As the world waits to hear Barack Obama's message of change tonight at Invesco Field, I am still marveling at how I got to eat dinner last night with the American ruling class. Well, OK, not with, but near - and the experience was one of those "more things change, more things stay the same" moments that make it hard to hear Obama's soothing bromides - and that led me to opt out of the final night of the convention.
Following Bill Clinton's speech at the Pepsi Center, I headed over to Elway's to have dinner with my friend Bill Hillsman, the iconoclastic media consultant who I got to know on Ned Lamont's campaign. We were later joined by Working Families Party executive director Dan Cantor and a few other progressives, and our conversation inevitably ended up focusing on whether Barack Obama would really push the kind of change he is promising.
That's when the ruling class showed up.
Over the course of about 10 minutes, a few Obama advisers trickled into the restaurant, followed by a flood of some of the biggest sharks that swim in the murky delta where money and Democratic politics meet. Among others, Bob Rubin (Citigroup chair), Larry Summers (former Treasury Secretary), Jim Johnson (political rainmaker) and Laura Tyson (former Clinton economic adviser) filed in and sat down at a long dinner table - clearly some kind of economic pow-wow with Obama officials, leavened with other political celebrities like former-vice-president-turned-corporate-board-member Walter Mondale and journalist Al Hunt.
I tried to capture the room in the picture at right. In the foreground you can see a goofy Hillsman posing as a bandit (left) and a grinning Cantor, and in the background, you can see those Ruling Class suits kibbutzing in the background (the tiny gray head above Hillsman's head is Rubin's). The whole scene really summed up the strange oxymoronic forces that collide at conventions like this. Here we were, progressive grassroots activists plotting how to pressure Obama to fulfill his populist promises on issues like trade and corporate power. And right next to us was a dinner party whereby the American Ruling Class feasted on the Obama campaign's innards.
Yes, in some persistent ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
While my newspaper column tomorrow looks at some of the positive aspects of conventions, this dark conniving has been happening all over Denver this week, too. And unlike dinner last night, most of the worst kind of influence peddling happens in total secret at invitation-only parties like AT&T's - the one that feted conservative Democratic lawmakers who recently granted that company legal immunity in the whole warrantless wiretapping scandal.
Perhaps most troubling has been the involvement of government security agencies in trying to repress those protesting and reporting on the corruption. During a walk through downtown at lunch today, the police were (as they have been all week) patrolling the street in full riot gear.
While I understand the need for security at events like this, the visual expression of force - the billy clubs, armor, helmets, and military-style patrols - are clearly designed to intimidate anyone from raising any kind of uncomfortable questions in any kind of public way. And that intimidation includes jailing reporters.
ABC News reports that just yesterday, "Police in Denver arrested an ABC News producer today as he and a camera crew were attempting to take pictures on a public sidewalk of Democratic senators and VIP donors leaving a private meeting at the Brown Palace Hotel." ABC caught the whole thing on tape - and it perfectly captures the obscene use of Denver's municipal government to trample the First Amendment and cover-up brazen corruption.
Denver's municipal government has, in effect, used the need for enhanced security as a rationalization to declare a kind of martial law over the whole city - a martial law enforced by taxpayer-funded security forces whose mission is to serve the public, yet which has too often been deployed this week to crush the public and serve the private Big Money interests that still run the Democratic Party.
As a Denver taxpayer and voter, I am frankly embarrassed for my city, and for its political leaders. Nearly everyone I have talked to in my reporting during this convention has told me how disgusted they are at the city's authoritarian response to what is supposed to be a celebration of democracy.
Between the scene at dinner last night and the constant sound of marching boots that continue to thrum through the Denver police state this week, I opted to bail out on Invesco and head home to my quiet residential neighborhood, where I'm confident that the event telecast will - as it always does - filter out all the real-life ugliness and substantive issues that this election and this convention is supposed to be about. Maybe that's a cop out - like dropping some Soma in a Brave New World.
But then, at least for the final night, I'd rather remember this event for its truly valuable moments that brought together organizers and progressive movement builders, than for its moments that show the ugliest impulses of money, incumbency, and authoritarianism that still eat away at the Democratic Party.