Conventional Thinking

News & Politics

People around the nation last week attended "house parties" to watch John Kerry accept the Democratic nomination for president last week. Santa Feans were invited to a hotel party.

Like Kerry's campaign and the Democratic bid to bill Bush a one-hit-wonder, it was a wild ride ranging from doubt to euphoria and back again. To enter the lobby of the Hotel St. Francis – familiar and famous for afternoon tea – downtown, high season, tourists in full bloom, was to go through the looking glass of one strange end of Democratic activism in Santa Fe. Haphazard rearrangements of overstuffed chairs, elegant sofas and spindly barstools paid homage to a glowing, large-screen television that, in turn, was conveying the Convention to the convened. But the actually convened were sparse at 5:00 p.m.

It was difficult, in fact, to distinguish whether those assembled had come out as an act of democracy in action, or simply realized while idly sipping cocktails that they were about to become entangled in televised politics but were too lazy to leave. According to press releases from Kerry New Mexico, the evening was to be energized at precisely 5:00 p.m. with a live telephone shout out to the house-party nation from VP nominee John Edwards. "Oh that," said co-organizer of the St. Francis event, Theron Horton. "We found out too late about that." This is where doubt first crept into the mix.

How late is too late in a wired world? The Edwards call was actually taking place as Horton made excuses, and what minor masses had assembled could easily have been getting their candidate on – at least half the ticket – instead of sleepily contemplating some nachos.

Horton's fellow organizers, John McAndrew and Cindy Folsom, clarified the lack of clarity by admitting that they were basically Howard Dean people now working to enlist volunteers and help form coalitions. They were, under the moniker Democracy for Santa Fe, working for Kerry but not, you know, for Kerry. That's cool – the "anyone but Bush" camp is probably larger than the strictly pro-Kerry camp in most places, but it seems a poor excuse for poor organization. The Kerry New Mexico campaign and Democracy for Santa Fe having two different ideas about the nature of the event in Santa Fe did little to dispel the pervasive image the Democrats have created: a multi-headed beast of compromise which has allowed itself to be defined by what it is not rather than what it is.

Speech after speech in the DNC lineup, from day one, contained enough astounding oratory and conviction, however, to give Kerry the framework to define himself and the party on his big night – but also to instill the fear that he might not. If the penultimate speeches on the ultimate night were lacking the punch and significance of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Teresa Heinz Kerry and Al Sharpton, the crowd at the St. Francis was willing, if not happy, to forgive; it doesn't do to upstage the candidate. In fact the candidate needs all the help he can get. Which is why it's curious that no buttons, no placards, no paraphernalia beyond cocktails were available until 7:00 p.m. when finally it all arrived, imported from Albuquerque. Even then, these trappings of unity and support were placed on a table where only those curious enough to seek them out might get lucky. It took an exasperated woman – not even a Democrat – to mutter under her breath, "Doesn't anyone know how to organize anymore?" and start passing out materials and encouraging the crowd to get wild, riled, mad and momentous. Which was a tough sell for the shy crowd at the St. Francis pretending not to hear Joe Biden, as though he were on the wrong end of Michael Moore's camera, refer to 9/11 as a "moment of profound opportunity."

A wave of excitement did pass through the crowd during tough talk from Wesley Clark, but the double whammy of Joe Lieberman and Nancy Pelosi would have emptied the lobby if not for the bar. Specializing in high-end vodka and caviar, the bar has been added to the lobby as part of Russian Summer in Santa Fe. Lieberman's non-speech was a good time to reflect on the impossibility of Russian anything just 20 years ago and to wonder if, in another 20 years, we might see Iraqi Summer in Santa Fe.

It also was a good time to speculate on whether or not the sleek control center for the event – a separate room with a flat-screen broadcast of the Convention and two humming Macintosh computers waiting to database a new army of volunteers – would see much action during the course of the evening. My guess is no. In this way, the event in Santa Fe mirrored the Convention: a slick presentation, fancy accessories, but a crowd longing to be more consistently wowed.

Still, when Kerry at last made an appearance, Santa Feans had to ask: If not now, when? Finally the old lobby rocked with cheers, finally placards waved in the air and whistles snuck out into the night. As it must have in rooms across the country, hope sprang from a sense of union. But that very projection of leadership from the Convention, coupled with the disarray in Santa Fe, left lingering doubt as to whether the people were being reminded of the one critical thing for them to remember in a democracy: If they want something done right, they'll have to do it themselves.

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