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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

I hope it's not an example of the Democrats' organizational muscle. But this morning I've had to abandon the Fleet Center and retreat to a local Starbucks to find reliable Internet access that'll allow me to post some updates.

Yesterday while Barack Obama was speaking, I was making my way around the convention hall floor, trying to listen to the speech while gauging audience reactions. In some ways this is a far inferior way to absorb a speech than simply to watch it on your television screen at home. And I wasn't following every moment word for word. But at some point, perhaps a half or two-thirds into the speech, I could sense a difference in the feel of the crowd and the tenor of Obama's voice. He was electrifying the crowd in a way you seldom see a politician manage to pull off. And I realized I needed to get down as close to the podium as I could.

So I made my way down through the several delegations on the right side of the convention floor and settled in about thirty feet down from Obama's left. What struck me first about Obama is something I've only really seen clearly before in Bill Clinton.

In most politicians -- in most public speakers really -- you can always sense a sort of double motion. You can sense their constant awareness of what they should be doing before they do it, and their inability to get the two to match up. Perhaps this is simply another way of saying that you sense their consciousness of self, the visibility of their artifice, like an actor who looks like he's acting, even if the technical points are hit more or less on key.

Clinton was always different. Whether there was artifice or not, it was seldom visible. His rapport with crowds or individuals was (and is) intuitive. The mastery of voice, sound and expression was always complete. And you could see that Monday night.

As it happens, I don't think that quality in a public speaker is something that can be learned. And on a fundamental level, I don't think it's a matter of artifice, though clearly Clinton has a rhetorical bag of tricks he returns to again and again. It's an emotional quality, an element of personality -- part of that undefinable quality of personal charisma. And that was what was radiating from Obama last night.

This was the passage I found the most powerful, and only in part because of the bare text of the words.

Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.


Another point on Obama, to which we'll return. Every great public speaker has an emotional touchstone, a tenor that resonates through all they say and do. Clinton's was empathy and expressive emotion -- something that many people gravitated to irresistibly, and others recoiled from. In that regard, Obama seems altogether different. That Clintonite element is barely present with him. The hallmarks are grace and power, even force. (Watch the hands and the eyes.) And that worked well with last night's invocation of national unity.

This will be an odd sort of correction, but one nonetheless. A number of readers have written in to inform me that Jack Ryan, one-time Illinois Senate candidate, actually didn't want to have his wife have sex with other men in front of an audience in a Paris sex club, as I said yesterday evening. He wanted to have sex with his wife in front of an audience in a Paris sex club. I stand corrected, though with the nature of the distinction you do get a sense of why Ryan is no longer in the race.

I'm sitting here a few minutes after nine, waiting for the big event of the evening, Barack Obama's keynote address. It's hard to overestimate how much expectation looms around this guy. The Democratic party yearns for this man's political future like Dick Cheney lusts after the oil and gas fields of the Caspian Sea.

Obama probably would have won the Illinois Senate seat in November by a solid margin regardless. Now it's not clear that it'll even be a contest after his opponent's candidacy collapsed amid his would-be party constituents close-mindedness about his desire to see his movie star wife have sex with other men in Paris sex clubs. So he was sort of a martyr to Babbitry, you might say.

In any case, he'll be the only black man in the Senate; and he'll have a relatively safe seat, as senate seats go. He'll be an instant star of his party. And all the folks who have antennae for political magic are all atwitter over him. I've been watching him give interviews and work the crowd and the tell-tale grace and poise isn't hard to see.

I got a chance to sit down with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle this afternoon and ask a few questions. I'll be writing up more of the conversation later this evening or tomorrow. But for the moment, a couple tidbits.

I asked Daschle to name some possible Senate Dem pick-ups that people might not have on their radar screens. Three names: Nancy Farmer in Missouri. Joe Hoeffel in Pennsylvania. Daniel Mongiardo in Kentucky.

Any hope the Senate Intelligence committee might report on any of the second phase of its investigation (i.e., the part that might have anything remotely to do with the Bush administration) prior to the election? "Not a chance."

One thing that is now apparently part of the modern presidential campaign is the laying-on-of-hands photo montage -- the key being visuals of the metaphorical handing off of the political torch and ethereal transmission of politico-cultural Mojo.

I guess Clinton got this started off with those pictures of himself at the Boys Nation ceremony with President Kennedy back in something like 1963. And I think there was some of this with President Bush too, though I can't remember who the luminaries were.

But Kerry's got both of these characters put to shame.

On one of the floors of the Fleet Center -- the third or fourth, I think -- there's a small gallery of Kerry photos. And if you make the rounds of them you see that there's a laying-on-of-hands image for almost every slice of the Democratic soul.

Of course, there's Kerry with Jack Kennedy. But Kerry was actually a hip dude. So, for instance, there's a young Kerry with John Lennon. And then Kerry with Coretta Scott King. And, actually, in a highly literary flourish, there's even John Kerry with Arthur Miller of all people.

(A friend of mine pointed out that there's even a double-layered Marilyn Monroe subtext in that one.)

I'm going to head back later for further analysis.

