"Liberal?" exclaims Rose Marie Lowry-Townsend, rearing back in her seat and tossing up her hands. "Don't be accusing me of that--Lord, I'm from Robeson County. You could get me in a lot of trouble!"
She's laughing, but she means it. A middle-school principal who lost a Democratic primary runoff for Congress in 1996, Lowry-Townsend sits in Los Angeles' Staples Center looking as if she's ready to mount the podium just in case the Democratic National Convention should call upon her. Done up impeccably in a gleaming white dress, she laughs heartily when I tell her I'm hunting down liberals in the North Carolina delegation. I want to find out what those on the left think about their party's rightward drift--and how they feel about nominating for president the champion of NAFTA, welfare reform and "reinventing government."
"Well, good luck finding them. I'll tell you what I am," Lowry-Townsend says with a drawl that turns "am" into two long syllables. "I'm a yellow-dog Democrat. An attack-dog Democrat. And I am ready to attack this fall."
Like many of the delegates here this week, Lowry-Townsend was born into the Democratic Party. Her parents, Native-American schoolteachers in a part of North Carolina notorious for its volatile racial politics, got her involved in Democratic campaigns at a young age, and she's never looked back--whether or not the party is running a candidate she's wild about. When I ask her about Al Gore, Lowry-Townsend says, "Look--do you want to see George W. Bush in the White House? Huh-uh. End of discussion."
And so it goes with delegate after delegate: black, white, Hispanic, young, old, uptown, rural. Until I come to Raleigh's John Wilson, a ruddy-cheeked man leaning forward in his seat, listening attentively to the opening-day parade of speakers and presentations. Wary by now of invoking the "L" word, I ask Wilson: "Are you a progressive?"
"You could say liberal!" he replies, his face spreading into a generous grin.
Wilson, who's executive director of the N.C. Association of Educators, also came early to politics. As a seventh-grader in Burlington 40 years ago, "I led the Kennedy campaign in my class, which was quite a thing to do because my teacher was a Republican." He first attended a national convention in a far less successful year for the Democrats: 1984, when Walter Mondale pleased the Left but lost 49 states to President Ronald Reagan.
"It's definitely not as liberal here as in '84," Wilson says. "But most of the people here still are liberals," he says, sweeping his hands across the hall. Even in the North Carolina delegation? "Oh, well, maybe not in North Carolina," he admits.
In this election year, Wilson says he's "most worried about the economic picture--who's benefiting from this prosperity. It's corporations. It's not the people who've been left behind."
Does he believe Gore will do anything to change that? Wilson laughs and shrugs. He doesn't need to answer.
"Actually, though," he says after a pause, "I think Al Gore will carry most of the progressive agenda. I think we'll see the real Al Gore emerge this week."
And who will that be? "Well, Gore is an environmentalist. I think that'll be his issue." Wilson knits his brow. "And I think he's a good person, I really do. He cares about people. Where he falls short sometimes is in trying to appeal to the business community, sometimes at the expense of labor."
While he's comfortable enough with Gore, Wilson does worry about the signal the vice president sent by choosing Joe Lieberman, a supporter of school vouchers and other conservative causes, as his running mate. "I was talking to one of his colleagues in the Senate last night who said their favorite line was, 'Say it ain't so, Joe.' Say you didn't vote again with the Right, in other words. And that's made a lot of progressives nervous. In isolation, you wouldn't have supported someone like that. I find it interesting, really, that everybody's just fallen in line.
"The Democratic Leadership Council--basically Clinton, Lieberman and the other moderate Democrats--has been very effective, you know. They've taken back the Democratic Party."
Indeed, this first day of the Democratic Convention is a lovefest for the man who made the party faithful swallow the DLC and like it: President Bill Clinton. After Gov. Michael Dukakis fumbled the 1988 election to the elder George Bush, Clinton and then-Sen. Al Gore joined forces with other centrist Democrats to form the DLC, a group of self-described "New Democrats" dedicated to moving the party in the directions of serious fundraising and serious governmental austerity. With the help of big bucks from Philip Morris, ARCO, Chevron and Merck, the New Democrats have nudged the party toward an embrace of unrestricted free trade, welfare cutbacks, corporate deregulation and a bigger gap between rich and poor. The current DLC chair is Lieberman himself.
But why have left-leaning Democrats fallen in line? "I think that when we had to go through Reagan, it became a chilling effect on liberals," Wilson says. "It's like, 'My God, we could have something worse.' So it's all gone underground, waiting for the right time to emerge.
"But you know when I think it's going to emerge?" he asks, sitting up in his chair. "In 2008. If Gore and Lieberman win, I don't believe the Democratic Party will embrace the Lieberman wing then. I don't think the people here will stand for that, I really don't. But we'll never get everything we want. These are politicians, after all. None of us is perfect, and they're not either."
