to a close, it's time for a few updates from Boston.

    Security update: The security here was professional and thorough -- and thus far, thankfully, there's been absolutely no security problem. A huge tip of the blog hat there to the folks who made it so.

    Movie star update: Actor Rob Reiner appeared at Thursday's Minnesota delegation breakfast, and actor James Cromwell appeared with Dennis Kucinich at Wednesday's delegation breakfast.

    The Daily Show
    update: At last report, fellow reporter/blogger Alan Bjerga's segment has not appeared...and who knows, it may have ended up on the cutting room floor. But Bjerga, a multi-media maven, did appear on a NPR panel at the Kennedy School of Government on the subject of swing states. (He reports on Kansas, which is no swing state. Go figure).

    Minnesotans-in-the-spotlight update: Rep. Betty McCollum of St. Paul was one of a group of congressional women who Thursday evening appeared en mass on the convention stage. McCollum gets a special blog citation for being the first elected official to mention my blog.

    Breakfast meeting update: After casting their ballots and returning to the convention hotel about 1:30 a.m., you have to admire (?) DFL delegates for gathering for a 7:30 a.m. breakfast meeting that lasted more than three hours.

    Minnesota passes. Minnesota waits. America sleeps. 

    It was after midnight, with Boston's Fleet Center nearly empty, when Minnesota became the last-in-the-nation delegation to cast its votes for John Kerry.

    In the end, the delegation cast 85 votes for John Kerry, and 1 for Dennis Kucinich. Or rather, that's what they did - after first flubbing the vote.

    Here's the chronology.

    The traditional roll-call of the states began about 11 p.m., once the prime-time TV coverage had ended. Convention-watchers know the roll call is when local officials love to brag about their state's noble people, natural beauty or winning sports teams.

    There was no suspense whatsoever about the outcome, but then, a convention without a roll call is as unthinkable as one without balloons.

    Anyway, Kerry began piling up delegates at a good clip during the roll call, and was on the verge of amassing the needed 2162, when Minnesota's turn arrived.

    But rather than cast Minnesota's 86 votes, Vice President Walter Mondale passed to Ohio, which then put Kerry over the top - all part of a cutesy little maneuver to give Ohio bragging rights.

    Then the rest of the states and territories all cast their votes before Minnesota finally got its chance. By then, the hall was almost empty, the hour was after midnight, and some of the other delegations were probably in asleep in their hotels.

    First, DFL chairman Mike Erlandson spoke:

    "Madame Secretary, my name is Mike Erlandson, and we may be last today, but we are never least in the great state of Minnesota. It's an honor to be the chairman of the greatest grassroots party in the entire United States of America, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. I'm honored to be joined by all of our delegates, Congresswoman McCollum, and and let me introduce the greatest statesman that our nation has ever seen, Walter Mondale."

    Then Mondale spoke.

    "Thank you. We're from the state of Minnesota, the state of Hubert Humphrey, and the state of Paul and Sheila Wellstone, the state of our superb senator Mark Dayton and public servants like Betty McCollum, a state that above all believes in putting her children first, and state that devoutly believes that peace can only be achieved through strength AND wisdom. Tonight, we stand united..."

    Then Mondale announced that Minnesota cast 85 votes for John Edwards, and 1 for Dennis Kucinich.

    After a moment of confusion, Mondale corrected himself. He meant John KERRY.


    Wednesday night's session included a convention hall of American flags and the appearance by a cluster of retired military brass. Afterward, two delegates leaving the hall were critiquing the evening.

    "It was like being at a Jack Kemp event," groused one.

    Wednesday, July 28, 2004

    Strong. Strength. Repeat. 

    What are the key words that Democrats will emphasize about the Kerry-Edwards ticket?



    And how do we know this? Because the delegates are being given "talking points" about the ticket -- or at least the Minnesota convention delegates were. When a reporter or TV camera appears, this is what the delegates should say.

    Here's one of the talking points: "John Kerry and John Edwards understand that American is stronger when we are respected in the world. They understand we need a strong military and strong alliances. And they will provide real leadership that will make America as safe as it can be."

