August 29th, 2008 | by NIGEL JAQUISS News | Posted In: Politics

DENVER NOTEBOOK Lessons: On God, Greens and Squeaky Wheels

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As I left Invesco Field about 10:45 p.m. Mountain Time on Thursday night, I heard a familiar baritone voice from a level below. The voice -- Sen. Barack Obama's -- thanked a number of key supporters, including wife Michelle.

“It's going to be harder now,” Obama said. “You've been hanging around with Democrats this week. Next week will be different.”

A reporter from the Reno Gazette-Journal and I were hanging over the edge of a half-wall, beyond which was a sort of atrium where the Democratic nominee was laying out the path ahead. All that lay between us and a scoop was a blocked escalator—and a bunch of bossy ushers who cleared us out on the Secret Service's command. Off to the bar.

For a political junkie, Denver was heroin. See an Invesco Field elevator door open and a pack of reporters tell New York Gov. David Paterson, “no room!” (There really wasn't.) It was a place where you could see JFK's speechwriter Ted Sorenson shuffling slowly along a crowded Pepsi Center concourse, or nearly get bowled over by a crazed Secret Service agent slamming through fire doors and yelling “Move.”

Every day, you'd see bold-faced political names from the Senate (Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who looks frail); Congress (Barney Frank of Massachusetts, overheard telling an aide, “if you don't know the answer just tell me that,” and Charles Rangel of New York); and state government (Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, proportioned like a human bobble-head).

But the convention was about more than political celebrity spotting. Here are some take-away lessons:

1. We've said it before and we'll say it again. It ain't easy being green:

The DNC pledged to make Denver “the greenest convention ever.” At the Pepsi and Colorado Convention Centers, you couldn't open a water bottle or buy a cardboard mini-pizza without attracting the attention of one of the 1,200 green-shirted volunteer recycling advisors. A company called Freewheelin' scattered nearly a thousand free bikes around town. They provided helmets and locks and asked for them back by sun-down. (The Denver Post reported that Congressman Earl Blumenauer and a group of staff and friends were among many who beat the traffic jam around Invesco Field by cycling to hear Obama's acceptance speech.) Even the copies of speeches handed out to reporters had a small DNC logo and an exhortation to recycle on them. But it's hard to be truly green when most of the 50,000 attendees flew to Denver via Denver International Airport, which is many miles (and a $65 cab ride) from downtown. Other than a few horses and a lot of prairie dogs, there's nothing much between Stapleton and the city—and there's no reason it couldn't have been built 10 or 20 miles closer in. Maybe when Denver sited DIA sprawl made sense. But now it looks plain dumb and the 50 million people who use DIA annually use a whole lot of gas getting to and from the airport. “The location of the airport is a real challenge to Denver's ability to make itself a truly green city,” says Environment Oregon's Jeremiah Baumann, who attended the convention.

2. Portland might want to forget about the convention business:
For two decades the question of what to do with the Oregon Convention Center has vexed Portland officials. Built in the charm-free Lloyd District and then expanded in 2003 against the will of voters, the convention center is a white elephant whose financial condition is deteriorating. The Metro Council will vote by October whether to push forward with a publicly-financed “headquarters hotel,” the latest attempt to snare more convention business. But before councilors vote, they should visit Denver, where the 584,000-square-foot Colorado Convention Center is smack in the middle of a vibrant downtown surrounded by hotels and dozens of restaurants, nightclubs as well as museums, light rail and green riverside walking paths. If Denver is any indicator, the convention business is an arms race that will continue to be dominated by cities that have already made the investments Portland is pondering—and put their convention centers in a more attractive part of town.

3. Jeff Merkley should study Obama's acceptance speech:

Nobody expects House Speaker and U.S. Senate candidate Merkley to orate like Obama. But at a breakfast for the Oregon delegation on Thursday, his recitation of standard Democratic talking points was overshadowed by his vanquished primary opponent, Steve Novick, who eloquently wove Bobby Kennedy's economic views with the punk singer Lou Reed's polemic “This Is the Time.” Merkley took the podium not only after Novick but after Mark Parkinson, whose self-deprecating tale of his odyssey from being head of the Kansas GOP to being a Democratic Lieutenant Governor had the delegation howling with laughter and approval.

Delegation member say Merkley's stump speech is much improved—and it is—but it still lacks the clarity, concrete examples and rhetorical flourish that would elevate his message from boilerplate to “boy, did you hear what he just said.”

4. God is everywhere:

There's clearly a new page in the Democratic playbook: never miss an opportunity to use the phrase “God bless.” Invoked nearly as often by speakers as “yes we can” or “the change we need,” this generic benediction feels like an attempt to reclaim some of the godliness that Republicans have claimed as their turf in recent years.

Merkley only got 90 seconds on the Denver podium but per the playbook, here's how he ended it:
“Thank you, God bless Oregon, and God bless America.”

5. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times:

Former Gov. Barbara Roberts, who was attending her eighth Democratic convention, said this is the best managed one yet. “Obama's people run the best national campaign I've ever seen and now the best organized convention,” Roberts says. “Organization is a skill we need in the White House.” Win McCormack, the editor and publisher of Tin House magazine who has attended six conventions, disagrees. “It's the worst organized one I've been to,” McCormack says. “The DPO [Democratic Party of Oregon] is getting information very late from the DNC and the parties are lousy.” McCormack, a big political contributor, noted that despite the well-publicized wave of corporate money on which the convention floated, the DNC also had difficult time selling the luxury skyboxes that ring the Pepsi Center. “They asked me to buy a skybox for $1 million at the last minute,” he says. “I told them ‘no way.'”

6. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease:”

That's a direct quote from Democratic Party of Oregon Executive Director Trent Lutz, who vows not to put up again with the second-class treatment accorded his delegation in Denver. As previously reported, the delegation was housed 13 miles from downtown and was farther from the Pepsi Center podium than any another state. “Our seats were terrible,” says former Gov. Roberts. To add insult to injury, the Oregon delegation did not even get a chance to proclaim its support for Obama on the floor because when Sen. Hillary Clinton cast her New York votes, the process ended. “Next time, we need to be louder on the national front about all the things we've accomplished in Oregon,” Lutz says.

7. I need to dress more professionally:

Lots of people hand you pamphlets and other information at conventions. Here's a flyer a guy handed me while I was walking to Invesco.

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