The foyer bar of the Marriott Pennsylvania, Convention Central, a vast round thing, pillared, all done in brown and tans, a blue-tiled pool and fountain in the middle. Hundreds here, with their tags flapping on their guts.
More tags, more power — unless you have the one tag, black, featureless, gets you in everywhere.
Everyone slapping backs and hail fellow well met. A big black contingent in tailored suits and Sunday best dresses.
Across from them, team Bernie, a lot of them from California, T-shirts, and campaign buttons and weave dresses, and tie-dye, and it’s like the Deadhead tour bus dropped them off at the wrong hotel.
In between, a bunch of standard operatives, white guys in blue suits and women in tight formal dresses and heels — nine in the morning and they look like they’re going to the opera — and the horse trading is incredible.
“Yeah well I delivered man I delivered, so I’m going to sweat him for number one slot for water commissioner. That is mine!”
“I hear you …”
Switch to another trio:
“Hi, can I introduce you to XXXX from Lobbying Solutions …”
Fist-pump handshakes, from the elbow.
“Very pleased to meet you …”
Switch to listening to another couple, hunched in wing-back chairs.
“But the question is …”
“What have I done for you lately?”
The best one? Not heard by me, but reported: “Yeah even if it’s a shitty little country, ‘ambassador’ looks so great on your daughter’s wedding invitation.”
The conference is ending, and the deals are speeding up. The formal part is almost done. God knows who else is left to speak tonight, what intersections of race, gender and disability have not been explored.
It is inclusive and wonderful in many ways. Especially so compared to the RNC, which at times felt like a four-day version of the hangout scenes in Goodfellas, where the inconvenient types were garrotted with cheese wire one by one.
But, eh. It is diversity. But diversity as fragmentation, atomisation. The theme has been unity and diversity, the old e pluribus unum, but they are really pushing it.
Especially when so much of the real business happens here, the old machine, the division of the spoils.
Philly’s the best place for this. For decades, the absolute single most corrupt Democratic city in the US, the place where “ward-heelers” got votes with ‘walking around money’,wads of cash they would peel off, to bribe people to the polls with. This was still going on in 2008.
The Marriott fountain bar feels like some ironic recreation of it.
“Hello, my friend!” Blue-suited dude sidles up to blue-suited dude sitting at the bar.
“What do you want now?”
Upstairs in the meeting rooms, the delegations are meeting. Deathful breakfasts, which go for four hours and feature the assistant-treasurer of Maine, talking about compliance budgeting in healthcare.
The important one was a gathering by the Bernie Delegates Network (BDN), a group of about a thousand or so Bernie delegates, who have been responsible for some of the walkouts and vocal protests over the past four days (most recently, a drown out of ex-CIA head Leon Panetta last night, as he gave a thundering defence of liberal imperialism).
This was the meeting because the BDN are planning something for the final night, but they won’t tell anyone what. Your correspondent found a side door to a ballroom they were meeting in, slipped in the back; realised too late that this was the first place I was too well-dressed to fit in in.
Two minutes in, a hand the width of a family-size meat pie on my shoulder.
“Excuse me, sir, are you a delegate?”
“This meeting is for delegates only.”
I turned round. It was your archetypal Californian, worker-hippie, a docker type, solid, no-nonsense, but in an orange anti-Trump T-shirt, and wearing a knitted cap.
“Uh, OK,” I got up to leave.
“Thanks man, I really respect that.” FFS, hippies. Just throw me out already.
Whatever the BDN talked about and planned, we’ll find out. The more radical DNC Action Committee has already announced plans to try and citizens’ arrest Hillary.
But there’ll be a walkout or protest of some kind. The BDN — really, it’s the Californian left in another guise; Bernie, himself, is now long gone — is committed to campaigning for a win.
But there’s a limit, and the likelihood that Obama will try and push TPP through in the lame-duck session means that the Bernie faction of the party have to do something.
“No one really believes the messages coming out of the Clinton camp,” Norman Solomon, the veteran leftist who is co-co-ordinator of the BDN told me after the meeting. “The fact that Terry McAuliffe has already walked it back — well, that wasn’t anything we didn’t know. But it’s hard to stand up to Obama … the Labor Council is opposing opposition to it, on those grounds. We’ve got to keep the pressure on.”
But what sort of pressure? Could the Bernie forces and the wider left demand a commitment from Obama that he wouldn’t sneak the TPP in — against his own party — in the last days of his administration? Could they give an ultimatum? Karen Bernal, another BDN organiser, was sceptical: “I think it’s more about pressuring members of Congress to reject it, looking to the mid-terms.”
Back in the foyer, I asked Ben Jealous, head of the NAACP — he was standing next to me at the bar; I don’t want anyone to think any diligence was involved — what he thought. Six-foot-nineteen, a foot wide, a Bernie supporter, in a “No TPP” sweatshirt, Jealous was more confident:
“Well, there are a lot of people saying to Obama not to go through with it, union leaders and activists, saying to him ‘well think about the other side of your legacy’ but I dunno …”
“So what’s plan B?”
“Round up enough Republicans to defeat it from the other end. Say, I had an Aussie roommate at Oxford in 97-98. Conservative. More or less an absolute monarchist. I liked him. Name of Andrew. I wonder what he’s doing?”
Andrew, if you were the absolute monarchist sharing rooms with Ben Jealous, contact this organ immediately.
