BOSTON -- Rev. Jesse Jackson had a tough act to follow when he addressed the Take Back America "shadow convention" Thursday afternoon. It was at this same clandestine conference earlier in the week that Howard Dean got all worked up. Dean charged that the Bush administration "cares more about burning books than reading books."
"You can't call the president a fascist," he added later. "We're not trying to do that, this week, anyway."
Jackson is no slouch, though, and he managed to bring the crowd of 500 to their feet with a laundry list of famous liberals and conservatives.
"Herod was a conservative," Jackson thundered. "Jesus was a liberal. The slave master was a conservative. The abolitionist was a liberal. Those who denied women the right to vote were conservatives. Those who gave them that right were liberals."
But Jackson was not done, and the further he waded into the fever swamps of conspiracy theories, the louder the crowd shouted. "Preach!" they shouted when he claimed the election was stolen. "Give it to em' Rev.!" they brayed when he claimed the election process in America was as corrupt as in Afghanistan and Iraq. "The truth!" they strained in chorus when he told them Dick Cheney might have a plan to cancel the election and seize power.
And then he hushed the crowd to let them know that he was about to drop the big one.
"What if they do have bin Laden locked up...and are planning to bring him out right around Halloween time," Jackson posited. "Absurd? I am not convinced. I am supposed to believe the best military with all that sophisticated technology cannot find several men with food and medical supplies? I am not convinced."
"Absurd?" he asked the crowd.
"No!" they thundered back.
I saw Jackson six times over the last four days, always accompanied by an enormous security detail, but the first time I observed people actually excited to see him was at the "shadow convention." Here he was treated as a demigod, though it wasn't readily apparent as to why.
For example, at one point Jackson promised to explain from whence progressive power emanated. After a long pause, he began: Progressive power without diversity, he said, was, "the arrow without, uh, the feathers, and the um...What's that long stick called?"
"The shaft!" someone yelled.
"You're right," Jackson said, as if it had been a quiz. Isn't this the kind of stuff these folks are always making fun of Bush over? On my way into the convention I was handed a calendar published by the American Prospect that collects the clumsy verbiage of George. W. Bush. But it was genius when Jackson said, "Some progressives have the arrowhead, but no shaft. No power. No THRUST!"
And though Jackson claims his liberalism flows from to his dedication to Jesus Christ, he must have missed those Sunday school classes that dealt with humility. After spending 15 minutes talking about how integral his 1984 presidential run was to bringing diversity into American politics, Jackson actually took credit for inspiring Barack Obama to run for office. The Rev. seems to believe he is the wellspring from which all useful black American things arise. And he clearly wants his worshippers to follow his lead.
"If John Kerry came out tonight with no voice and no front teeth, but said he'd appoint a civilized Supreme Court, that's enough for me," Jackson said. "I'll vote for him."
With that he barreled off the stage, and the moderator of the next panel began to speak. But Jackson appeared again in the middle of the crowd, spotlight shining down on him.
"Y'all probably wondering why I'm out here," Jackson said. "I wanted everyone to see how much weight I've lost. I have not been working out. I'm on the South Beach Diet. Low carb is the way to go, my friends."
We Want a Shrubbery!
Before the Environment Votes 2004 rally yesterday morning, I ran into a group of folks calling themselves United Shrubs of America. They were selling small bushes and passing out postcards with messages from the plants that read: "There are millions of us, and every one is a patriotic, law-abiding resident of this great land. Normally we're quite easygoing houseplants. But this year we just can't sit around in our pots and be silent. The guy you didn't actually elect as president, who likes to call himself a BUSH, well, he's really bad for a plant's health."
I stood there for a couple minutes before I realized I was standing next to Janet Reno. Apparently the former Attorney General was as taken in by these shrubs as I was. There was no word on how shrubs fared in that ill-fated raid in Texas a few years back.
The speaker who drew the loudest applause was director Rob "Meathead" Reiner, who started off by explaining how his movie The American President influenced Bill Clinton's environmental policy.
"Clinton loved that film," Reiner bragged. "His staff didn't want him to watch it when he was campaigning because he'd get too revved up."
Reiner also patted himself on the back for his performance four years ago in a debate with our own Ben Stein. Reiner told the crowd that he had advocated "intellectual curiosity" as an admirable presidential trait, while Stein had pushed something along the lines of, "Who cares if Bush is stupid if he has good advisers?"
After comparing environmental decay to terrorism, Reiner paused before getting all mushy on the crowd: "The two things I care most about are the environment and young children. In the end that is all we have. If we don't have those two things, then all these issues we wrestle with don't really matter."
The logic is there. Without a public there can be no public policy. But is any candidate for office arguing for the destruction of "young children"? I mean, besides the pro-abortion party he's stumping for?
The true lunatic of the proceedings -- who jumps to the head of a queue that includes former EPA head Carol Browner, Rep. Mark Udall, and New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer -- was clearly Bobby Kennedy Jr., who started off by calling George W. Bush "the biggest threat to the environment," putting him above global warming and acid rain. Bobby also said that Bush looked at the environment as a "business in liquidation," which constitutes "a kind of treason."
"If even a fraction of this administration's proposals get through, one year from now there will be effectively no federal environmental law in this country," he said. "This is not exaggeration. This is not hyperbole. This is fact." All of this amounted to a "science fiction nightmare" about to spring to life.
Kennedy flailed, repeated himself, lost his voice twice, and showed absolutely none of the poise and charm that are the hallmarks of his family. There he was bang, bang, banging on the podium, looking wild-eyed out into the crowd, which incidentally was giving every other line a standing ovation, so happy to take the worst possible forecast for the future of mankind at face value.
The Stupid Party
"What's the convention really like?" readers keep asking me.
Let me put it this way: Whatever you're doing right now is likely ten times as interesting, if you're an accountant. Imagine 400 three minute speeches, all covering the same few topics. Healthcare: A right not a privilege; Bush squandered goodwill after 9/11; Clinton surpluses are now Bush deficits; We need allies to respect us; John Kerry went to Vietnam; Vietnam; Vietnam.
My brain is literally numb. I wonder what these speakers are thinking about when they're up there. I wonder how the guy who goes on at 4p.m. on Thursday and repeats the same lines everyone else has already beaten into the ground all week can do it.
There is no sign of embarrassment or lack of energy. Each speaker throws herself into the Kerry-approved litany of bland, general complaints without any real teeth. They've got to win over Middle America, you know.
Everyone out there in TV land wonders why Al Sharpton was so well received. Here's the secret: He's the only guy who got off script during this entire ordeal.
So, folks, here's the answer to your question: The 2004 Democratic Convention is an endurance test for people who have any capacity for boredom. In fact, I'm filing late Thursday before the primetime programming gets underway. I think I'll skip John Kerry's speech tonight and go watch the anarchists burn something instead.
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