Democratic National Convention
(August 25, 1996)
If San Francisco has come to symbolize bohemian excess, and Manhattan a kind of gritty, in-your-face violence, Chi-cah-go - as they say it here with generous Midwestern vowels, symbolizes action. The City is decked out for the big party of the Democratic National Convention, and the convention center itself is decked out like a big, tiered cake iced in red, white, and blue. The mini-van driver from the airport, a sad eyed, voluble Rodney King look-alike, informs me that "ALL the money has been spent where the folks can see it."
"How much was spent on the South Side?", I ask, feeding him his straight line, since the South Side, as any good blues aficionado knows, is the heartland of black culture, the "Sweet home Chicago" that Little Junior Parker sung about with such aching purity.
"None", he answers, flat and hard as a back-beat and laughs and laughs. Later at my hotel, the Hilton which was the site of the '68 riots, I discover that the maps included in "official" information pamphlets in my room stop at 24th street. My driver has already informed me that "the South Side they don't want you to see gets going around 35th."
It is after 11pm when I arrive. A procession is walking through the Hilton lobby leaving a fête of some kind and apparently stealing the floral arrangements, because each person in line carries clusters of Birds of Paradise and Lilies. A bevy of sari'd Indian women glide by, kohled eyes regarding me suspiciously, followed by slender men in Nehru jackets who appear uneasy as well, perhaps nervous that I'm considering the jewelry that gilds exotically ears, necks, and arms of the women.
People are talking, in intense twos and threes everywhere, with the kind of forehead-forward, scan-the-room-while listening intensity endemic to political life and celebrity ogling. Security is everywhere, uptight as Coldstream guards, but less glamorous in black pants and white shirts, scoping the lobby for potential trouble.
I meet Martha Whetstone, the woman who got me into all this. Martha is a woman fueled by no known energy source who never forgets a name, laughs like a string of Chinese fire-crackers going off, and is relentlessly dedicated to the well-being and success of her friend and boss, Bill Clinton. She's from Arkansas, an intimate of the President's; his "person" in Northern California. She talks like a hick, thinks like a Keno dealer, and her sweet eyes have a sadness behind them that suggests that if the action ever stopped for too long she might find herself confronting a dangerous abyss.
We've become friends since she tracked me by phone to a Paris apartment and ear-wrestled me to the ground; refusing all my protestations about not wanting to be a delegate: that my politics were too radical; that I was not sure that President Clinton had a THERE there. I thrashed about like a fish on a line, while she reeled me in, having baiting her hook with delectables like access; secret looks at the inside (all virtually meaningless outside of $100,000 contributions I learned later) and most successfully, old-fashioned notions of commitment and participation. By the time our conversation had ended, my girl-friend was coffee-ed out of her mind, pacing the apartment restlessly, and Martha and I were buddies.
We meet in the Hilton bar to review our impossible schedule. Every morning a delegate breakfast will marshal the troops and then we must receive our credentials, without which we will be denied admittance to the convention floor.
The first day there is an Arkansas brunch where Hillary is supposed to show; a Tom Hayden event where my pal Bonnie Raitt is performing; Gore and the Israeli's at 4, Liz Carpenter (LBJ's ex -press secretary) is throwing a bash from 6-8:00. After which there's a California Party at the Mercantile exchange and then The Blue-Jeans Bash, "lots of major people'll be there". And this is Sunday's schedule! In short order, Martha relates an equal number of events for every other day. I realize that Martha speaks about our consecutive order of appearance and not an absolute chronology, since according to her schedule we are to appear at simultaneous events. When I point this out to Martha, she reveals the deep inside secret of time management, "Major flitting!"
At a certain point, I ask the question that has been haunting me for weeks. "What do we DO as delegates?" Martha laughs, laughs again, and laughs some more.
"You've been asking me that question since the first call", she says. "I've diverted your attention, skillfully I might add. You hang out, go to parties, you talk to an awful lot of people. At some point you may have to cast a vote or two, and look good for the television cameras."
"What do we vote on?", I ask.
"You just ratify the platform, and Clinton's nomination or something." (At this point I had not even seen the platform and never did not until reading it in the Congressional Journal on the return trip home to San Francisco)
"I mean I don't have to get up and say something stupid like, `From the Fabulous State that brought you the Sixties, Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll..."
Martha laughs again. "Hell no, honey. They'll be knocking each other over to get at that microphone."
There are other events on my agenda Martha knows nothing about. On Tuesday I plan to attend the UNCONVENTION, an alternate assembly convened by Senator Bill Bradley and Clarence Wood, President of the Human Relations Foundation of Chicago to discuss "Race and The Creative Imagination". The conference has two major premises: " to advance racial healing in America, and novelists and playwrights, because they create characters of another race, have to look deeper into themselves on the subject" The purpose is to move the national dialogue on race to a deeper, more creative level. Participants include: Toni Morrison, Richard Ford, and Cornel West.
After that, I inform Martha that I'm dragging her to the apartment of old friends, ex-Weathermen, Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, hosting a party for Senator Leahy. Perhaps Edward Said will be there I urge her to come by promising that the event will push the edges of the envelope of her centrist politics.
Compounding scheduling problems, friend Carol Travis, daughter of famous Chicago union organizer Bud Travis, and herself an ex- president of UAW local 719 and currently regional director of the Central State Service Employees Union calls first thing this morning (Sunday) to inform me about a pending demonstration. Two thousand Latinos are hitting the streets without a parade permit, protesting public health policies, and demanding police monitors, labor law reform, quality public and bi-lingual education for all immigrant children; faster citizenship processing and extended amnesty eligibility date. We make plans to meet later, and she is off to drive someone to the demonstration.
I'm interested in meeting the renegade Democrats who voted against the moratorium on mining patents. The short story is that since 1994 the government has sold the rights to mine about 15.8 billion dollars worth of national wealth to various mining interests for about 13 thousand dollars. There are curious tax breaks allowed for mining interests, called the percentage depletion allowance which allows them to deduct 12 or 22 percent of their annual gross, even after the mines are paid for.
Some legislators have been trying to revise this legislation recently, but resistance has been so high, that they were only able to place a moratorium on NEW mining patents. That moratorium ends in Sept. and a vote taken to end it permanently was championed by Republicans, and split mostly along party lines. However, Daniel Inouye, Gary Condit of California, Brewster of Oklahoma, Ralph Hall, Gregg Laughlin and Charles Wilson of Texas, Billy Tauzin of Louisiana and Allan Mollohan of West Virginia all voted with the Republicans and I am curious to meet some of them and find out why.
The bar at the hotel resembles a Nebraska feed-lot. People are jammed drink to drink and the discourse (all extremely confidential) appears to be conducted at the highest possible volume. It's a great place to eavesdrop. Kathleen Connell the red-haired comptroller of California, running for Governor against Gray Davis, seems to be a favorite target.
"She's the coldest human being I've ever met", says a definitive woman in a beige suit, "She's reptilian. I wouldn't even give her mammal status."
A man who used to work for her claims she actually said to him, "Oh my God, I'm beautiful. I'm rich. I'm smart. I have a fabulous family. I'm slim and I dress exceedingly well and I have great clothes, now why don't people like me?"
Further listening with the back of my head reveals that Diane Feinstein and Gray Davis are an item on the hate-one-another dance ticket. They competed for the Senate in `93, and Diane has never forgiven Gray's TV ads comparing her to Leona Helmsley and depicting her with prison bars across her face.
Diane and Willie Brown are also running on the hate-your-ass ticket, I'm told, because Feinstein supported Frank Jordan against Willie in the San Francisco Mayor's race. "Well Willie waited so long to declare", a short woman with explosive hair opines in justification, "Diane had committed long before."
"So why would Willie Brown hold that against her?", a thin man smoking a cigar inquires.
The woman cocks an eyebrow and snorts. "Do you know Willie?" she says.
It is now 11:00 PM and I have just returned to my room with a tape cassette recorder filled with quotes, names and titles and story notes. I am limper than a used Kleenex and realize that the political class rules simply because they can talk and party longer than anyone else. I have attended five different events today, each categorically different than the last. A quick review is in order.