    Republicans will, no doubt, have their own talking points next month...starting with the phrase, "9-11 changed everything."

    There's probably a drinking game in here somewhere.

    Minnesota's 2008 Senate race starts early 

    As up-to-speed Minnesotans know, U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., blew into Boston yesterday to give the Republican perspective on Democratic nominee John Kerry. Coleman did an impressive job at appearing on every possible media outlet, but evidently, he skipped one.

    Comedian Al Franken is in Boston, too, to host his liberal Air America radio program. Franken told the Minnesota delegation breakfast Wednesday that Coleman walked by, but didn't stop.

    There's a certain amount of ill-will between Franken and Coleman, due partly to Franken's needling, and partly to Franken's ongoing hints that he might consider running against Coleman in the 2008 U.S. Senate race. Here is Franken's version of their non-encounter:

    "Norm Coleman came by yesterday, but not by my booth. But he was close by. And a guy from Roll Call (magazine) came by and asked, 'Why don't you say hello to Al Franken?'...(Coleman declined, saying) 'Because he's not a Minnesotan and he's not a constituent.'

    "So add 'petty.' But you know that already."

    DFL Party Chairman Mike Erlandson did nothing to tamp down the Franken speculation, by giving Franken a big introduction.

    "Because we're at a national political convention and we're having a great time, we will introduce him (Franken) potentially as the next senator from the great state of Minnesota."

    Moments to remember 

    Yes, political conventions are gaudy and overblown, but at their best, the giant gatherings by both parties can still stir your idealism and remind you of the glories of this country.

    It's not the computer-generated flag waving on the giant video screen, nor the choreographed sign-waving for the cameras. Instead, at least for me, the power came in personal stories that revealed something profound.

    When Teresa Heinz Kerry spoke Tuesday night about growing up under a dictator in Mozambique, and her father not being free to cast his first vote until age 73, it was a powerful reminder of the freedoms we too often take for granted.

    There will be other moments like this, at both Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and they're worth remembering. If you're inclined to think all Democrats are craven, or all Republicans are evil, you'll miss what's important and powerful during these weeks.

    Tuesday, July 27, 2004

    Excellent, Smithers. 

    It wouldn't be a convention without free-range celebrity sightings -- that is, spotting VIPs outside of their usual habitats.

    Actor Ben Affleck has been much-spotted by Minnesotans this week. Patty Wetterling said she was excited to meet Garrison Keillor. Others spotted rock star Bono, diva Patti LaBelle and filmmaker Michael Moore.

    But a special tip of the blog hat goes to WCCO-TV's Pat Kessler, who pulled me aside Tuesday to point out I was standing directly behind a celebrity.

    Really? Who?

    Harry Shearer.

    Turns out, Shearer voices characters for The Simpsons including Mr. Burns, Principal Skinner and Rev. Lovejoy. Better still -- at least for purposes of this blog -- was learning that he was costar of "This Is Spinal Tap."

    This marks our second Spinal Tap reference this convention. If the Democrats can schedule several versions of "Blowin' in the Wind," can't they find time for "Stonehenge?"?

    It takes a media village 

    With each passing convention, the size of the featured video screen grows. This year in Boston, the screen inside the convention hall totally dwarfs the podium.

    So if you're sitting in the audience, and someone is speaking from the stage, it has the rough effect of watching a drive-in movie, with somebody is perched atop the popcorn stand.

    This is all a cautionary reminder about the exponential growth of the media. And with mediafolk outnumbering conventioneers 6 to 1, being interviewed is a constant threat. Even the reporters get interviewed.

    Last night, as some of us in the convention hall listened to the evening's Democratic speeches, a staffer for Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" stopped by to ask if we were reporters (yes), whether we were on deadline (no), and if we wanted to appear on the show. (uh...)

    I demurred, but my Wichita Eagle colleague Alan Bjerga consented. Supposedly, his segment will run on Wednesday night, as he answers probing questions about newspaper comics, political conventions and whatnot.

