Denver Diary -- A Mile High With The Obama Nation
email from the Ozarks
(Vol. 2, No. 2)
Bradley David Williams
“Hi from Eureka Springs, Arkansas -- the funkiest little town in America and perhaps the entire world.”
October 2, 2008
Here in the alternate universe that is Eureka Springs, where “Kill Your T.V.“ is a popular slogan, folks don’t normally fret too much over whatever is happening in the outside world -- but this is BAD, ya’ll. As we teeter on the brink of a 21st Century “Great Depression” -- my grandparents, all of them great storytellers, filled my childhood with vivid first-hand accounts of bread lines and rationing and hoboes -- I cannot think of many places (on the American mainland, anyway) I would rather be than this already-surreal Ozark village that I‘m calling home. I‘m not the first person to write about this historic spa town -- people have been trying to describe Eureka for over 125 years, and the best description I‘ve heard so far is “Mayberry on acid.” We’re just hoping for a decent October, which is peak tourist season around here, when “fall foliage” freaks from near and far descend on our town to see the gorgeous mountain backdrop dappled with flaming reds and yellows and oranges. While it’s hard not to be distracted by the beauty of Eureka in autumn and by all the nightmarish “breaking news“ on CNN, my Obama blog can wait no longer!
I invite you to put down the razor blade, take a break from rearranging those deckchairs on the Titanic, and enjoy this madcap recap of my trip to Denver for the Democratic National Convention. Much of this stuff will make its way into the closing essay of the book I am writing here, so consider it a sneak preview. We’ll know on November 4th how the chapter ends. (Unless it’s a tie again. Weren’t we going to finally get rid of the Electoral College after Gore won the popular vote in 2000 and lost anyway to the pathetic embarrassment that is what‘s-his-name?)
So I left Eureka Springs for Denver on Friday, August 22nd, in what now seems like a very innocent time, before anybody had ever even HEARD of this cartoonish moose-murdering evangelical “family-values” super-heroine from the tundra… I have a LOT to say about Governor “Abstinence Only“ (“THINKS, but NO thinks!”) with the knocked-up 17-year-old and the bastard grandbaby on the way, but I better muzzle myself because, “Families are off-limits!” Yeah, and I have a “Bridge To Nowhere” I’ll sell you real cheap...
I drove up through Missouri (pronounced Missour-UH in these parts) and across southern Kansas, one of only eight states I had heretofore never set foot in. I loved the flat, wide-open prairies and embraced the nothingness of it all, stopping in Eureka, Kansas to check my email at the town library (no Blackberry or laptop for this low-tech, impoverished scribe!). Telling the librarian where I was from, I said, “I guess there’s probably a Eureka in every state.” “No,” she said. “Only in 19, I believe.”
I was thrilled to see I had received a bunch of fabulous emails with positive feedback on the blog I had posted the night before, all about my beloved Hattie Nichols -- the black woman in Bonham, Texas who helped raised me -- and how I would be thinking of her in Denver, where I would hopefully get to be there in the flesh to see a black man accept the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. Especially intoxicating were the e-responses from several of the more high-profile people on my email list, such as: Marion Winik, the celebrated memoirist and frequent voice on NPR (I knew Marion in Austin, where she and her late husband Tony were the subjects of my very first “big deal” published feature article, which made the cover of a respectable gay rag called the Texas Triangle, circa 1993; btw Marion’s new book, “The Glen Rock Book of the Dead,“ is available on Amazon); Celia Morris, the writer, feminist and former wife of the late literary lion Willie Morris (Celia lives in D.C. and has invited me to the party she is already planning for Obama’s inauguration); Crescent Dragonwagon, authoress of children’s books and cookbooks (her latest is “The Cornbread Gospels“), and co-founder of The Writers’ Colony At Dairy Hollow (which brought me here to Eureka Springs a year ago); Rosemary Daniell, the acclaimed poet, essayist, writing coach and founder of Zona Rosa (www.myzonarosa.com), a network of empowering writers’ groups for women around the country; and -- I saved the coolest for last -- Martina Navratilova, tennis legend and pop culture icon, who wrote in her reply, “I would have liked Hattie.” (How cool is it that I know Martina, my childhood idol???)