Left the hotel early this morning with Jack and Kay Theimer and Martha Whetstone. Jack is a wealthy Oklahoma real estate man who built the Colorado ski resort called Beaver Creek in Colorado. I'm told that he is a favorite of Clinton's, as a golf partner. He's a bluff, ebullient fellow, who leapt up from the breakfast table and changed his clothes to mimic mine just before we left, calling me his "style conscience." Kay, his wife, is a psychologist who usually maintains a reserved, good-humored and ironic silence. We had just snared a cab, when a panicked Alfre Woodard, peerless actress and good friend, ran out of the hotel, gave me a hug and ran away like the Mad Hatter mumbling that she was late.
Our first stop was the Arkansas Delegation breakfast at a Café in the Chicago Zoo. We entered a large open, sunny room. A string quartet was playing; crustless cucumber and tuna-fish sandwiches were arrayed around the bar, and the room was amply populated with good-humored folk munching the freebies, quaffing white wine and chatting one another up. The ambiance was warm, but within a few minutes, it became clear that I had been sacrificed to the God of Big-haired women by Martha Whetstone, who stepped back, bemused, as one after another bouffant Arkansan corralled me to have their picture taken. The fate of Arkansas politics is obviously in the hand of people who watch too much late night TV or make too many trips to the video store. Still they were direct and friendly, "Could I have a picture with yew?", and being appreciated is a damn sight finer than a kick in the head. Martha cackled and brayed; claimed her stock was going up by knowing me.
Delegates were warm and gregarious, teased one another liberally, hollered and waved across the room to newcomers, drank lots of wine and chatted as if they had not seen one another in years, when apparently they see one another often. The convention seemed to be just an extension of their intentions to have a good time.
Suddenly, on some invisible signal, every single person in the room crouched and began to chant "SSSSSSOOOOOOOOO PIG SOOOOOEY; SOOOOOOOO PIG SOOOOOEY; SSOOOOOO PIG SOOOOOEY. GO RAZORBACKS!" and cheered. In an instant they had reverted to being normal people again. It was startling, like catching someone making bizarre faces at themselves in the mirror. Adopting my best anthropological neutrality, I questioned Martha about this and she explained that any time two or more Arkansans find themselves in the same room, this ritual occurs.
I met State and Federal politicos; munched tuna fish with campaign contributors and various committee members, each and every one of whom seemed determined to have their picture taken with me. I meet a woman whom Martha describes as "the wildest woman I know" and "THE powerhouse" in Arkansas politics. She recalls a poignant moment on Clinton's inauguration night, watching her closest friends, Clinton and the people who served him, and realizing that they were about to "step through the looking glass." They were not only moments away from being gone from her life, but also having their own lives changed irreparably. She wheeled, left the party suddenly, went home, and "wept for four days."
" And it was true", she adds sadly as a postscript. "These dear, wonderful people. Now, four years later I can see them again, but everything is different. They were ripped out of my life."
Mel French, a handsome silvery blonde woman in a bright red tailored jacket appears and is introduced to me as the Deputy Chief of Protocol for the State Department. Protocol is something which has always fascinated me as the quantification of status differentials and in response to my query, she briefs me in interesting detail on the problems and complexities of seating world leaders and domestic politicos. Her department is also responsible for all official gifts given by the President and vice-president and for customs procedures for foreign dignitaries. She is in the process of trying to commit much of her work to print as an inheritance for those who will follow her.
