Through the Back Door
The fortress of Charlotte is by now dismantled. Concerns about the weather had moved Thursday night’s speeches from the Bank of America Stadium back to the Time Warner Cable Arena, a discrepancy of about 50,000 seats. It did rain on Thursday, but only a brief thundering downpour in the afternoon. After the skies cleared, I set off for the convention centre. I’d taken to stopping at the protest encampment at Marshall Park on the way in and on the way home. I’d heard a lot about Bradley Manning, about the iniquities of the old nativist AFL, and about the pro-war corporate pawn FDR. There was mention of the Rothschilds and even a bit of 9/11 ‘truth’.
There were fifty tents around an artificial creek. A concrete bridge led to the kitchen. A man pointed out that unlike other occupations, this one had no library. ‘I’m more libertarian than these folks. If I had any Hayek books I’d bring ’em and see what they thought.’ There was a wall posted with poems and a protest schedule, a pile of cough drops, vitamins, shampoo, band-aids and deodorant, and a power station for recharging batteries and wifi. In the afternoons, the occupiers would be writing and drawing in notebooks or playing the guitar.
On Thursday night, up the hill on College Street, the usual crowd of delegates, protesters, journalists, donors and players was overwhelmed by a horde of local Obama volunteers, displaced from their seats in the stadium and relegated to watching the president’s speech on one of the many big screens that had been put up around the place. Lots of people made offers to scalp my credentials, including a man who urged me to read his self-published synthesis of Nietzsche, Christ, Vonnegut and Groucho Marx. I got caught up in an off-the-record conversation with a financial regulator, then made for the arena, hoping to catch Caroline Kennedy at 8 p.m., if not the Foo Fighters before her.
An event staffer told me that the secret service had shut down the perimeter shortly after I entered: ‘You can’t get in now if you’re not a senator, a congressman or a pretty actress.’ Scarlett Johansson was on one of the arena’s exterior screens urging the younger generation to register to vote. A line of about fifty people had formed outside the arena, and word was the fire marshal was worried the venue’s capacity had been reached, and a head count was being taken. (They’d been saying the same thing the night before when in fact Obama was entering the premises, and the secret service had temporarily shut the gates.) We waited through the Foo Fighters, another actress and Gabrielle Giffords’s pledge of allegiance. Right before Caroline Kennedy came on, a guard informed us that from here on only delegates would be allowed to enter.
I wandered the dead zone around the arena. I watched Kennedy talk about what her father and her uncle believed in from a bench to the south. I considered going into the Hyatt, which had a metal detector outside, possibly indicating the presence of the president. I noticed an unguarded entrance to the east. It turned out to be for caterers, and I walked in without static. When I got to the press stand John Kerry was speaking, as endearingly awkward as ever, and I was told everyone in Washington knew he’d already accepted the job of secretary of state in the case of a second Obama term. It was difficult at times to hear Joe Biden because he pretends to be whispering to the crowd as if the Republicans aren’t listening.
Everyone was waiting for Obama to say something memorable, but the closest he came was weirdly self-regarding: ‘I'm no longer just a candidate. I'm the president.’ And then came an oddly aggrandising comparison of his own humility to Lincoln’s. It was treacle from there: the student who won the science fair while she was living in a homeless shelter, the autoworker who won the lottery and bought his wife a car his factory built. His mocking of Republican tax cutting led straight to boasting of his own tax-cutting bona fides. His ode to citizenship was a sly move probably too subtle to land with the 60 per cent of Republican voters who harbour doubts about his birthplace. So too his rewrite of ‘you didn’t build that’ from Roanoke to ‘you did that’, where 'you' is, if not the state, the Obama voter. But mostly Obama seemed to be trying not to screw up, not to give the Republicans another line to mock, and that he accomplished.
College Street was again a circus when the show was over. I fell into conversation with an energy consultant from Washington, who gave me a pass to a ‘Miami Nights’ themed after-party on Stonewall Street. ‘There’ll be a lot of energy folks there,’ she said. I’d heard a lot about energy in the past few days, mostly about natural gas and fracking. ‘The water’s on fire, let the corporation burn’ had been a frequent protest chant. I asked her if the public was aware of all this. ‘Well, that’s my job. Hardly anybody knows there’s an energy revolution going on. You live in Europe. I’m a big fan of nuclear. Obama’s been good on that. He hasn’t been scared off by Fukushima.’ Her real passion, though, was for foreign policy, even though she admitted she knew it was a ‘third-tier issue’, and she was glad the president had ‘dropped Samantha Power’ and ‘listened to Hillary’. At the party I lost track of her when she went to the Sponsors’ Lounge to find some of her clients. I didn’t meet any energy folks, but I had several conversations with nice Charlotte residents who work in clothing retail, and soon I left.
I stopped for a drink at the Westin Hotel and bumped into John Cassidy of the New Yorker, who’d been shut out of the arena, come back to the Westin, got shut in by a protest outside, then watched the speeches from a hotel room, where ‘it’s better to work anyway’. Mostly, Cassidy was surprised that Condé Nast hadn’t got him in the arena. He had arrived half an hour earlier than I had along with the head of CNN and David Miliband, but nobody at the door knew who they were.