In a few minutes, almost on cue, the greatest imperfect politician of our time takes the stage. "Thank you Bill, thank you Bill!" almost everyone chants, as Clinton laundry-lists the accomplishments of his administration. He dwells most enthusiastically on the economy. "Today we've gone from the largest deficits in history to the largest surpluses in history. And, if we stay on course, we can make America debt-free for the first time since Andy Jackson was president in 1835. Harry Truman's old saying has never been more true: If you want to live like a Republican, you better vote for the Democrats."
The president says little about his would-be successor. But he gives a heartfelt plug to Lieberman, for whom Clinton (then a student at Yale University) worked during his first political campaign. "It should not be a surprise to anyone that Al Gore picked the leader of the New Democrats to be his vice president," Clinton notes.
The commander-in-chief has brought the house down by the time he reaches his parting shot. "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow!" he hollers, cueing up the theme song of his 1992 campaign. But as thousands of delegates and reporters stream out into a breezy L.A. evening, the line that resonates is Fleetwood Mac's other refrain: "Yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone." And just what, we silently wonder, might tomorrow bring?
"Coming out on the plane I was like, 'Am I going to the right convention?' When I looked at the platform, I didn't see housing. I didn't see the issues that I really care about. But as I got here, I started hearing the message in the speeches, so I felt a lot better about things. But it's still pretty to the right of me."
Passing by Stella Adams in the hallway of the Staples Center, you would never expect her to say such things. Adams has come to Tuesday's session decked out in a tall, baggy hat covered with red, white and blue sequins--and an improbably matching dress. You would never guess her to be the woman who heads up the N.C. Fair Housing Center in Durham. You'd never guess, either, that this is the woman who made local headlines for staging a hunger strike protesting predatory lending during the merger of NationsBank and Bank of America. Not until you talk politics with her, that is.
"Corporations run everything now," she declares, "and we have to find a way to bring power back to the people. If we don't, we'll end up right back where we were. We are setting ourselves up to repeat the Depression of the 1930s."
That's what scares Adams about Gore and Lieberman--especially the latter. "His support of insurance companies and corporations over the rights of people is a major concern for me. As an advocate who fights and wins for people through the court system, it concerns me when there's a man who feels there ought to be a cap on punitives. If you can't punish a corporation with a dollar, you can't punish a corporation."
But Adams, who came to the convention as a Bill Bradley delegate, sees even more to fear from the Republicans. It's the reason she's sticking with the Democrats this year despite her doubts, and it comes straight from her own political history.
"The day I turned 18, the first thing my mother did was take me to register to vote. Voting is such a privilege in our family. My aunt had to take literacy tests in order to vote. She was a very intelligent woman, but when it was her turn to take the test, she was asked to interpret Article 3 of the Constitution. And she failed.
"Those are the kinds of obstacles that we will face again. We have been where we are right now as African Americans. At this point in the last century, in the early 1900s, we had the greatest number of African-American congressmen and senators we've ever had. We had power, and it went away quick. We've had the vote and had it taken away from us before. We've had equal opportunity and had it ripped out from under us with Jim Crow laws. And this time we'll have it ripped out from under us if we let people reinterpret Civil Rights laws to our disadvantage.
"Nov. 7 might be a brighter day for the Republicans, but that would be a disaster for me. When George W. Bush says that his favorite Supreme Court justices are Thomas and Scalia, I have reason to fear."
But if the Democrats win, does she have reason to hope?
"I do. I do. I have reason to hope because Al Gore has been a part of this progress, this eight years of benefit to everybody, and he has a fundamental commitment to seeing that through and to building his own legacy as president.
"When I look at the issues that affect North Carolina, that affect my children and affect what I've spent my whole life doing, I have just one choice, and that's Gore-Lieberman. They are 95 percent of the way where I wanted to go."
That much, really?
Adams tilts her big hat sideways and fixes me with an arch look. "Well. I can push them where they need to go. I think so. If I'm anything, I'm relentless. I mean, we got some action on predatory lending, didn't we? There is a role to being constant in moral outrage, to keeping these issues out there and alive."
But Adams has decided to curb her moral outrage for a while--at least through November--and go all-out for Gore. So I ask her to give me her best pitch. How would she convince someone who plans to skip the election that they need to get out and vote for the Democrats?
This faithful member of White Rock Baptist Church does not hesitate. "If you look at the greatest leaders in history, they were all flawed. David was as flawed as Bill Clinton. David was chosen by God to build his nation, but he was not allowed to build his temple. So maybe Bill Clinton is here to build a foundation, and Al Gore is here to finish it off."