We leave the Arkansas breakfast and take a cab to the Arie Theater where Tom Hayden has arranged what is nearly an alternative convention entitled Return to Chicago. It is to commemorate and mark the continuity of struggle of those who were outside the Hilton in 1968. Backstage at the Arie I re-meet Alfre and discover that she is the m.c. for the event; and the panic of our meeting outside the Hilton had been due to her being late and having to borrow money for cabfare. Her husband Roderick Spencer, an angular, handsome man whose personality seems comprised of equal parts elegant manners and sardonic, dry-martini wit, is producing a film about Tom Hayden with cinematographer Gary Rhine, a fellow who made a documentary film about the Native American peyote church I narrated. Guests and performers at the event included: Mayor Daley (the younger - forgiveness only extends so far), Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Jackson Brown, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation Magazine (one of the event's sponsors), John Trudell, Sioux poet and friend since 1989 when I produced a benefit concert for imprisoned Sioux leader Leonard Peltier. Victor Navansky, publisher of The Nation, joined Studs Terkel, Dolores Huerta of the Farmworkers Union, Senator Paul Simon and Norman Mailer on the rostrum. Barbara Williams, wife of Tom Hayden ran out of her dressing room and embraced me. We met when she was living with Nick Mancuso, my co-star in a film called Heartbreakers, and became close friends. She's a talented singer and songwriter and I was happy to see her performing again, after some years in Nick's shadow. Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke as did Bela Abzug, and then Bonnie Raitt did a few numbers and brought on Steven Stills and Graham Nash, and a tall slender black man whose name I never managed to discern. They joined her in recreating a fresh and very alive version of the CSN chestnut, "For What It's Worth" ("Stop children, what's that sound? Everybody look what's going down.").
Tom Hayden gave a moving speech about his reconciliation with his father, and watching him on stage, sage, older, tireless fighter that he is, I let go of old grudges dating back to 1968, when the Diggers and Abbie Hoffman (one of the Chicago Seven) fought vociferously about the planned demonstration. The Diggers (my team) felt that it was manipulative to invite kids to get their heads beat in Chicago, knowing full well there were no park permits or bands as advertised. It appeared as manipulative as anything President Johnson was doing to further his agenda pursuing the war. Abbie argued equally vociferously that it was a media event that would "change the consciousness of the nation." In fact, it did not change the consciousness of the nation, but did serve as a common frame of reference, a watershed referred to by most convention attendees this year who addressed it as if it had more import for them than for me. I had harbored a small residue of resentment for the demonstration organizers since the that time, but today, twenty-eight years later, it appears minuscule before the overwhelming fact that we have all been out there TOGETHER, opposing pernicious government policies - fighting for a vision of a more moral, more generous, more inclusive America. Though we may have disagreed about strategy and ideology, the larger, more important fact, was that we have all been out there, together, each in our own way putting our personal lives behind our visions.
After Tom, ex-gang member Luis Rodrigues, read a chilling section from his book, and then the greatest choir I ever heard called Soul Children, about thirty five black children ranging in age from eight to late teens, performed with breathtaking virtuosity, shifting rhythms and modulating keys as if they were one voice.
Backstage, a collection of nearly every battle-scarred, veteran of progressive causes I had met over the years, talked shop, caught up, commiserated and swapped tales. John Trudell, perennially sad and weathered, appears to be in constant mourning for his wife and children burned to death in an early-morning arson attack at his home on the reservation after John burned an American flag on the steps of the Capitol during the Native Americans' Long March on Washington. Vern Bellencourt, another Native American warrior, had driven in from Minnesota. Studs Terkel sat backstage, deaf as a post, but charming and sweet as ever, unrepentant about his outspoken views, unbeaten and unfailingly gracious. There was time only for a few celebratory hugs and quick hellos before cinematographer Haskell Wexler, grabbed me for an on-camera interview. Years ago his exploratory notes for a film with the Diggers became the movie Medium Cool and we had remained on good terms since that time. I took the opportunity to say to his camera what I just wrote about Tom Hayden, and felt lightened by having committed it public utterance.
From the Concert, I bus back to the hotel, change clothes, and travel by cab to the swank and prestigious Chicago Club, where Liz Carpenter, ex press secretary to LBJ (and mother of my fellow California delegate Christy Carpenter) is co-hosting a party for friends. It is a clubby atmosphere, though a bit stilted and repressed after the Hayden event. Tufted leather couches line the wood-paneled walls; heavy carved tables support a bounty of hors d'ouevres and wine. Speakers are invited to come to the microphone and recount political stories, and I listed to one or two and, having no idea who most of the players are, retire to the edge of the room.
