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Commentary: Denver is Surreal for DNC

By Jessica Bram

Special to WestportNow

Denver—Surreal is the word that first comes to mind to someone arriving at this year’s Democratic National Convention in Denver. Four years ago when I attended the DNC in Boston, that first post-9/11 national convention was most striking in the prominence of heavy security.WNDemCon.jpgWestportNow.com Image
Jessica Bram in Denver: “No sense of a city on edge.”  WN photo

Commenting back then for WestportNow and in a piece that aired on WSHU Radio, I recounted the very visible, overwhelming signs of security that not only surrounded Boston’s Fleet Center, but also permeated the city.

There were long lines of police in riot gear, muscled FBI agents in tight black tee shirts and earpieces clustered at every chain linked checkpoint and hotel entrance; and fire trucks poised around the perimeter of the convention compound, fire hoses unrolled and at the ready.

It gave the sense of a city on edge, but at the same time, banded together in an almost cheerful, self-protective cluster.

Denver this year is different. While the level of security here is probably a hundred-fold what it was four years ago in Boston, there is no sense of a city on edge. Instead, there is a sense of icy calm. It makes Boston of four years ago seem practically antique, and almost quaint in its heavy-handedness.

Denver is a city locked up and shut down tight. Entire streets surrounding the Pepsi Center, blocked off by orange cones, are utterly silent and reminiscent of a last-person-on-earth survivalist movie. Bus routes have been suspended, parking lots closed off. The two light rail stations within a mile of the Pepsi Center are shut down for the week. Security checkpoints for those heading for the Pepsi Center begins not at the building itself, but several blocks away.

Four years ago the security lines were long and cumbersome, as agents clumsily searched bags and removed water bottles and nail clippers. Today, the process was so swift it could practically be described as clinical: x-ray the bag here, laptop here, pass through that scanner there.

I will try very hard to think “efficiency” and keep myself from thinking “Orwellian.” This is about democracy, that system in which many voices are heard, right? But as grateful as I am for shorter security lines, it does make me somewhat nostalgic for a time when political conventions were somewhat messy, boisterous affairs.

* * * * * *

How About That DNC Stage Set?

If I hadn’t watched the closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics Sunday night, in which several thousand aerialists spun into a gigantic animated structure and the sky filled with enough coordinated fireworks to be glimpsed from space, I might be tempted to find the Democratic National Convention stage set a bit excessive.

Certainly those normal giant screens that enlarge the speaker about a hundred-fold are useful, when watched from the nosebleed seats. But here in Denver’s Pepsi Center, we’re talking a towering multi-screen video montage complete with high tech graphics and pulsing, high definition color. The whole affair surrounded by arcs of lights gleam against a black backdrop like a Rocky Mountain sky.

It’s impressive enough on a video screen. But when one actually enters the hall and stands poised on a steeping slope of seats up high, I have to admit I was impressed. Even as I caught myself reflecting, as I did watching the Olympics closing ceremonies, how many hungry Chinese villagers might have been fed with the money spent to construct that glittering spectacle.

* * * * * *

Almost the Mountaintop

I can pinpoint the moment when the Democratic National Convention became more than a spectacle or an expertly choreographed show presented against a Las Vegas backdrop. It was the moment the crowd’s mood palpably changed, when boring speeches and run-of-the-mill party brouhaha erupted into genuine emotion. 

A young congressman named Jesse Jackson Jr., with heart-stopping good looks and an earnest expression, conjured up the Rev. Martin Luther King: “I can imagine Dr. King being here today, watching this first glimpse of that mountaintop, here at this convention.”

At that moment, realizing that for the first time in U.S. history a black man might be elected president, it hit me hard. All the years between then, when Dr. King envisioned a mountaintop he would not live to see, to today, seemed to collapse and I realized what a mountaintop this country has indeed realized.

It was the moment the night turned meaningful. But more was to come.

* * * * * *

Not a Dry Eye in the House

Then came the moment we weren’t just attending a political convention. We were at a moment in history. Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg stepped up to the podium, simply dressed. In a quiet voice, with the relaxed poise of a woman addressing a room of perhaps 20, she told the crowd that never in her entire lifetime, until now, had a candidate inspired her the way people had often said that her father had inspired them.

She was talking about her father, John F. Kennedy. 

A film montage of the Kennedy brothers followed. One after another, the huge screens filled with stirring black and white photos of three handsome young men: the slain president, an idealistic Bobby Kennedy, and what was clearly their admiring youngest brother, Ted.

How young they were. How much they had hoped to accomplish. How certain they were that they had the responsibility to change this country. You could see in their eyes and in their bright faces that they were fully confident that they would.

Perhaps it was because I have three sons of my own, growing into fine young men, that my eyes began to sting as well. But when an ailing Ted Kennedy walked gingerly onto the stage, somewhat slow and with shaking hands, to address the convention hall with a voice full of passion, all composure ended.

It was a mesmerizing moment. As the entire convention hall came to its collective feet and roared, I turned around to face the crowd behind me. Row upon row, black and white, men and women, young and old were pulling out whatever they could fine to blot brimming eyes.

It was indeed a moment for the history books. And for the handkerchiefs, to be sure.
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Westporter Jessica Bram is a writer, radio commentator and founder of the Westport Writers’ Workshop.

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