    Torpid Tuesday 

    By the strange-but-inviolate rhythms of big political conventions, Tuesday tends to be the dullest day...the day that isn't the big-blowout opening day, that has no balloons, no confetti, and no acceptance speeches.

    Thus, it is with this convention.

    So with a bazillion reporters in town, that means it's a perfect day for lesser-lights to get some ink, some air time, or some bandwidth.

    Two Minnesotans are stepping up. For the Democrats, 6th District challenger Patty Wetterling will speak to the convention this afternoon. The early report was that she'll speak between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., so C-SPAN junkies can tune in then. Wetterling spoke at the Minnesota delegation breakfast, delivering a calm and quiet speech that was decidedly low on partisan bombast.

    "I do believe together we can carry this forward and restore hope in our lives," she said.

    The partisan blasts will today come from U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who will be roving from TV camera to TV camera to undermine the Democrats. You won't have to tune into C-SPAN to catch Norm. No matter what station you're following, he's likely to turn up.

    Monday, July 26, 2004

    Speaker gets to 11 

    Another benefit of being a political swing state: more interesting morning speakers.

    On Tuesday, the DFL will hear from actor Rob Reiner, best known as the reliably liberal son-in-law Meathead from the 1970s TV classic "All In the Family."

    But Reiner is also fondly remembered for his role in the 1980s mockumentary, "This Is Spinal Tap."

    Imagine. A speaker that goes to 11.

    Also on Tuesday morning lineup: Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, and Kerry for president spokewoman Mary Beth Cahill.

    Baby, it's cold inside 

    For anyone wondering what it's REALLY like to cover the Democratic National Convention, the answer's dang cold.

    Not outside.


    July or no, the media tent's overzealous air conditioning system is inspiring the Knight Ridder scribes to don wool sweaters, winter coats and - in the case of fashionable Alan Bjerga of The Wichita Eagle - a snappy green sweatshirt draped rakishly over his shoulders.

    Mike Erlandson, chairman of the Minnesota DFL, did warn everyone at breakfast Monday that the first day of the convention is always rife with problems.

    We in the press pavillion tried to fix ourselves, by duct-taping over every ventilation hole in the temporary air conditioning tubes. We're quite sure this isn't up to code, but it did raise the temperature above 60 degrees.

    How many Democrats does it take... 

    The convention organizers in the Democratic National Party seem to be having a little trouble with math.

    When the head of the Minnesota DFL Party, Mike Erlandson, went down to the convention floor on Sunday for the first time, he was surprised by what he saw.

    They "didn't have enough seats" for the Minnesota delegation.

    They were about 15 short, he said.

    You wouldn't think that getting the right number of delegate chairs would be a problem, considering the party has had four years to count.

    We'll know in a few hours, during the opening session, whether this problem has been fixed -- or whether some of Minnesota's DFL delegates will be leaving Boston with sore feet.

    Garrison Diversion 

    Humorist Garrison Keillor gave the Minnesota DFL convention delegates their first reason to stand and cheer, when he delivered a brief why-I'm-a-Democrat chat at their Monday morning breakfast.

    "It's going to be a great year for Democrats, and you and I will make it so," Keillor said.

    "It's one thing to grasp power in order to do favors for one's friends. It's quite another thing to speak to the conscience of the country, and to serve the common good.

    "The Democratic Party is the last group of people in the country who believe, truly, in the common good and we're going to go out and serve it this summer."

    The DFL delegates loved it, standing and cheering.

    Sunday, July 25, 2004

    Welcome to Boston. Now scram. 

    Lesson No. 1 at a national political convention is, nothing this big ever works flawlessly.

    The Minnesota convention delegates got their first lesson Sunday, when they arrived for the kickoff event of their convention week - the welcome-to-Boston reception for Minnesota delegates, at the State Street Bank building in downtown Boston.

    Alas, when dozens of Minnesotans showed up at the building, the welcome wasn't quite what they expected. The only thing awaiting them was an empty lobby and one beleaguered security guard, who told them they were at the wrong place.

    Turns out, the real party was about five blocks away, at a similar-sounding building called State Street Financial.