Afterwards, I am introduced to Liz herself, a short, plump woman, crippled by age, dressed in a scarlet dress and covered with rhinestones or diamonds. She is clutching a clear Lucite cane wrapped in gold ribbon.( I learn later she has a different one to match each dress.) She peers out from within the puffy flesh age has draped on her face, with a consciousness undimmed by weakness or sentiment. She has an obdurate refusal to be set aside and I find myself magnetized to her and pulling up a chair to chat.
Our conversation over, I look around the room, ready to leave and spot a stunning woman in her late forties, dressed in a tight, sequined white sheath and extravagant wide-brimmed white hat entering the hall as if from another age. She has fabulous cheekbones, abundant sexual presence, and a large jeweled spider fixed to the shoulder of her short, fitted, white jacket. I strike up a conversation, hoping to fend off boredom, and unwittingly enter one of the more bizarre random conversations of my life.
Her name is Bonny Swearingen and after some casual conversation about Texas, and a friend we had in common there, she curtailed the genealogical discussions so common to Texans, (Well now, his momma was a Bass...) and informed me that she was really from a "little old nowhere town in Alabama." Without a hitch she offered that she is currently marrried to John E. Swearingen, CEO, or President or Poobah of Standard Oil. "I used to be married to Oscar Wyatt," she tells me, assuming I know who that is. (I learn later that he is one of the richest, independent oilmen in the country whose son was caught naked with Fergie).
"They used to say it was impossible to go from the minors to the majors, but I did it", she says, with equal parts smugness and pride. "I married the richest independent oil man [Oscar, I presumed] and then went on to the head of Standard Oil. Now," she offers conspiratorially, "I'm looking around for number three."
I picked up the thread of the joke and I suggested Giscard D'Estaing, ex-President of France, known to have bought a fortune in gems with State money, but she dismissed him as a "has-been". "It's hard", she offered, as if I were also a professional shopper of husbands. "We have that little piss-ant president, who's too young and too stupid, and not rich enough," (just in case I confused her for a Democrat) "and Bob Dole who's not rich enough either. What's a girl to do?"
When I suggested perhaps an Arab sheik, she sniffed grandly and informed me, "I don't do Arabs," but in a tone of voice which also insinuated that not much else was out of the question.
She mentioned having spied the Aga Khan a day or so previously and thought that he might be suitable, but a bit pudgy. When I reminded her that he is offered his weight in gold as tribute every year, she never missed a beat, and regarding me with a perfect comedic deadpan, said, "I love pudgy."
A very handsome and honestly charming young actor worked his way into the conversation and she appraised his physique expertly before asking him where he was from. When he said, "Texas", she smiled provocatively and purred, "Mmmm, I've done a lot of Texans."
Handsome left and I fingered the jeweled spider on her shoulder and teasing, said, "And I thought this was only for decoration."
"Silly boy," she hissed and laughed. (Was the tongue that flicked across her lips forked or was I becoming delusional?).
She brought me across the room to meet her husband who was wedged in a chair by the corner. He appeared to be either forty years older than she or quite ill. His jaw was slack as if he were having difficulty breathing, and I could not stop myself from imagining ol' Bonny assessing the general state of his health before climbing into bed every night to do her best to perform a Nelson Rockefeller on him.
When she asked for one of his cards to give me, he croaked, "Why?" Then turned and asked me directly why I wanted it. I quipped that I wanted to give it to some Arab oil friends and while he labored to free his wallet from where it was imprisoned between his butt and the leather chair which fit it like a Denver Boot, he confided, "that was okay. I just didn't want any of my Republican friends to see it and think I was switching parties."
Feeling that Bonny might well be the high point of the night (if not the convention) I left for the California Delegates party at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, where futures in all kinds of currencies and indexes, hog-bellies and soy beans are bought and sold, hedged and arbitraged.
It is a large room the size of a major basketball stadium, surrounded with illuminated electronic signs flashing indexes and lists. The high tech rubber matting floor must have been designed to protect the computers from static electricity and every available inch of floor space was divided into rows of consoles crammed with phones and terminals. I am introduced to the Exchange's Directors and am surprised at how physically vigorous they appear; tough, immaculately groomed, streetwise guys in their early-to-mid fifties, work-out muscular, with bodyguards and a definite wise-guy edge. The room was hard and the vibes in it were hard, with none of the softer, more decorous aristo-crazonie dissembling of the New York Stock Market.
