Power to the people

The perfect sound bite. The tumultuous speeches. And, of course, the standing ovations. As Robin Cook reports from Boston, the Democratic Convention showed US politics at its worst - and best
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Visiting a party convention in America is not unlike witnessing the flowering of one of those remote, difficult terrains that blossom only every few years, but where the rarity of the event is compensated for by the exuberance of the spectacle.

Visiting a party convention in America is not unlike witnessing the flowering of one of those remote, difficult terrains that blossom only every few years, but where the rarity of the event is compensated for by the exuberance of the spectacle.

A US party convention is not a place for people with a preference for miniaturised cameo portraits. It is more to the taste of those who like their art larger than life and done in bold brush strokes. On stepping into the vast bowl of the Boston auditorium, I betrayed my naivety by exclaiming on how big it was. My escort, the veteran of many conventions, put me right by responding: "No, it is really quite small. We've got much bigger halls than this one.''

The hall needs to be big (by British standards) to contain the uninhibited enthusiasm for the proceedings of an American audience. At first, I was stunned that the delegates on the floor so dutifully submitted to all the speeches being made by the platform party. Even the tamed Labour conference of modern times would mutiny if it was told that no delegate would ever speak. Then I grasped that I was witnessing a dramatic performance in which the audience was cast as the chorus to the platform. In Britain, you work hard for one standing ovation at the end of a speech. In America, the standing ovations act as punctuation throughout the speech. It is the audience's way of sharing in the performance.

The trigger for applause does not need to be a novel or clever line. On the contrary: the more obvious the line, the easier it is for the audience collectively to recognise their cue to rise to their feet. All contributions from the rostrum contained the obligatory line in which the speakers pledged to elect John Kerry as President, and 20 times a night it was greeted with delirious applause, as if the orator had just offered it as an original and surprising thought.

In the absence of a sentiment to applaud, a place name will do. Such is the unaffected pride of Americans in their homes that the mere mention of any state brings its entire delegation to its feet, cheering. The plodding sentence: "We must campaign from Maine to California and from Oregon to Florida'' is guaranteed to be punctuated by four separate standing ovations. It is an impressive dramatic device, but I cannot see it catching on in Britain. I doubt whether even Tony Blair will persuade the delegations from Warrington or Stockton-on-Tees, loyal as they may be, to applaud simply by naming their home town.

Bill Clinton demonstrated his mastery of the art by writing the chorus line into his speech. He built up a refrain of "Send Me'', starting by attributing the phrase to John Kerry when volunteering for Vietnam, and coming to a crescendo in Kerry's offer to run for the White House. The audience loved it and chanted their line with gusto.

Like any true dramatic performance, the participation of the audience is visual as well as noisy. Floor managers fan out with new props for every major speech. The entry on to the stage of favourite speakers is welcomed by a sea of placards literally telling them that their audience loves them. Their punch lines are not only signalled in advance to the press, but are reproduced in thousands of posters for the chorus to brandish at the appropriate point. For me, the most vacuous episode was when John Edwards announced that "Hope is on the way'', but even as I wallowed in my cynicism, with the discipline of drum majorettes, thousands of delegates rose to their feet, waving placards echoing the sound bite.

It is impossible to remain cynical confronted with such energy and unfeigned enthusiasm. There is a touching innocence to the delegates' zeal, which comes as a surprise to those of us habituated to regard US politics as a byword for manipulation - like The West Wing without the jokes. To a British ear, the American political style of oratory is strikingly short on humour.

The emotional energy of their speeches comes from three common themes. The first is a relentless optimism. British political conferences are never happier than when they are being told that things are dire and probably going to get a lot worse. An American audience expects to be told that there is a solution over the horizon, and does not want to hear that it is too complicated. It is astonishing that neither American party has ever adopted "Things Can Only Get Better" as a campaign tune, as it so perfectly fits the national psyche.

The second is unbridled patriotism. I got an early taste of the bottomless appetite for patriotism on my way from the airport when my driver took a detour in order that I might admire the biggest American flag in Boston. Barack Obama, a second-generation immigrant from a Kenyan family, was billed as the star speaker of the second day. He turned in a polished, well-crafted performance but, to be honest, I found it disappointingly free of original thought. I suspect that part of his appeal is that he provides an eloquent, if formulaic expression of patriotism from a background where such passionate devotion to the flag might not have been predicted. His loudest applause came for a line empty of meaning but dripping with patriotism: "There is not a Liberal America, nor a Conservative America, but only a United States of America."

The most frequent emotional content of the speeches is their personalised, confessional character. An American audience demands to hear about your parents, your childhood, your children and your war service, if applicable. They also would like to meet your family. We tend to regard the focus on the private lives of American politicians as tasteless media intrusion, but in truth they do it themselves whenever they are confronted with an audience. Both the wives on the Kerry-Edwards ticket were expected to address the convention.

