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Harvard's Convention

Postcard from Boston

By Brian M. Goldsmith

BOSTON—Are we sure the FleetCenter isn’t in Harvard Square?

Headstrong about avoiding the I-banker/consultant pack and charting a more solitary course, I imagined my job—researcher/writer/latte-boy at NBC News—would mean new people and far-flung places.

Even at the Democratic convention, I thought: hours milling about the floor, tripping over balloons, beer with the delegate from Kansas who would tell me what the Bush administration’s done to hurt the wheat farmers. Without leaving the hall, I would have gone to Louisiana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Maine, everywhere I haven’t been. And I would have heard a different side of the story of America.

But on the way to the floor, there was the rising sophomore whose name I can’t remember, there was the guy I was in section with two years ago who wants to gossip about his ex-girlfriend (also working here), there was the former jogging buddy who needed to know: Were my credentials better than his?

I bumped into a friend obsessed with a party he couldn’t get into and wondering whether I had some connection. My dinner break was dominated by the news that an undergrad talked a movie star into bed hours after they met at a Creative Coalition fundraiser. The exit was clogged by people I knew without a press pass and trying to persuade the guard to let them in.

And right then, literally pushed out by a young volunteer, that delegate from Kansas came through, punished for drinking the beer I imagined the two of us would share.

The convention felt like Harvard, Harvard, everywhere, and nothing alcoholic to drink.

Many of my native species (Cantabridgius ante-professionalius ambitious) had fled our summer habitats in Washington and on Wall Street for cooler temperatures, and hotter klieg lights, closer to home. According to a spokesperson for Boston 2004, the city’s convention host committee, more than 400 Harvard students volunteered (I’m sure the Republicans will have a precise number for their convention). An Office of Career Services official, who—oddly—did not want to be named, said it was the first time in his memory that anything had rivaled financial services companies and Congressional offices for such a “large and concentrated group of undergraduates.”

We came, ostensibly, to serve, to cover, to protest the convention that would define one of the two men who will lead America in a perilous time. The issues the candidates are debating—budget deficits, health care costs and, most of all, the terrorist threat—will set the agenda not just for this election, but for years to come. And yet again, Harvard—despite our myriad political passions—seemed reluctant to look beyond itself.

President Clinton’s speech provoked a momentary stir—more a comparison of his style and that of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., though, than a serious discussion of the issues he raised. Teresa Heinz Kerry changed our focus, but I won’t pretend that her money, her Botox, and her almost laughably self-serious mien drew less attention than the substance, as such, of her Evita-like oration. John Kerry, with a salute and tough declarative prose, crossed the commander-in-chief threshold Thursday night and dominated the conversation for about the 30 minutes it took to leave the hall and try to sneak into a party down the street.

The game-changer came as a complete surprise—on “Black Tuesday,” so called because the networks decided there was nothing worth covering, not even for an hour, on the convention’s second night.

A little-known, but now very famous, state senator named Barack Obama electrified the crowd. Half black Nigerian, half white Kansan, from Chicago by way of New York and Hawaii, Obama was the convention’s keynote speaker—a distinction that meant middling reviews and continued obscurity for most of the politicians given the job. But with breathtaking confidence, breezy style and an earnest, resonant voice, the next U.S. senator from Illinois delivered the most powerful tribute to a political campaign in 20 years. Despite years battling the longest odds to make progress for inner city kids and struggling South Side neighborhoods, Obama explicitly rejected cynicism and embraced “the politics of hope.”

He managed to capture, in a brief speech, the promise of progressive politics and the magic of America. The man is impossible to caricature: he speaks just as strongly about God’s gifts and the limits of government as he does about America’s responsibility to lift workers out of poverty. Obama is an optimist despite setbacks, an intellectual with a common touch and a professional politician who can truly inspire.

At the end of his speech—“This country is...the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too”—my phone didn’t stop ringing. From all over—in the convention hall, scattered in homes across the country, even at Bush-Cheney headquarters in Arlington, Virginia—Harvard friends couldn’t stop talking, and questioning.

Who is this guy? Can he really win? Did he move you too?

That speech replaced my dream of wheat farmers from Kansas. Obama forced Harvard to change the subject.

Brian M. Goldsmith ’05, a government concentrator in Lowell House, is an editorial editor of The Crimson. He, too, believes that America has a place for him.

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