Friday, August 29, 2008

A Front Row Seat to History

Having a front row seat to history is an inspiring experience, even when my seat involved standing on my feet for 8 hours every day. I’m on my way back now from the Democratic National Convention, where I volunteered on the floor of the convention hall helping out with crowd control and media logistics. The week was stock full of significance: The last time the convention was held in Denver was exactly 100 years ago in 1908. Tuesday marked the 88th anniversary of women obtaining the right to vote. Yesterday – the day that Barack Obama formally accepted the Democratic nomination for president – was also the 45th anniversary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. And exactly 40 years ago my father attended the tumultuous Democratic Convention in Chicago where Hubert Humphrey was nominated in the wake of MLK and Robert Kennedy's assassinations.

Speakers at the DNC this year had to meet the prerequisite of having a background that included growing up amidst poverty or experiencing personal tragedy, in order to be able to lay claim to having lived the “American story.” While this was powerful it also meant that a lot of the speeches blended together. Some stood out above the rest however. Jesse Jackson, Jr. opened prime time on Tuesday night with a speech that reflected on MLK’s vision of a mountaintop. While bouncing up and down in rhythm with his words, Dennis Kucinich fired up the crowd and invoked the memory of Ohio Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (who died suddenly last week) with his mantra “Wake up America! Wake up America! Michelle Obama exuded gracefulness and poise that was unmatched by any other speaker.

Seeing the lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy, summon up the energy and fiery rhetoric to pass the Kennedy torch to Barack Obama, in what may have been one of his last public appearances, was extraordinarily powerful. The movement for change that Hillary Clinton inspired through her own candidacy was channeled into the roars that shook the convention hall and greeted Hillary when she came to speak. Her speech was a masterpiece, and the most personally moving of the convention for me because of my work on her campaign. Through her words she captured the importance of her candidacy, the need for party unity and the reasons why Barack Obama should be the next president of the United States.

On Wednesday night I heard Bill Clinton speak for the first time, and his charisma, intelligence and ability to capture the pulse of the Democratic party was truly impressive. Montana governor Bill Schweitzer gave a prime time speech that put him on the map of people with a bright political future ahead. Joe Biden had the convention attendees and himself in tears as he described the importance of his family and pointed out his mother in the stands. Al Gore’s speech on Thursday wasn’t the most memorable of the convention, but the standing he has achieved in the world since the last gathering four years ago made his presence remarkable by itself. And of course, Barack Obama’s historic acceptance speech before 80,000 people yesterday was awesome. Sitting next to me during the speech was an older African American delegate from Missouri who sat through Obama’s speech in his wheelchair sobbing throughout, overcome by the fact that an African American candidate was accepting the presidential nomination.

Of course, I wasn’t the only VIP to bear witness to the week’s events. I loved picking out and recognizing the various politicians and celebrities on the convention hall floor. Mayor Ed Nutter of Philadelphia was perhaps the most genuine and approachable politician that I met during the week. Interacting with the delegates was also fantastic. Many came dressed up in wacky costumes expressing pride for their state or for the country. To see groups from all 50 states sitting in one room was also pretty incredible, no more so than when the roll call of each state was conducted to officially nominate Obama as the Democratic candidate for president. As each state was called, a representative of the delegation would describe the importance of their state and the votes that the state was submitting in favor of the two nominees (Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama). In one of the most theatrical moments of the convention, New Mexico yielded the floor to the “Great State of Illinois” when it was called. Illinois subsequently yielded the floor to the Great State of New York. At that moment, Hillary Clinton made a dramatic appearance into the convention center to ask that the roll call be suspended in favor of a vote by acclimation to recognize the historic nature of Barack Obama’s candidacy and of course everyone, including myself, went wild.

The week closed on a high note this morning when I snapped a picture with Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson standing in line for coffee at the airport. She was at the DNC yesterday to recite the pledge of allegiance. I’m now heading back to New York to prepare for my move to D.C. after 7 years living here. I know the transition will be tough, even though I’m excited about the job I’ll be starting next week, and I’m sure this weekend will be an emotional one.

In a closing thought, my week at the DNC reinforced the importance of bearing witness. I was there to see history being made and therefore I am a part of history. I was there to bear witness to the power that words and ideas have in transforming peoples’ lives and my own path in life was surely influenced as a result. I'm proud to say, I was there.