But I’m not one to name-drop… ;p
Another half hour down the road, I stopped in El Dorado (pronounced Duh-RAY-doe), the Kansas town where Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, lived until age 13, when her family moved to Seattle and eventually to Hawaii. I have become semi-obsessed with Ann Dunham, who died of ovarian cancer at age 52 in 1995. This free-spirited single mom was highly intelligent -- an anthropologist who had finally earned her doctorate three years before she died. She was eccentric and relentlessly curious about the world and, according to her best friend in high school, an unapologetic atheist, even as a young teen. I’m fascinated that she died so young, having no idea to what degree her son would go on to conquer the world just a dozen years later. She was a dreamer and an intellectual, and I am very curious about her role in shaping her son’s world view.
There’s no “Home of Barack Obama” sign anywhere, though he drew a big crowd at a rally in El Dorado last January, his first-ever visit to the place of his Dunham family roots (btw, he also has distant Arkansas kinfolk, including the Bunch family in Eureka Springs!). I stopped at the tourism office and talked to a woman who had done a lot of research into Obama’s connection to El Dorado.
Then it was on to Garden City, Kansas, located in the far southwest corner of the state, where I overnighted at the Wheat Lands Motel, the very hostelry where Truman Capote stayed when he was there researching “In Cold Blood.” I was half-awake all night, tuned in to the middle-of-the-night coverage on CNN of Joe Biden’s imminent ascension to the ticket.
I’ll write much more on Garden City and my Truman Capote connection in my book, but let’s get to Denver already!
I arrived in the Mile High City on the eve of the convention, and before I could even find the place where I was staying, I saw a tent with Obama merchandise set up in a gas station parking lot, manned by an entrepreneurial out-of-towner. A friend in Eureka Springs had given me money to bring her back a poster and a button, so I stopped. Purchases in tow, I continued on, using my mapquest.com directions [lucrative blog product placement!], and when I looked up in the rainy sky, there was a fantastic rainbow, which would prove a symbolic foreshadowing of a near-perfect convention experience.
I arrived at my friend Todd’s lovely home, greeted by sunflowers as big as your head growing near the front door. Todd, a Michigan native, and I were exchange students together in Germany as youngsters and have somehow stayed in touch all these years. I visited Todd and his wife Carol when they were living in Boston in 2000 (when I got to go to Martina‘s induction at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI), and now they are in Denver with two adorable little girls, Maya and Lily, and a fabulous guest bedroom in their basement that they very generously offered for my use during the convention. From their house, I was able to get to downtown in 20 minutes -- a beautiful drive through old Denver residential areas, avoiding highways altogether.
I had only ever been to one national political convention -- sixteen years ago when I was just a few years out of the University of Texas and working as something of a Junior Press Aide (I reject totally the title “clerk“ -- surely one of the tackiest and most demeaning words in the English language!) to the Governor of Texas, Ann Richards. Ann was tapped by the 1992 nominee, her buddy Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas, to chair his convention at Madison Square Garden in New York, and as part of Ann’s staff, I got into the hall every night, enjoyed some of the best parties, and even scored a free ticket to a Broadway show.
Without my “I’m with Ann!” automatic entrée and no press credentials (I had missed the deadline by about five months), I knew the Denver convention experience was going to be very different. In many ways it turned out even better. My strategy for the week was simple -- not to worry about getting into the Pepsi Center for the first three nights of the convention, but just to concentrate on getting into Obama’s big speech on the final night at “Invesco Field At Mile High” (this, I learned, is the corporate-publicity-whore of a stadium built seven years ago when the old Mile High Stadium was imploded in favor of more luxury skyboxes at a site just up the street).
When they first announced that Obama would open up the convention to the masses and give his acceptance speech in this 75,000-seat stadium, I had thought, “Great, surely with that many tickets, I don’t have to worry about getting in.” Oh, how tragically naïve… When the “community credentials” became available, over 100,000 online requests were received within the first 48 hours. I have had a lifetime of what I used to call my unbelievable “ticket karma” (before I quit believing in karma), but Obama’s speech in Denver would be the hardest ticket I have ever had to score!
I spent the first three nights of the convention watching the speeches on a movie screen at the Starz Green Room, a special media hangout near the Pepsi Center. Taking over a tri-level art-house cinema located on a college campus, the Denver Film Society and several other entities hosted this operation, which included intimate panel discussions with movie stars and media personalities, screenings of presidential-themed films (“Being There,” “The Candidate“) and the latest political documentaries, and a LIVE feed from the convention stage projected onto a movie screen in a sleek lounge featuring a fabulous catered buffet, open bar, comfy furniture, and famous people everywhere you looked. For a political junkie like me, it was HEAVEN.
Most of the programs at the Starz Green Room were sponsored by SeaChange Communications, an L.A.-based firm run by Victoria Hopper (wife of actor Dennis) which “unites prominent entertainment figures with key players in national politics.” On the first day of the convention, there was an 11:00 a.m. panel discussion on the Blogosphere, featuring Arianna Huffington, that I did not want to miss.
I have long been fascinated by Huffington, the Greek-American dynamo who evokes Zsa Zsa Gabor with her over-the-top glamour, beauty and exaggerated European accent, dahling. But unlike Zsa Zsa, Arianna is a major intellectual, who was president of the prestigious Cambridge Union debating society in college (she was Arianna Stassinopoulis then) and later won acclaim for her biographies of Picasso and Maria Callas. After moving to the U.S. in 1980, she married and had two daughters with Michael Huffington, a Dallas-born oil heir who eventually became a Republican congressman from California (he barely lost the 1994 U.S. Senate race to Diane Feinstein). They divorced, he came out of the closet as “bisexual,“ and Arianna made a huge about face in her politics, going from conservative Republican to ultra-liberal Democrat (although she had been involved with liberal California Governor Jerry Brown before she met Huffington).
Arianna became a familiar TV personality with her frequent appearances on Larry King and Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect,” then ran for Governor of California in 2003 in that crazy election that resulted in Governor Ah-nold (she came in fifth out of a field of 135, even though she had dropped out of the race a month earlier). And in the last few years she has sky-rocketed in importance with the Huffington Post, now the number one political website, and was named in 2006 one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World.” In Denver, she was very much the belle of the ball amongst the assembled media.
Finding the Starz Green Room just in time for Arianna’s 11 a.m. panel, I was extremely frustrated not to be able to get past a security checkpoint and threw a minor diva fit. Even though my name was on the list, I didn’t have my credential for the Starz Green Room, which they told me I had to pick up at another location downtown. “How am I supposed to get to the Arianna Huffington panel discussion that starts in five minutes?” I demanded. “Who ever heard of credentials not being available AT the actual venue?”
The security for the convention was breathtaking, with mean-looking machine gun-wielding officers patrolling the streets and large areas of downtown completely closed off. The Starz Film Center is located on something called the Auraria Campus, home to three different colleges -- the Community College of Denver, Metropolitan State College of Denver, and the University of Colorado at Denver. The entire campus was shut down for the week and fenced in, with just a single footpath open for the media to access the Pepsi Center (and the Starz Green Room, which was half-way between the security checkpoint and the arena).
Several hundred yards in another direction from the security checkpoint was a circular drive where all the media got dropped off in their chauffeured SUVs and sedans, and there I was able to hop a Starz Green Room shuttle van to go pick up my credential at a downtown art gallery they had taken over for the convention. (Starz, by the way, is the L.A.-based entertainment company that owns the cinema in Denver as well as the Starz and Encore cable movie channels, etc.)
So I made friends with the cute twenty-something shuttle driver, Cameron, who would shuttle me throughout the week. Credential finally around my neck, I was able to get through the security checkpoint and catch the last twenty minutes of Arianna’s panel, which also included Newsweek columnist and talking head Jonathan Alter. I bolted down the aisle of the theater to an empty seat in the third row, and Arianna, sitting in a director’s chair, looked at me and smiled as if I were a long lost friend. I had never met her, but when I approached her after the panel, she greeted me as though she knew me. I told her about how I had interviewed culture critic Camille Paglia fifteen years ago and we had talked about Arianna Huffington, who was a fairly obscure figure then. (Camille scoffed at Huffington’s book on Picasso because, “She said he was a bad artist because he was mean to his girlfriends.” When the two women appeared on a TV show together, Camille was “prepared to HATE her,” but instead they had totally hit it off.)