When I arrived in Boston, a British journalist was excited about a story that John Kerry's wife had told a reporter to "shove it'', which revealed that she could be a liability to her husband. At the time, I warned him not to exaggerate the sympathy of the public for journalists being told where to get off. I felt even less convinced that she was a liability after hearing her speak. Teresa Heinz Kerry made one of the most thoughtful speeches of the week. She did not use the word Iraq but warned against going to war because of dependence on foreign oil, and spoke tellingly of cold stone slabs that are memorials to "men who mistake stubbornness for strength''. She complained that the right-wing press describe her as "opinionated'' and expressed the hope that women who were now called opinionated will one day be called "smart''.

There was, of course, an element of calculation to the cultivated innocence of the convention. The Kerry campaign have imposed a rigorous ban on any personal attacks against their opponents, which is a refreshing break from what John Edwards stigmatised as "the tired old hateful politics of the past''. If they can keep it up in the heat of the campaign proper they are going to be all the more attractive in the long run as positive messengers of optimism.

There is, though, a downside in the short run, as much of the fun of politics - and most of its jokes - is in rumbustious attacks on your opponents. To find such fun, it was necessary to get out of the hall and run it to ground in the fringe meetings. The most radical, and therefore most anti-Bush, organisation is the Campaign for America's Future - a title that incorporates the two obligatory ingredients of patriotism and optimism, but is at least blissfully free of confessionalism. Their slogan is "Take Back America", and a lapel sticker to that effect was slapped on me as I entered. In vain I demurred that this phrase was open to misinterpretation when sported by a Brit at, of all places, the site of the Boston Tea Party, and that I might pass up the invitation.

Their panel was gratifyingly blunt in damning the works of the Bush administration. I particularly treasured the description of Dick Cheney as "a corporation masquerading as a Vice-President'', in an allusion to his links with Halliburton, which is making a small fortune out of contracts in Iraq, which it was granted by the Pentagon without any competition. Gary Hart gave a brilliant characterisation of the perversity of US energy policy: "We waste 50 per cent of our energy, and when our oil imports get into difficulty we sacrifice the lives of American sons and daughters so we can maintain that waste.'' I went back to the convention hall having satisfactorily got the bile out of my system, braced for another dose of positivism, optimism and patriotism.

This time, though, the star speaker was the Reverend Al Sharpton, who brought to the convention hall the electrifying style of a revivalist preacher. His message was pleasantly free of moralising, but rich in the rhetoric of social justice: "America should not regulate your behaviour in the bedroom, but should guarantee you have provisions in the kitchen." It was notable that while the platform stressed national security, the floor responded more warmly to messages that spoke about economic insecurity.

I would have found it hard to believe without spending a week at a political gathering in the heart of the Rust Belt, but Americans see themselves as the victims, not the architects, of globalisation. Almost three million manufacturing jobs have gone under Bush as the US discovers that global competition results in the export of jobs as fast as goods and services. If there is a looming conflict between Europe and a Kerry presidency, it is likely to be over the instinctive protectionism of his base in the Labor unions, fuelled by the national preference for patriotic solutions.

But any such problems with John Kerry in the White House would be a small price to pay for the big prize of getting George Bush out with the removal van. Infuriatingly, many of the swing electors will not weigh up their vote on the many worthy issues debated this week in Boston, but will cast it on whether they think John Kerry is a regular guy. One pollster explained the problem to me by reference to what went wrong with Al Gore's bid for the presidency. When asked which candidate to nominate as a friend to phone for advice if they were on a television quiz-show, no voter chose Bush - and many chose Gore for his brains. But when asked which candidate they would choose for car-share on the run to work, everyone chose Bush. On such things turn the leadership of the most powerful country on the planet. You can only salute the fortitude of people with genuine convictions who are willing to run for office against such a level of political debate.

One real problem for Kerry is that his image accurately reflects his membership of the patrician class. The same pollster expressed dismay at the number of times Kerry appeared in photographs engaged on exclusive sports such as windsurfing or snowboarding. He added: "If he has a polo pony, I hope someone shoots it before it also gets into a photo." It would be a savage irony if Kerry's undoubted wealth were to turn off low-income voters, given that appeals for social justice provided such a powerful theme to his party's convention.

I left for home moved by the sincerity with which the delegates I met really wanted John Kerry to win, and hoping that they do defeat Bush, as much to save them from loss of innocence as to save Britain from the fate of four more years of Dubya in the White House. I also have to confess that, as I settled into my seat on the plane home, I rather regretted that I would have to wait four years for my next US convention. I only hope it will be the convention to nominate President Kerry for his second term.