    In the end, all the visiting Minnesotans got to the right place, to mix and mingle and have a drink. The star attraction of the event was humorist Garrison Keillor, who sported an old Floyd B. Olson for governor pin in his lapel and was gracious about posing for pictures with the delegates.

    Then the DFLers went by bus to an outdoor performance of the Boston Pops, on a lovely summer evening. 

    The medium is the message 

    With Boston invaded by legions of Democrats, it's no surprise that there are red, white, and blue Kerry-Edwards signs and buttons all over downtown.

    But Sunday, there was one unexpected bit of political propaganda located in Boston's Public Gardens.

    Mounted horse patrols had deposited a few droppings near the park's entrance. And some busy Democrat had stuck a button atop the pile.

    It read, "Stop the BUllSHit."

    Friday, July 23, 2004

    What do delegates do? 

    The awkward question about political conventioneers these days is, What do they really do? I've been asking Minnesota convention delegates this question. The most exasperated response I received was, "They nominate someone for president!" 

    Well, yeah. 

    Nevertheless, it's still surprising to attend a modern-day convention and see firsthand that the delegates don't seem to decide anything.  Apart from the state roll-call, anyway. 

    I used to think that conventioneers spent the tedious afternoon sessions listening to earnest speeches about global trade policy and debating the party platform, before those big confetti-and-balloon dumps at night. 

    Maybe they did once. 

    Not now. 

    Rod Halverson, an Edwards delegate from St. Paul, puts it this way: 

    "When a lot of people run for delegate, they announce what a great thing they're going to be doing, and they're going to be working hard for this and that. But after being there three times (to national conventions), our role is somewhat limited. Most of our decisions have already been made." 

    Still, there are a handful of good reasons for holding a big blowout political gathering, as Halverson and other the Minnesota delegates noted. 

    Inside the hall, it's a total political bazaar, attended by every politician, pundit, party official, fundraiser, political journalist and striving up-and-comer. For old hands, it's the best place on earth to schmooze, because everyone is there. For young strivers, it's their chance to impress the party powers, the money folks, and the media. And for newbies, it's all a rush. 
    For those outside the convention hall, the conventions are one of those rare national moments when everyone can take a few days to assess the nominees, and hear the parties present their values. How many Minnesotans have ever heard John Edwards speak for 20 minutes? Or John Kerry? Or for that matter, even Dick Cheney? 

    So, what do the convention delegates do? They schmooze. They network like crazy. They party. They eat a lot. They haul souvenir tote bags, buy Lucite gee-gaws and collect buttons. Some devote time to a noble cause. Some have their faith in democracy restored. They're supposed to return to Minnesota fired up and ready to carry their team to victory. 

    "It's wonderful to be a part of history," Halverson said. 

    And absolutely all of them understand that their role, while on the convention floor, is to cheer wildly, wave signs at the proper moments, and for heaven's sake, don't yawn when the nominee is speaking. 

    And we're off 

    Greetings, earthlings. 

    This weekend the political world decamps for Boston and the Democratic National Convention -- and the good folks at the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Knight Ridder have asked me to join the madness, and keep my eyes peeled for All Things Minnesotan.  

    So, we're off. 

    We include 14 Minnesota reporters and photographers, 91 Minnesota DFL delegates and alternates hoping to promote the Democratic message, assorted protesters, a couple of Minnesota Republicans hoping to undermine the Democrats message, corporate sponsors, political donors and various others. 

    Plus, an undetermined number of goofy hats.  

    For all of the above, the biggest change from the 2000 conventions will be the uber-security. Here's my pre-convention checklist. 

    Daylong "hostile environment" training session? Check. 

    Required biochemical escape hood? Check. 

    Mandatory security sessions in Boston? Check. 

    Friends in Boston tell me that they've been chatting with cabbies there, and to a person, the drivers say they're leaving town during convention week -- because most are Middle Eastern and they don't want to be harassed. 

    So, we convention-goers may be doing a lot of walking, too. 

    Tom Webb

    Tom Webb is the Washington correspondent for the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press. He can be reached at

     Latest posts

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