That's her best pitch?
"That's the only way I can think about it."
Soon after Adams makes her case for Gore, the Rev. Jesse Jackson mounts the podium to do the same--but not until he's brought the delegates to their feet by calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. It's one more thing this year's Democratic platform does not call for. But, like Adams, Jackson apparently has decided there's too much to fear from the Republicans to desert the Democrats. Winding up his oratory to fever pitch, he leads the party faithful in a rousing chant: "Keep out of the Bushes!"
Jackson is the first in a series of Old Democrats addressing the convention tonight. Sen. Ted Kennedy comes next, endorsing Gore before unleashing a passionate plea for universal health care--yet another plank missing from this year's platform. And then, while Stella Adams and others dream about what might have been, Bill Bradley strides onstage, modifying a famous line of Franklin Roosevelt's--"Tonight, nearly one-fifth of the children in this country are ill-fed, ill-housed and ill-educated"--and talking about the progressive things he would have done in Gore's place.
But even on this, the "slow night" of this convention, the Old Democrats aren't allowed to occupy prime time. After Bradley comes the keynote address, delivered by the newest of the New Democrats, 30-year-old Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee. "Imagine a debt-free economy so strong that everyone shares in the American Dream!" the youngest member of Congress proclaims. The delegates sit silent.
When I arrive for my lunch meeting with Mandy Carter, she's patiently trying to bring the daily meeting of the Democratic National Committee Gay and Lesbian Caucus to a close. It's been a full morning for the caucus and Carter, its amiable co-chair. Joe Lieberman showed up and promised to push for the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which would outlaw workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Then a tussle broke out--and still drags on--about how to get pink-triangled Gore-Lieberman signs into the convention hall for the evening's events.
Business as usual, really. But for Carter, a veteran activist and a Democratic delegate from Durham, this week in Los Angeles has presented a unique set of complications.
"I've been doing some soul-searching," she says with a frown when we finally sit down for lunch in an airy restaurant a few doors down. "Honestly, there's just times when I can't tell the difference between a Republican and a Democrat, because they believe in the same things." At least they seem to believe the same things about what Carter calls "the defining issue for me: How do you feel about capitalism? There's more than enough to go around; why do we have to have the haves and the have-nots?"
It's just the kind of question you might expect from somebody who spent 17 years working for the War Resisters League, in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Durham. And from somebody who grew up poor in Albany, N.Y., abandoned by her mother as a child and raised as a ward of the state for her first 18 years. And from somebody who entered Democratic politics as the organizer of N.C. Senate Vote '90, a grassroots group dedicated to toppling U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.
But how does somebody like Carter find a way to support Gore and Lieberman--two men who voted for the Gulf War and cheered on the dismantling of welfare?
She stays quiet for an unusually long time. "Um," she says, taking a bite of roast beef. "Um." She swallows. "Because Bush is not an option. Do you not vote? No vote is a Bush vote. A vote for Ralph Nader? Doesn't count."
She understands the temptation to turn away from the Democrats, though--or to take to the streets, as thousands of protesters have done this week, incurring the wrath (and rubber bullets) of the notorious Los Angeles Police Department. "I've been out to listen to the protesters a couple of times," Carter says. "They're losing me on substance and on style. By the time they get done yelling at you and screaming at you, you almost feel like an enemy. An enemy!
"I've been demonstrating for years, but Jesse Helms made me realize I needed to think about electoral work as well as street politics. I don't know how you make change without it. You can change hearts, yes--but what about the changing of minds and public policy?"
Accepting those kinds of political realities, Carter says, means "you compromise here, you compromise there--and then you compromise there. And sometimes it comes down to the lesser of two evils.
"But maybe I can work on Gore--that's what blacks are going to have to do, that's what women are going to have to do. Bottom line, for me? Supreme Court. If we don't go pull the lever, what do we get stuck with?"
Carter would much rather think about how to get unstuck. "I'd be very interested in working on a new system that would give us proportional representation, like they have in Europe. That just seems so much more fair. And campaign-finance reform is critical. That's why we're in the mess we're in. If we could do campaign-finance reform, we'd have a less-jaded system than what we've got. These two parties don't support it, though. Democrats don't want it, and Republicans don't want it. They're hypocrites when they say it."
Oh, and did I mention that Carter, a member of the Democratic National Committee, is about to head down to Florida to work on a three-month get-out-the-vote campaign for the NAACP? I can't help wondering, as I listen to her speak in such stark terms about the "two evils" of this election year, how she'll make the case to Floridians that they ought to go pull that lever.
"If they'll talk to me," she says, laughing. "Honestly, I have a feeling there'll be some people I can't convince at all. But the reality check is, 'Hello? It's the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. And where are you going to have your better options? The Democratic Party. That's it at this particular moment."
