- Photo by Jeffrey C. Billman
Inside—embedded with the choir being preached to—it’s easy to get swept away, caught up in the moment, in the cheering and crying and endless ocean of waving placards; in the history of the 102-year-old woman from Arizona, a woman older than women’s suffrage itself, who cast her state’s votes for the potential first woman president; in the grief of the Mothers of the Movement, nine African-American women whose children died in racially charged violence, who nonetheless struck an optimistic note; in the obvious joy Bill Clinton took in recounting (at length, often ad-libbed, and probably with some exaggeration) his and Hillary’s story, an overt but probably helpful effort to, as the pundits put it, “humanize” her.
This is stagecraft, and, after all these decades, political parties have gotten pretty good at it. It’s affecting, at times powerful, occasionally overwhelming, a swell of emotion. It gets to you, despite yourself.
The thing you can’t know inside is how it’s playing outside the arena. Sure, you can follow along on Twitter, but you can’t see what Anderson Cooper is saying on CNN or what bullshit Sean Hannity—who was, in a hilariously quintessential Philly moment, reportedly booed out of a Center City Wawa yesterday (though Hannity denied it)—is spewing on Fox.
- Photo by Jeffrey C. Billman
And in all the commotion, with journalists and delegates bumping into you and convention staff barking at you to not stand in the aisle, it’s also easy to miss things. On Monday night, for instance, I didn’t notice Sarah Silverman’s admonition to the Bernie or Busters that “you’re being ridiculous”; I heard about it on TV the next morning. And yesterday evening, in the wave of applause that accompanied Hillary Clinton’s formal nomination—in another feat of effective stagecraft, it was finalized by Bernie Sanders—I didn’t notice the roughly two hundred Sanders delegates who walked out in protest. (I don’t know for sure how many Sanders supporters left. Because the roll call’s conclusion marked a lull in the proceedings, a large chunk of delegates left their seats anyway.)
I learned about the walkout on Twitter; someone posted that a swarm of Berners had stormed the media tent outside. By the time I got outside, the scene was chaotic: 100, maybe 150 Sanders delegates, surrounded by an almost-equal number of media and a handful of curious onlookers, crowded in front of the large white media tent, with a row of uniformed Philadelphia police blocking the doors, not letting anyone in or out.
The protesters’ arguments were familiar to anyone who’s been following the Bernie or Bust movement, some more credible than others: the system was rigged, the media ignored Bernie’s revolution, Bernie would be the stronger candidate in November. By about eight thirty, the protest had fizzled. By the time Bill Clinton spoke at ten, there wasn’t an empty seat—or an empty space in which to stand—in the house, and there was no audible booing or catcalling.
That’s not to say that the Sanders die-hards’ fever has broken. To wit:
Outside the perimeter, the scene was even more chaotic. At one point, protesters tried to climb the gate; four people were arrested. According to the Twitter account Rebel Pundit™, some protesters burned an American flag. Others burned an Israeli flag.
- Photo by Jeffrey C. Billman
These protests accomplished their goal: suck up media oxygen. If you want journalists to pay attention to you, storming the media tent is a pretty smart strategy; if you want to highlight your grievance rather than the historic nature of Clinton’s nomination, the timing was similarly superb. Inside, Hillary Clinton had done what no woman had done in the 228 years we’ve been electing president. But I suspect that, for folks at home, many of whom haven’t been obsessing over political machinations this year, that clean narrative triumph was sullied by images of protesters with duct tape over their mouths, burning flags, and raging about a supposedly stolen election. (Which, by the way, the Sanders campaign thinks is a really dumb theory.)
In the convention, the history was palpable, intentionally reinforced time and time again by the Clinton campaign. The crowning moment, after Bill Clinton spoke and Alicia Keys performed, was a photo montage of the forty-four presidents that shattered—a la the glass ceiling—into a live remote of Hillary Clinton, surrounded by little girls, in her home in New York. In case we didn’t get the point, Clinton told us that, while she wanted to be the first woman president, a little girl watching at home could be next. (She probably hopes we don’t have to wait three decades for number two, but that’s a minor quibble.)
It was overkill, but, to my mind, that didn’t diminish the enormity of the moment.
One of the things that draws most of us to journalism is the chance to witness history in real time. I got to do that last night. It wasn’t so long ago—a generation, maybe, definitely two—when what happened would have been thought impossible: a woman as the nominee of the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a woman with at least a fifty-fifty shot of claiming the Oval Office next January. No matter what you think of Hillary Clinton, and no matter what happens in November, this is a remarkable event, something to be celebrated—a woman who has persevered through decades of political warfare and often vile attacks, ambitious enough to weather defeat and very public humiliation to rise to the precipice of the most powerful position in the world. You don’t have to support her to see how important this event is in the evolving American experiment.
In the room, amid baby boomer women with tears of pride and joy in their eyes, in a convention that has avidly celebrated diversity and inclusion and the breaking of barriers, that’s exactly what it felt like. History. History with an asterisk, perhaps—such open, vitriolic dissent is something we haven’t seen at these conventions in a generation—but history nonetheless.
Whether that came through as powerfully on television or was lost in the night’s noise, I don’t know.