Martha Whetstone and I weave our way through the crowd, meeting delegates and shaking hands. A party big-wig, who for obvious reasons must remain nameless, informs me that, "The only truth in politics is that everyone lies." I'm photographed, autographed, plied, flattered and wheedled constantly, and Martha could not be happier, since in this world she will be given credit for delivering me to the convention. Knowing my own cranky irritability, I feel a pang of guilt for her and wonder if her status will be drastically altered if my notes on the convention should turn out to be unflattering to the Clintons.
An attractive young woman from U.S. News and World Report interviews me, smiling cynically and disbelievingly at my expressed interest in finance reform. She is pretty, with soft brown hair and large expressive eyes, but in context appears to me as another of those beauties who market their goods to the highest bidders. (So often they seem to be Republicans. Diane Sawyer working for Richard Nixon comes to mind.) She asks me repeatedly if I think that "Democrats can accomplish change", and I'm a tad over-aggressive in my responses, perhaps because I am addressing U.S. News and World Report and know with whom I'm having the pleasure. After she leaves, I am piqued at myself for this lapse, and resolve to do better.
I meet the Petrocelli's who own Book Passage my bookstore in far-off Corte Madera, California. She is a delegate and her husband is along for the fun. I tell Paul Pelosi and his wife, Congresswoman Nancy, stories about Bonnie Swearingen, dramatizing them to be entertaining and solidifying the memory to write about later.
More rounds, more introductions and then we're out the door to the Navy Pier for the Blue Jeans Bash, a party thrown by the same folk who threw the inauguration party in Arkansas for Clinton four years ago. The Navy Pier is a public strip along the lakefront filled with concessions, food stands, boat rides, and memento shops. People clot and cluster peaceably in the balmy night, and as Martha and I saunter toward the Grand Ballroom I get a curious sense that the whole world is the convention; that each and every soul; the black kids in their basketball jerseys; the overweight older women puffing Virginia Slims; the eager delegates, the tired babies, the necking lovers, are linked either intimately or remotely to this event. If we were only able to distinguish the joints and angles of linkage in the overall structure, we could comprehend that it is truly one vast, indissoluble skein and perhaps our relationship to it as political people might be simultaneously chastened and more responsible. Tonight, for the length of the walk at least, it feels as if this knowledge of interdependence is a small kernel lodged under everyone's skin and the world feels unaccountably peaceful, and theoretically, the convention appears to be the mechanism for expressing those "6 Degrees of separation."
The Grand Ballroom is just that. We're issued VIP cards and sent upstairs to gorge on barbecue. The Koko Taylor Blues band is creating a roar impenetrable by conversation, but somehow I manage an enjoyable interchange with Dave and Joan Barram. Dave, previous number two man at Apple Computers, is now a cabinet member given the critical but totally unglamorous job of running the General Services Administration in charge of all real estate; furniture, cars, supplies, and telecommunications for the United states Government - the largest employer on earth.
Dave has initiated the restructuring of this department so that it function like a private business. He has inspired the employees to compete with the private sector and believe they can compete effectively, guaranteeing customers, "If we can't do it cheaper and better, go somewhere else." He is heartened by the way that his staff has struggled to learn skills necessary to survive in the new economy. He has a pleasant, manly, face that resembles Ted Turner; has made his money. One senses in him a man who wants to serve; to do a good job and pay something back. I admit to him that I am moved by his determination and effort and wish that the public knew more about it, because it might change their estimation of government bureaucracy and government employees to hear his story.
By the end of our conversation, it is past midnight and I am woozy with exhaustion and return to the hotel. I discover that the mini-recorder on which I have taken all my notes, is hopelessly frozen. I resolve to use a pad and pencil tomorrow and slog through today's menu of introductions and events as best as I can from memory. I begin tomorrow at 7:30, and as I review my schedule for the coming day I am already afraid.
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