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An Early Flurry of Speeches in Search of an Audience


It's a Laker crowd. Fighting the heat, and maybe last night's parties, the delegates are late-arriving and lethargic. Three hours into the second day of the Democratic National Convention, Staples Center is nowhere near half full. And that's without traffic. If the freeways were their usual wonderful selves, the hall might be empty.

Once they do arrive, most delegates don't pay much attention to what's going on up on the podium, presumably the bridge of the deck from which this boat is being steered. They're in the rhythms of a lazy day. The boat is drifting and nobody really cares.

A parade of speakers starts just after 1 p.m., a fleet of suits--grays and blues for the men, pinks and reds for the women. On the floor, delegate dress is more various--Bermudas and Birkenstocks, hiking boots and D.C. statehood T-shirts.

The roster of speakers is back-loaded--big guns at the rear. Up front, after the invocation, the anthem and Los Lobos singing "Once Upon a Time in America," the candlepower of the speech givers is dim. Young pols from the hinterlands, members of Congress not well-known, mayors, state legislators and a few just plain folk.

The afternoon's script is the presentation of the party platform, doled out in bits and pieces. Each speaker is given three minutes to address a portion of it. Some keep to the three minutes. Some have something novel to say.

Ninety percent of what is said is unremarkable and unargued by any party. These Democrats are for good insurance, good schools, more jobs and more cops. They like teachers, veterans, well-paid workers, fair trade and health plans that pay for prescription drugs. They don't like Texas tax cuts.

There are repeated references to the Republican convention's protestations of diversity.

"Unlike that other convention, what you are witnessing here is real. I am an actual African American officeholder," says U.S. Rep Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas. "Philadelphia was a made-for-TV movie. This is the real world."

One theme that runs through almost every talk is the continuing economic boom. That alone, says Jack Ellis, the mayor of Macon, Ga., is reason enough to vote for Al Gore.

"Dance with the one that brung you," he says.

It's evidently too early in the day for dancing. Delegates wander in and out of the hall, catching up with friends or just on walkabouts.

Several speakers pull Ronald Reagans, introducing a cast of Sylvias and Missies and Stephanies, people in projects, hospitals and all the other down-and-out locations of a hard world that will surely turn harder with unwise decisions in the autumn.

There is no debate of any sort throughout the day. This is the much-remarked-on big change of the modern convention: There's nothing to discuss. It's a one-way train of communication, everything flows from the podium down, nothing from the floor back up.

Because so little of what is being said is disagreeable to anyone, most of the delegates are paying no attention whatsoever. The exceptions to this are specific. When a new speaker is introduced, and this happens utterly without fanfare, a cheer will go up in the part of the hall where that speaker's state delegation sits. They shout and holler and sometimes stomp their feet. And the rest of the big room is silent. It's like a second-grade class with a substitute teacher. At any time, one out of 50 is paying attention.

If you didn't know what was going on inside here you'd have a hard time figuring it out. The biggest cheers of the afternoon are for statehood for the District of Columbia--from the district delegation--and full congressional representation for Puerto Rico--from the Puerto Ricans. Everybody else is quiet.

When speakers finish, they don't bask. There's little to bask in. They say thanks and leave and the assembly line rolls on. In three hours, the Democrats spit out 36 speeches.

Many of the speakers leave the stage and head out to their state delegations for handshakes and hugs, local boys and girls made good. They have to hurry to catch the delegates, however. Most state groups pack up and head out of the hall as soon as their native sons and daughters have finished speaking.

One minute, there's a great ruckus in Wisconsin. The next, there is no Wisconsin. Vanished. Not even a whiff of cheese lingers.

This is the C-SPAN effect. Legislators in Washington have learned to look out over an empty chamber and address the steady camera's eye in the rear, pretending with their meaningful glances that the empty seats off screen are full.

The hall itself is like a dance hall with the overhead lights on full, too bright. The floor is springy and feels not quite certain. The place is mostly blue, from the intense Laker-purple chairs on the risers to the softer silvery blues of the podium itself. For most of the day, it's cold too.

Then everything changes. Between 4 and 5, the hall fills; gradually at first, then it's done. The platform is put to a vote. It passes, unceremoniously and unanimously and the day starts over. Almost literally. On the podium, they present the flag for the second time. They sing the national anthem for the second time. They welcome everybody to Los Angeles and the hall for the second time. It's as if the afternoon hadn't happened. If words fall in an empty forest, they were never spoken.

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