“Oh, I loooove Camille Paglia,” Arianna said. She told me to come to the “Oasis” -- the lounge she had set up in Denver for the media to come and relax. I also got to chat up the Huffington Post “Style Editor” Kira Craft, and we discussed how retro Hillary’s pantsuits are, like the ones our mothers wore in the 1970s.
I visited the Oasis several times during the week. Arianna is very “New Age,” which was reflected in the offerings at the Oasis -- all the free massage, yoga, smoothies, and pistachio nuts you wanted. The Oasis was set up in an office building downtown, adjacent to “The Big Tent” -- a two story structure, sponsored by Google, that was convention headquarters for the Blogosphere, with bloggers blogging and panel discussions being streamed onto the Internet. This was the first national political convention where the Blogosphere played a major role -- the blog phenomenon was still in its infancy at the conventions four years ago.
On the second day of the convention, Tuesday, I was at “The Big Tent” taking advantage of the chair massages being offered near the entrance. Just as I had gotten comfortable in the chair, with my face looking down through the padded oval, the very nice massage therapist from Boulder said, “You may want to look up -- Katie Couric just walked in.” Katie was there with a CBS film crew to check out “The Big Tent” and came directly towards us. Set up next to the massage area was a Youtube booth where anyone could make a video and immediately upload it to the Web. After she made her video, Katie’s film crew captured her getting a chair massage as she talked through the padded face rest. “Brian Williams would NEVER do that,“ I said, and she laughed. I told her I had met her in New York years ago at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and I asked her about her encounters with Ann Richards over the years. “I miss her, too,” she said.
The entire week was just one celebrity sighting after another. I saw Gary Hart walking alone down the street, on his cell phone. I ran into Chris Matthews, who I watch every day on MSNBC, at the famed Tattered Cover Bookstore. And I got to meet a slew of Hollywood stars -- Susan Sarandon, Ellen Burstyn, Anne Hathaway, Alan Cumming, Angela Bassett, and Annette Benning -- at a brunch celebrating a new documentary, “14 Women,” narrated by Benning and featuring the women of the U.S. Senate.
During the week, I also got to talk to a number of VIPs attending events at the Starz Green Room -- Dan Abrams of MSNBC, actress and anti-cancer activist Fran Drescher, director Cameron Crowe... Amongst the big names I saw, but did not bother trying to meet, were Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, Josh Brolin, Andrew Shue and Dee Dee Myers.
On the first night, watching Michelle Obama’s speech on the big screen, I chatted up a friendly, good-looking guy who I would see hanging around the Starz Green Room all week. It wasn’t until two days later that somebody told me it was Troy Garity, son of Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, whose gorgeous wife Simone Bent was there working on the staff of SeaChange.
“I can’t believe I didn’t know who you were,” I told him.
“Why would you know who I was?” he said.
“Because I read your mother’s book, and you were in that Showtime movie ‘Soldier’s Girl,’” I said.
I remembered seeing his mom accompanying him to the Golden Globe Awards several years ago, when he was nominated for “Soldier’s Girl.” He played the lead in this true story of a military man who was beaten to death for having a relationship with a woman who was a male-to-female transsexual.
Also on the first night, I struck up a conversation with an interesting woman who turned out to be Grace Guggenheim, daughter of famed documentarian Charles Guggenheim. She was at the convention, along with her brother Davis (who won the Oscar for directing Al Gore’s ’An Inconvenient Truth’) to appear at a screening of their father’s famous documentary about Bobby Kennedy. It was the 40th anniversary of the film being shown on the floor of the 1968 convention and televised LIVE on all three networks. I was there at the Starz Green Room on the last day of the convention, when many of the Kennedys, including Ethel, showed up for the screening.