Where was I? Jealous and others know they have to tread carefully with the TPP. If Obama defines it as his final, legacy achievement, then it is something that is very difficult to oppose — even or especially among many of the people who will suffer from it in the short term. The changeover is complete: Hillary (not by her own choice) has moved to the left of Obama on these matters. And, realistically, it’s a power almost impossible to go up against.
That was seen in its full force last night, when the big guns were wheeled out: Harry Reid, Jesse Jackson, Gabby Giffords, VP pick Tim Kaine, Michael Bloomberg, and VP Joe Biden and Barack Obama himself. Reid was unassuming, Giffords was inspiring. A former House rep brain-damaged from a shooting by a crazed gunman, her short speech closed with “I can’t speak much these days. But next year I’ll be able to say ‘Madame President’.” Jesse Jackson led a sort of chant/rap, riffing on the phrase “it’s Hillary time”.
Bloomberg was there to undercut Donald as a tycoon. “I built a business, too, but I didn’t start wit a million bucks from my Dad.”
Duelling billionaires. The Democrats ’16.
Tim Kaine. Well, the pick for VP was goofy, likeable, and placed between Biden and Obama as a sort of rhetoric airbag, a speech sorbet, a buffer zone. He wasn’t great. He made Obama look transcendentally good. The verdict was: “Tim Kaine: your likable stepdad.”
Obama’s speech was assessed as the event of the night, of course. But I’ve seen a lot of them, and it wasn’t his best. More of that later, but for my mind Biden really nailed the thing together. Yeah, I know old white guy, etc etc, and there is something in that. But Biden has always been known as a compelling speaker, and this — his last major speech — was a magnificence, a tour de force:
“Ladies and gentlemen, to state the obvious — and I’m not trying to be a wise guy here, I really mean it — that’s not Donald Trump’s story. Just listen to me a second without booing or cheering. I mean it sincerely — we should really think about this. His cynicism is unbounded. His lack of empathy and compassion can be summed up in a phrase I suspect he’s most proud of having made famous: ‘You’re fired!’
“I mean really, I’m not joking. Think about that. Think about that. Think about everything you learned as a child, no matter where you were raised. How can there be pleasure in saying, ‘You’re fired!’? … It’s never, never, never been a good bet to bet against America.”
It was an extraordinary performance, wrapping Biden’s personal life — first wife and child lost in a car accident, adult son lost to cancer — with a sense of optimism and hope, all bound up in American exceptionalism and military assertiveness. Simultaneously compelling and deranged, but a full force blow against Trump, a demolition. The personal subordinated to the political, serving it, old-skool politics. I disagreed with 60% of it yet it filled my soul.
Obama? Yeah, he capped it off. His voice was a little hoarse — the President, unlike the Vice-President, has a day job — but he led it out, starting off with his own career (“12 years to the day, since I spoke to this convention in Boston”), and led that into Hillary’s life, and the core argument they’re now making:
“That is the Hillary I know. That’s the Hillary I’ve come to admire. And that’s why I can say with confidence there has never been a man or a woman — not me, not Bill, nobody — more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as President of the United States of America.”
And then onto the smackdown:
“America is already great. America is already strong. And I promise you, our strength, our greatness, does not depend on Donald Trump. In fact, it doesn’t depend on any one person. And that, in the end, may be the biggest difference in this election — the meaning of our democracy.”
Even the hardest-core Bernieistas had been stilled by the speech — although a few Code Pinkers had staged a “No Drones” protest. And props to them. Takes a lot of nerve to disrupt a ceremony as totalising as this one.
Thus did the crossover occur. Obama, first black President, warrior in Libya, free-trade champion, has, for the Democratic party, taken on the Reaganite mantle. The besiegement from their own left will help them in that. The Republicans are allotted insurgent status. It’s politically profitable, but it sits ill with who the Republicans are, and the odds of it hanging together over the next three months are slim. The Democrats, meanwhile, are not going to come apart. They’re onto this, and for all Trump’s insurgent appeal — and whether or not it’s a good thing — I doubt he will be able to triumph over them.
Wasn’t there in the arena, to see the final moment, when Hillary came out on stage, and she and Obama hugged deeply. Not sure I could have taken that. Instead I’d left early, to get an Uber, and we were halfway along the turnpike, in the blackness of American sprawl, illuminated by signs for fast-food joints, mattress warehouses, funeral homes, me and a black driver barrelling into New Jersey.
Every night I get an Uber out, and the driver’s black, and easy-going and friendly. Every morning I get one in, and the driver’s white, and male and angry, and twisted as a corkscrew, and a Trumpista. Last night we listened in silence, hot wind pounding through the open windows, listening, knowing that something was being passed on from. And, after Obama’s rhetoric had soared and finished, the driver grunted and said “well — that’s a thing”, and I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
But I know that in the bar of the Marriott, the guys in the blue suits with black passes, would have been listening and watching, and may have paused for half a minute or so, then ordered fresh drinks, and got back down to business:
“This is XXXX from Lethal Gas Corporation …”
“Very pleased to meet you …”
STOP PRESS: As we wait for Hillary to speak, an hour after deadline, the arena has been electrified by Khazir Khan, the father of a Muslim US soldier killed in action, who has taken out a copy of the constitution and told Donald Trump, “you have sacrificed nothing for this country. Do you understand our constitution? Here I will lend you my copy.” Extraordinary.
*Check the website this afternoon for Guy Rundle on Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech.