Democracy in America

From the Fresh-Up Lounge to the Frenetic Floor

There are occasionally novelties to divert the delegates. During the debate on federally-funded abortions, a few delegates grew tired of waving their "Vote Life" signs and decided to unfurl a 20-foot banner with a picture of a fetus and the legend "abortion is murder." The "pro-choice" campaigners in the area decided they didn't "have to stand still for that kind of shit," as one explained. So they jumped in front of the baby poster, blocking the view with their banners, which featured a picture of the Statue of Liberty. The battle continued for the entire 20 minutes the abortion vote took; finally, inevitably, the dead baby backers began to push and shove, and pretty soon pro-choice and pro-life were hammering away at each other. Each side accused the other of fascism; there was a good deal of loose talk about genocide and matrocide and Christianity. And when it was all over, pro-choice backers got to crow, when their side won the vote by a comfortable margin. More than likely, the sign would not have made much of a difference, but it's the thought that counts.

In short, the floor of the convention is not the hot spot one might expect. "I came here thinking I would be awed," Mary Ellen Preusser, a former Cambridge City Councilor and a Kennedy alternate, said as she watched the debate. "But so much of it is dull," she added, comparing the scene to the Cambridge City Council with an extra 3200 councilors. One reason for the boredom is that in most cases delegates don't even vote; unless they want to deviate from the Kennedy or Carter line, the delegation whip for each candidate simply casts their vote for them. "If the Carter person says 'Tom O'Neill can't vote, he's across the hall talking to someone,' then the Kennedy leader says, 'Sure, and how about Governor King?'" Massachusetts delegation aide Greg Jarboe explains. "They always manage to work it out," he adds, flashing the type of grin that marks people who like the game of politics very, very much.

But if TV exaggerates the excitement of some incidents, it also drains the emotion from the few hours in each gathering that are truly spirited. Ted Kennedy's supporters came to New York fueled by a deeper passion than the Carter backers; in the last few months, theirs had become a campaign of sad nobility disguised as issues.

The shouting begins when Joan Kennedy enters the hall; it is clear that the Kennedy forces want some preaching tonight. They are in no mood for deals--when Carter transportation secretary Neal Goldsmith announces that "compromise unity language is circulating on the floor," they boo. When Carter consumer affair representative Esther Peterson ends her defense of the Georgia presidency by yelling "Four more years," there are enough jeers to positively melt the heart of Rep. John B. Anderson (R-Ill.). And so, by the time Rep. Barbara McClusky (D-Md.) introduces Kennedy, they are ready. The orchestra plays "Macnamara's Band," the blue-and-white placards begin to wave, and the "magnificent example of grace, courage and valor" strides out on stage.

From the day the campaign began, Kennedy speeches featured miscues and bumbled phrases. To a Black audience he once decided to mimic Rep. Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.) and came off sounding like Steppin' Fetchit. At a girls' school in New Hampshire he led a confused audience in singing an off-key "Happy Birthday" to himself. Wherever he went, the answers to questions were filled with umms, ahs, and the sentences strung themselves out in endless, knotted ropes of words. But Tuesday night, once he had lost, once he had fumbled a lead that once seemed as solid as any in politics could be, Kennedy was ready to orate, to stretch his Boston accent and jut his jaw and preach the Good Word.


His speech, which the media powers that be quickly filed away under classic, drew on the fathers of Democratic liberalism--Ronald Reagan "has no right to quote the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt," Kennedy said to the biggest cheers of his address. Offering a "New Hope" where his brother had offered a "New Frontier," Kennedy moved beyond his standard economic line to evoke the image not only of a generation mired in economic misery, but also a "generation unsurpassed in its potential."

He would have been met with cheers had he read from the sports page of the Daily News, but Kennedy added to his welcome with the force of his speech. The delegates paid him tribute when, for the first time all week, they sat still and listened. And when he was done, they paid him tribute again with a demonstration that lasted 35 minutes. From the bottom of Madison Square Garden, the center court at a Knicks game to the cheap seats around the top, the blue-and-white signs flapped up and down, the delegates shouting "We want Ted." On the floor, the standard-bearers from "Kennedy corner," home of the Massachusetts, New Jersey and California entourages, began a slow march around the floor, carrying their signs, slapping hands, hugging as they went.

Carter patrons filled much of the spectators' gallery; they sat quietly, immobile as the demonstration surged. "Fucking Harvard snobs," one murmured. On the floor, a few southern delegates began a "Jim--Eeee Carter" chant, but before long it disappeared into the chorus of "We want Ted." Where television had benefited from its narrow, tight focus before, it now suffered; the power of the Kennedy backers was the most impressive on a grand scale. The only person in the hall able even to dampen the spirits of the demonstrators was the orchestra vocalist, a bald, leather-jacketed hybrid of Johnny Rotten and Guy Lombardo who forgot the words to "If I Had a Hammer," an error that by all accounts was quite welcome. In the end, it was almost anti-climactic that Kennedy won his platform battle; his real fight, with the party, with the bitterness of a year-long campaign that led nowhere slowly, was won in the tide of cheers that refused to die.

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