It took me most of the day today to get a sense of how I'd cover this sprawling enterprise for this medium. And as you can see below I spent most of the night getting down on to paper some rough thoughts of what the first day of the convention was like, making up for a dearth of updates earlier. Tomorrow I'm going to try to meet up with some of the House candidates who seem like they may have a shot at knocking out some Republican incumbents. And rather than the razzle-dazzle celeb parties, I want to hit some of the state delegation events, to get a feel for what's happening in some key states.

Keep your eye out and you're bound to see this argument -- now floated by many conservative columnists -- that Kerry may win because voters need a breather -- a time-out, if you will -- from the turbocharged rush of history we've experienced over the last three years under George W. Bush. The president has simply accomplished so much, bent the world so mightily to his will, that Americans are craving a return to normalcy, as that campaign neologism once had it.

We thirst for mediocrity -- the road more travelled -- and Kerry quenches us.

But, really, how many times has the American electorate punished a president for accomplishing too much? Franklin Roosevelt? Harry Truman? Theodore Roosevelt? Where are the examples?

The reference Peggy Noonan put forward was with Kerry playing the Warren G. Harding to Bush's Woodrow Wilson. But Wilson's presidency, in tandem with his health, had collapsed over his efforts to secure a settled peace after World War I.

Rather than taking it on its merits, though, I have a different take on this argument. It's a rhetorical or logical reasoning halfway house on the way to a realization of how badly the president has screwed up what one might generously call his ambitious plans. As with Kubler-Ross's grinding five stages of grief, first we have denial. Then anger. And with this argument we have something akin to that tipping-point stage of 'bargaining' -- the sensible pundits' first tip-toe out onto a serious consideration of the impact of the president's term of office.

This afternoon I exchanged emails with a friend who's involved in crafting the evening's message, asking him about the standing orders to steer clear of any personal attacks on the president or even, it seemed, any invocations of the president's name. "This will not be a Michael Moore event," he told me, after confirming the gist of what I'd read in various press accounts.

Then hours later, as I was leaving the Fleet Center, making my way down an escalator to the first floor, I looked across the few feet separating me from a parallel-running escalator and saw, yes, Michael Moore.

First, I should say, as I side note, that trying to pull off an impromptu interview, with pen and pad, calling out questions from one escalator to another, is a perilous endeavor, as you're apt not to be paying attention when the escalator ends or simply be looking the wrong way. But let's not distract ourselves with that. Just file that away for future reference.

In any case, there I am a few feet from Moore; and it's one of the first times all day when I can think of a question to ask someone where I'm really curious and uncertain as to what the answer will be. So I ask him what he makes of all of this. No attacks on the president. Not even any mention of the man's name. It's like the anti-Michael Moore event. Or rather the non-Michael Moore event. (I caught myself the first time, realizing that hadn't come out precisely as I'd intended.)

Clearly, the guy didn't know what to make of me. And as he breezes by he says, "Oh, Really? I liked it. You don't even have to say it. Everyone knows how bad it is."

Think what you will about Michael Moore or evening one of the convention, I think that sums up precisely what this event is all about and the dynamic on which it's operating. I've seen a slew of articles today arguing that the Democrats must energize their 'base' while not alienating the swing voters John Kerry needs to clinb from the mid-40s past 50%.

But this strikes me as a tired conventional wisdom that has little to do with what's actually happening here.

To be in the hall tonight -- or even to have watched the Democrats closely for the last five or six months -- is to know that that tension or trade-off hardly exists.

When it first occurred to me to write this post I was going to say that partisan Democrats have decided to give Kerry a free hand in appealing to independents and swing voters. But that doesn't get it quite right. That was the case in 1992 when the party's core voters, after twelve years out of the White House, were willing to give Bill Clinton all sorts of leeway with what most viewed as his DLC heterodoxies. But something different is at work here.

Among Democrats, the rejection of this president is so total, exists on so many different levels, and is so fused into their understanding of all the major issues facing the country, that it doesn't even need to be explicitly evoked. The headline of Susan Page's piece in USA Today reads: "Speakers offer few barbs, try to stay warm and fuzzy." But the primetime speeches were actually brimming with barbs, and rather jagged ones at that. They were just woven into the fabric of the speeches, fused into rough-sketched discussions of policy, or paeans to Kerry.

Perhaps it's a touchy analogy, but like voters who understood the code-words Republicans once (and often still do) used to flag hot-button racial issues they dared not voice openly, these Democrats could hear the most scathing attacks on President Bush rattling through the speeches they heard tonight.

I have little to report thus far. I spent most of today getting situated at the place I'm staying, getting my credentials, finding out where everything is and so forth. But what has struck me thus far is that the security -- at least in the hall, and immediate vicinity -- doesn't seem that different from what I remember four years ago at Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

On the streets of Boston, the police presence is palpable. But it's mainly street cops on the corners and stuff like that.

I'm sure the souped-up security is there, probably in places I haven't been. But it hasn't been as visible as you might expect.

(Of course, maybe I've just grown accustomed to the new way of things since September 11th. I don't remember seeing anyone in combat fatigues at either of the 2000 conventions ...)

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