Faces of the Party

McCain’s a portrait…Obama’s a mural.”

So rapped, leader of the Black Eyed Peas, as he bounced across the stage in a tent outside of the Colorado Convention Center early Friday morning, hours after Barack Obama delivered his keynote speech to a crowd of over 80,000—including me—at Denver’s Invesco Field.

That sentiment, seemingly an allusion to the breadth and complexity of the Democratic candidate and the party he represents, cut to the heart of the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

As many have noted, the convention was incredibly diverse. In fact, more African Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, Native Americans, persons with disabilities, gays and lesbians participated in the historic events in Denver than have ever attended a Democratic convention before.

Some people call conventions mere pomp and pageantry, a time for the good old boys to wring hands, pat each other’s backs, and schmooze with each other before attending a superficial exercise to nominate a candidate who has already won the primaries. But that’s not what I saw. What I saw—all the way from an incredible portrait exhibit in the daytime convention center, where every issue group imaginable caucused each day, to my seat in a club space at Invesco Field—was a party comprised of incredibly varied and complex individuals.

At the convention I participated in a project that captured photographic portraits of convention attendees, from average delegates to major politicians and celebrities. Called “Faces of 2008: art(IM)possible,” the project aimed to display the reality that none of us is defined by a single characteristic. With over one hundred images, this project reinforced the usefulness of the convention as a place to see and understand the incredible variety of people who compose the Democratic Party today. This tangible evidence ranged from portraits of John Lewis, a congressman and leader of the Civil Rights Movement; to delegate Bill Walsh, a former casino owner, cowboy, and catholic priest from South Dakota; to a Laotian couple who married in the United States but grew up hiding in the jungle and living in refugee camps before emigrating to America. Portraits also included a famous musician, several Hollywood actors, a Puerto Rican delegate, a farmer from Nebraska with a PhD from Yale, and a gay former Republican operative ousted from his party and now working for Obama. Never before has the Democratic Party stood for so many—and so many at once.

The diverse reality that “Faces of 2008” captured is a new reality for the United States, and the Democratic Party is changing in lockstep. The year 2000 marked the first time that US census respondents could identify themselves as being multiple races. The changing nature of identity in America is manifested in both the Democratic frontrunner and, more importantly, by the party supporting him. True, Obama is the hardest Democratic candidate to define in history. By some measures, Obama is white and black, rich and poor, at home in elite institutions and on the streets of the South Side of Chicago. But the real importance of Obama’s candidacy is the incredible base of support that gave it rise. At the Democratic Convention, that base was on show, and its diversity and uniqueness proved that the Democratic Party, from the top of the ticket on down, represents real American people.

The evening of August 28th, 2008, is already being called one of the largest political rallies in American history, not to mention the reach of its broadcast. On television, more Americans tuned in for Obama’s speech than did for the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, aired just a few weeks earlier. Obama and the Democratic Party represent, both literally and figuratively, a party that looks like, acts like, and identifies with the true complexity of Americans today.

Robert G. King ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Winthrop House. He attended the Democratic National Convention in August as a production associate for “Faces of 2008: art (IM)possible.” He is an assistant director for Harvard Students For Barack Obama.