She pauses. "But talk to me four years from now, and I don't know where I'll be."
"Oh. My. God. I cannot believe I'm here. Would you mind taking my picture?"
Shannon hands me a skinny little camera and stretches a white-and-blue Gore pennant across her chest, clinching her teeth in an exaggerated smile. "Thank you so much--I couldn't exactly do that myself," she says laughingly as I hand the camera back.
Shannon is 18, a high-school senior from "Oh God--Colorado," already too media-savvy to give her last name to some strange reporter. She's come to L.A. for the summer as part of a youth program I can't quite get her to explain, even though she talks a mile a minute over the buzz of the Thursday-night crowd. "They told us we could come to the convention every night and I thought, neat, even though I'm not really into politics at all but the first three nights we got here and, no, we could not get in but for some reason tonight they let us right in and this is so cool. Isn't this cool?"
We've been wedged together on the floor of the Staples Center for a couple of minutes now, directly in front of the stage, where Tipper Gore's photo album is flashing across the massive video screen. I'd been trying to wend my way toward the North Carolina delegation, to see how Gore's acceptance speech would go over with the liberals, when the ubiquitous security guards started barking, "Don't move! Do not move!" and it became impossible to do anything but follow orders.
The blank round eyes of TV cameras stare over Shannon's shoulders and mine. The crush of people grows more and more intense. And soon we find out why: Al Gore is coming through.
We can't quite see him through the press of people, but up on screen the candidate is parting a sea of cheering delegates, high-fiving as he goes. It's a surprising entrance. But it's a perfect prelude to the speech we're about to hear.
On this final night, lo and behold, Al Gore's year of transformations--from Washington Al to Tennessee Al, from Laid-Back Internet Al to Attack-Dog Al--is about to take its most dramatic turn yet. Tonight, the co-creator of the DLC morphs into Old Democrat Al, the natural-born son of a rabble-rousing senator who considered the word "liberal" a mighty fine compliment.
Gone is Gore's tight-lipped push for fiscal responsibility. Gone is the emphasis on personal responsibility from the poor. Gone, too, are the words "New Democrat." And when Gore boasts about his vote in favor of the Gulf War, temporarily silencing the cheers, it's the exception rather than the rule. For the first time since 1984, a Democratic candidate for president looks square into the eyes of his party members and tells them what they want to hear--95 percent of the time.
Even Gore's legendary lack of levity works to his advantage. As he tells the sad-but-inspiring stories of some struggling middle Americans he's come to know, his eyes stay mercifully dry, registering a glint of what looks like genuine determination to do some good for the Malones and the Gutierrezes and the Nystels. And as he accepts the nomination "in the name of all the working families who are the strength and soul of America," his tottering candidacy suddenly seems to have found its purpose. The delegates literally shake the hall, stomping and screaming "Go Al Go!"
For somebody who's not into politics, Shannon sure is excited. She stomps and chants along with the rest, adding her own touch: When Gore makes a point she particularly appreciates, such as vowing to send campaign-finance reform to the Congress as his first act, she waves a freckly hand toward the podium, beauty-queen-on-float style. When a sourpuss cameraman behind us sneers, "He probably can't see you, you know," Shannon flushes bright red. But when Gore starts bashing "big tobacco, big oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, the HMOs," she's at it again, jumping and waving.
Gore's handlers have been talking all week about the fact that he drafted his own speech, and it shows. The style is tailored to the message, and to the messenger. There is not one silvery catch phrase in all 5,100 words--no city on a hill, no new frontier, no thousand points of light, no bridge to the 21st century. The plain-spokenness seems to suggest, to the John Wilsons and Stella Adamses of the party, that the "real Al Gore" has emerged at last. The Democrats, all of them, are cheering with their whole hearts by the time the vice president winds to a close. Shannon gets so carried away that she looks over at me and exclaims, "God, you know--I think I'll probably vote for him now!" as 200,000 red, white and blue balloons start to drift down from the rafters above.
Forty-five minutes later, after the pandemonium dies down, I finally make it to the North Carolina section. Tipper and Al have ridden off in triumph to a $5.2 million fundraiser starring Barbra Streisand and Enrique Iglesias. And the lone remaining Tar Heel is none other than Mandy Carter. She's picking her way through the stands, row by row, scavenging everything her fellow delegates have left behind--all the way down to the nametags on the seat backs.
"Oh, I promised some friends I'd bring home some souvenirs," Carter says. If she's at all abashed, it doesn't show. She bends to her work, filling up her bag of keepsakes. Tonight, at least, she is still a Democrat.
Bob Moser, former editor of The Independent, is a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.