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Going Gonzo at the DNC


It’s a money thing
The Democratic National Convention is about a lot of things: politics, oratory, pomp, celebrities, networking. But at its heart, the DNC is about money. And whether you like it straight, on the rocks, shaken, dirty or with a twist, high proof cash was flowing freely in and around the Pepsi Center all week.
It will take a while for the full extent of the largess that was the DNC to soak in and be fully felt. But one thing is certain, the big boys and girls from inside the beltway partied Denver under the table every night for a week and schooled us good on the finer points of living large.

Forget about the millions spent making the Pepsi Center into a high tech carny ride, or the millions shelled out by the broadcast media (who are flush with cash thanks to the record amounts being spent on ads by candidates) to bring those high-def pictures into the homes of tens of millions of people around the country and around the world. And never mind that millions more were spent to dress Invesco Field at Mile High up as a Greek revival coliseum. The realmoney—the money that matters—was
getting spent around town.

There may never be a full accounting of the week’s events, but a rough picture comes into focus by looking at what happened to the good folks at the Wazee Supper Club. One server said that they did their best night of the year—five days in a row.

It was also discovered afterward that the host committee not only raised the $40 million it was supposed to (the cost of receptions, parties, soirees and other VIP-esque activities) but exceeded its goal by more than $10 million.

Where does all that coin come from, you ask? Lobbyists, trade associations and special interests. That’s right, Denver drank from the fire hose that is political action money and I’m here to tell you that when the likes of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) throws a party, it redefines decadence.

DISCUS has been around for decades to promote adult access to spirits (like the sale of alcohol on Sundays). But in the last several years they formed a review board to keep an eye on their members (the makers of Bacardi, Jack Daniels and Jaegermeister, to name a few) to make sure their promotions don’t target children, for example. By policing themselves, they are hoping to keep lawmakers off their backs.

So they threw a “little” party to say thanks to the new majority in town. They rented Beta Nightclub for the night, put DeVotchka on stage, served up some serious good eats—from beef tenderloin crostinis topped with béarnaise sauce to all manner of seafood—handed out a selection of aged, hand-rolled cigars and uncorked some righteous hooch, including a collection of 30-year-old Scotches.

The place was packed with impeccably dressed congressional staffers, execs from other trade organizations, and elected officials and their spouses. It was fun, delicious and the epitome of living large; and although I had never heard of DISCUS before, they certainly left a delicious taste in my mouth.
Consider its mission accomplished.

And that was only Monday. Dozens of such events were held each night.

Specific attribution aside—it’s hard to write with a glass of $1,000-a-bottle wine in your hand—the people I talked with who work for organizations such as DISCUS and who were throwing down the hardest said the political winds have changed. Some groups didn’t even send staffers to the 2004 DNC in Boston, let alone pony up for a big bash, because the Democratic Party was thought to be dying on the vine. What a difference four years makes. Now it’s as if the unions, corporate interests, manufacturers and the like can’t empty their wallets in the direction of the Dems fast enough.

Words still matter, but so do looks
The convention itself—meaning the stuff that went on inside the Pepsi Center from Monday to Wednesday and at Mile High Thursday—was a highly contrived affair kind of like a season of American Idol for politicians compressed into four days.

Instead of singing, the contestants gave speeches and instead of making the cut to the next round, the only excitement, the real reason to watch and listen, was to see who the next Barack Obama would be. At the 2004 convention, Obama came out of nowhere, rocked the house with a speech loaded with style and content and lit the fuse under his campaign for president.

This year, the unanimous winner of “best speech” was Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer. If Italians talk with their hands, Schweitzer talks with his whole defensive lineman body. And he gets bonus points for modulating his voice, varying the cadence, not dropping his punch lines and putting the whole arena on its feet (they had no choice). And he said what everyone else did, but mixed hard facts and numbers with funny anecdotes to make his points: energy independence is key to national security and energizing our economy and Sen. McCain will only keep us enslaved to the energy dictators.

“If we drilled everywhere…if we drilled in all of John McCain’s backyards—even the ones he doesn’t know he has…” he howled.

Like a four-shot latte in the afternoon, his caffeinated pep talk lasted well into the evening. A close second was the pun-riddled, six-minute verbal beating (“neo-con-artists…. all the president’s oil men”), delivered by spring-loaded Cleveland Congressman Dennis Kucinich. With a big progressive message packed into a compact, nerdy package, Kucinich bounced through an all-encompassing tirade against the Bush Administration; throwing red meat populism to the hungry delegates along way.

“Wake up America! The insurance companies took over health care. Wake up America! The pharmaceutical companies took over drug pricing. Wake up America! The speculators took over Wall Street…” and on Kucinich went, whipping the delegates into a cheering frenzy. Regardless of political persuasion, it was amusing theater.

Bill Clinton’s speech was also a high point, but the man could read a Denny’s menu and make it moving.

Besides, he’s ineligible. But he did offer the money line of the whole convention; a turn of phrase both elegant in its simplicity and powerful in its descriptive truth. “People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”

It’s really about the people
Famous encounters aside, the two people at the top of my highlight reel from the DNC were Kay Ruppersberger and Kevin Kallaugher (KAL), the former is the wife of Maryland Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger and the latter the witty, talented and gracious editorial cartoonist for The Economist.

It was late Monday evening at the aforementioned distilled spirit soiree and Kay was looking rather haggard. I struck up a conversation that somehow veered off onto the topic of alcohol and Antiques Road Show. I admitted being a fan of the latter and let on as to how, when watching with friends, we added a shot of excitement and competition by making the ARS a drinking game. The rules are simple: guess the price within, say, $2,000 of whatever item is being featured and you get a pass. Guess wrong and you drink. Kay was highly amused and dragged me over to her husband the congressman so he could give me his card. She insisted that I get in touch if and when I ever get to Baltimore (I presume to match antiquity wits over some fine Scotch).

Then there’s KAL, who cut in front of me at the media tent’s open bar. I asked what he did and he said he was the editorial cartoonist for The Economist—a job he’s held for a couple decades. Cartoonists, especially the editorial types, are a uniquely disturbed lot, so I asked KAL if he, like legendary New York Times cartoonist Albert Hirschfeld hid family names in his illustrations. He gave me a funny look and said, yes, indeed, he does hide his name and those of his wife, Sue, daughter, Amy, and son, Dan, in the cross hatches of his cartoons. I exclaimed how cool that was, whereupon he picked up a paper hors d’oeuvre plate and whipped out a spot-on caricature of George W. Bush.

Forget about sharing a cigar with Sean Penn or riding in an elevator with Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, I came away from the DNC with a renewed appreciation for politics and politicians, an original KAL cartoon of “W” and an open invitation to watch Antiques Road Show with Kay Ruppersberger. And those are things money can’t buy.


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    I wonder as I read comments all across the web from McCain supporters and the Repub’s-why is there this common thread of hostility toward Dems and Obama? Since when did we become “enemies” or is it simply the Rush Limbaugh mentality that’s driving that ship. Me against you and my convictions are right and if you disagree with me you are a bad, bad person. That is why I find the Republican party of today a dangerous vehicle. Driven by emotional response, fear and hatred, and powered by the top 2% of wealth in the country. Is this the party that really reflects the common man? Obama is a smart, smart man who has the best interest of the American people at heart. He has proven this to me in his actions, starting with financing his campaign through individual donors and not big businesses. The last 8 years have proven the Republican party has lost its soul and sold out to big business for their own financial gains. The war on Irag, the economy, the national debt do not reflect a group that cares about the American individual.The very basis for our government. Maybe this is why so many have left the party to become independents.

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