On Thursday morning, having asked around throughout the week with no success, I began my search for the coveted Obama ticket in earnest. I first popped my head into the historic Brown Palace Hotel, where I found Teresa Heinz Kerry, the glamorous diva who almost became First Lady four years ago, as well as Mark Shields, the commentator for PBS’s McNeil Lehrer. Shields has a house in Austin and I had met him ten years ago at a funeral, so I didn’t hesitate to approach him. “I’m desperate to get in tonight,” I told him. His suggestion was to go to the Oxford Hotel, where the Finance Committee was headquartered. “They’ll have tickets,” he said.
I got on the public transportation and made my way to the other side of downtown and found the Oxford Hotel, only to be told that the credentialing for the Finance Committee was at the Hyatt Regency. I got back on the public transportation and went back across downtown to the Hyatt. The first person I ran into, exiting the hotel through a revolving door was Henry Cisneros, the dashing former mayor of San Antonio and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Clinton. He actually remembered me from Texas but couldn‘t help. I found the Finance Committee set up in a ballroom on the third floor, and they said I could fill out a “Special Request Form” for a ticket but that it did not look good.
The hotel lobby was hopping with VIPs like Chris Matthews and Keith Olberman of MSNBC, as well as politicians like House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina and the gorgeous former congressman Harold Ford, Jr. of Tennessee, now head of the Democratic Leadership Council. I asked until I was blue in the face, but no luck.
Then I ran into Arthur Schechter from Houston, who was Hillary’s top finance guy in Texas. He said he had just come from a finance meeting upstairs and that I might find somebody with tickets up there. I found a roomful of Democratic fat cats but nobody I asked knew of any extra tickets.
Back in the lobby, I begged a couple of Jewish ladies with a stack of tickets to please let me have one. “Are you a member of Hadassah?” one of them asked me. I should have just said, “Yes,” but I’m a bad liar. Nothing doing.
Then somebody told me that the people with the tickets were the “D-Triple-C” -- the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- and that they had an office across the street in the Convention Center, the massive building that had been used all week for caucus meetings (I had gotten to hang out with the gay caucus there and had also seen Hillary Clinton there the day before when she met with her delegates and officially “released” them to vote for Obama). I made my way across the street and through what was like an airport security check (you had to take everything out of your pockets and get wanded). After much effort I found the D-Triple-C office, set up in a small room in the bowels of the Convention Center. I walked in and saw two young women, probably college age, behind a table.
“I worked for Ann Richards when she was Governor of Texas,” I announced with over-the-top authority. “You probably weren’t even born then, but I am desperate for a ticket for tonight and somebody told me to come here and beg.”
“Who told you to come here?” one of them asked.
Without thinking, I blurted out the name of the biggest fat cat I knew -- “Arthur Schechter.”
“Oh, OK,” she said, handing me one of the “community credentials,” featuring a hologram with Obama’s face and the American flag.
Mission accomplished. It was after 1:00 p.m., just hours before the program was due to begin at Invesco.
I walked to the stadium, where it took me a full hour to get from the end of the line to the entrance. My credential said Section 539 (seating was first come, first served within your assigned section), and when I looked up and around the massive stadium, I saw that my section was on the very top tier and behind the podium, where I knew I would not be able to see much. So, as I have done so many times before, I just walked around to where I wanted to sit and found a perfect seat, half-way up the first tier with an unobstructed view of the podium. I sat between a college student from Massachusetts who was volunteering for the campaign and had been stationed in Colorado Springs, world headquarters of the Religious Right, and a woman from Michigan who was the wife of Hillary delegate.
It was an incredible night. Everything came off beautifully, from Stevie Wonder’s crowd-pleasing performance of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I‘m Yours” to Al Gore’s powerful address to the dramatic fireworks display at the conclusion of Obama’s soaring speech. In a stadium that seats 75,000 for football, there were 84,000 people crammed into every seat, including the delegates and media down on the field, and VIPs like Oprah hidden away behind glass in the luxury skyboxes. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, when you know you are witnessing history. It was a great moment for Barack Obama, for America and for the world. And whatever happens on November 4th, it was a moment that can never be taken away.