Convention Reports From Jonathan Kendall
By Rabbi Jonathan P Kendall, Martin County Delegate to the Charlotte DNC
The Third, But not the Final Night
September 6, 2012
Among all the senses, taste is the most difficult to describe. One can eat something and the first descriptive words are usually couched in words that suggest "sweet," "sour," or "salty." Then come the similes: it's sort of like… Then you might turn to texture as in "grainy," "dense," or "smooth." In an effort to explain, you call up language that is expressive, evocative and colorful. You really want your listeners (or readers) to catch more than just a glimpse. The vividness of your words allows your audience to understand, to share in what you have just consumed. More often than not when words fall short, I have seen diners thrust a fork or spoon at their table mates so that they can understand what you are trying to convey. Language is a tricky device. In the hands of a wordsmith, they can tell you everything. Sometimes what you are attempting to depict eclipses normative usage. For a long time, words (and deeds) have been my stock and trade, and yet, I find myself at a loss for words in trying to capture the flavor of the final night of the DNC.
Because of weather concerns - the last night of the convention was moved from the stadium to the indoor arena - foolishly I decided that I had time, plenty of time, to make it in and find a seat. Alas, I did not realize that the 65,000+ non-delegate ticket holders would also be scrambling for any and every available space. As I walked over, I saw large crowds of people standing at the barricades that would have been the entrance and word filtered through the throng that the Fire Marshall and the Secret Service had shut the doors and locked down the facility. Throughout my sacred literature, the Holy One sends messengers (in some faiths they are called angels) to either bring news or change the direction of events. I looked to my left (how appropriate) and saw that I was walking next to Senator Al Franken of Minnesota and his entourage. We began to chat as we walked and I expressed concern about being admitted. His words: come with me. He cut through the crowd, identified himself to the Secret Service and said, "And this is one of my staff," thus allowing me to pass the "velvet rope." "The Senate isn't all that different than SNL," he averred, "except it isn't as funny and there are people's lives at stake." We parted company and I miraculously found a seat.
I missed Debbie Wasserman Schultz, but she had spoken to the Florida delegation the day before and was thoroughly peripatetic, a ubiquitous presence throughout the convention. Small in stature, but thoroughly engaged, she was a giant amongst giants and as the chairperson of the Democratic Party, she was in every way a source of inestimable pride to our Florida delegation, to women and certainly, by the longest possible shot, not a despicable character (take that, Allen West - a disgrace to the House and an affront to anyone with an above-room-temperature IQ).
I settled in - I am not sure where, but I could see the Florida delegation in the distance. Now I was seated with strangers, but ideologically, not strangers at all. We were about to share a remarkable evening together. Faces were filled with enthusiasm, anticipation and no small measure of fatigue. These national conventions may seem to move glacially on the small screen, but trust me, they are triathlons that test your mettle emotionally, intellectually and physically when experienced in person.
There was plenty of star power tonight interspersed with the speakers and films, but no empty chairs. Some highlights: former representative Gabby Giffords, accompanied by her friend and colleague, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, led the assembled in the Pledge of Allegiance - not a dry eye in the house. Just as an aside, I have received no less than five robotic-calls from the NRA and its surrogates, either targeting Bill Nelson or Patrick Murphy. Inasmuch as it is a foregone conclusion that the NRA will flex its muscles, we ought to have the moral courage - after Aurora and so many other less publicized individual and group massacres - we ought to have the audacity to talk about gun control (another debate for another time). Caroline Kennedy spoke and evoked memories of Camelot - you will remember that the Kennedy Clan was among the first major supporters of Barack Obama in 2008. Charlie Crist, now an independent, spoke of being too moderate for the Republican party of today. He's correct; even most casual observers doubt that the late Ronald Reagan could "make it" in the fulminating, right-wing, reactionary climate that dominates the modern GOP. John Kerry, with a combination of self-deprecating humor and a fire in his bones, laid waste to the Romney and Ryan ticket as foreign policy novices whose primary advisors are the same group of neo-cons who brought us Iraq and prolonged Afghanistan. Dr. Jill Biden gave a touching portrayal of her husband and Vice President Joe Biden - old school to be sure - delivered "the goods" about working with Barack Obama, his character, his strength, and his determination - the ever-present trope of "how will this impact the average American" playing in the background. Michele Obama introduced her husband and the arena erupted.
As I see it, this is what the President did: he was humble; he was focused, accentuated and articulated fundamental American values and redirected the election from a referendum on his presidency (and on him) to a matter of choice. He doubled down on hope and change, so ridiculed by the loyal opposition (which is anything but loyal) and made these two themes not only respectable but also immediately necessary. His words were a brilliant capstone to an extraordinary convention at a pivotal moment in our nation's history. He was, in every way, THE President and I seriously doubt that there was anyone in that arena who didn't feel that they were in the presence of greatness. Hyperbole is an instrument best wielded deftly and with care. In my heart, I don't believe I am exaggerating or overstating the obvious.
The America we know and love is, at the moment, horribly polarized and filled with roiling hatred. I ask you: what are its origins? To hear the other side tell the tale, the economy, the country, our culture, our values and our destiny all began to tank when Barack Obama was inaugurated. They are running against the very ideas that Barack Obama and the Democratic Party enshrine: diversity, pluralism, justice, equality, compassion, fairness and a willingness to give the other guy the benefit of the doubt. They use a political grammar that allows only for exclamation points; no question marks are welcome.
I am personally proud to have been able to represent Martin County and Florida at the DNC. It closed a circle in my family's life that was a century in the making. More than that, it gave me the hope that we will re-elect a great man who understands both the demands of the office and all that attends it. The days ahead require sacrifice, devotion, time and energy. It is not much to ask when you consider the alternative. I thank you for your faith in me. Now, FORWARD!
September 5, 2012
Vignette # 1
I am in the arena. It is early afternoon and I have come here for a radio interview. Before I can get to “radio row,” where all of the network and local stations have broadcast areas, I feel my arm being grabbed. It is none other than Geraldo Rivera.
“You’re the Rabbi?” he asks. I reply in the affirmative.
“Do you have three minutes? I’d like to interview you.”
I check my time and I certainly have three minutes.
“So, you’re a Rabbi. How can a Rabbi be a Democrat, unless you’re not a Zionist, of course?”
“Why do you say that?” I responded.
“Because everyone knows that Obama has thrown Israel under the bus,” offered the man who brought us Capone’s vault among other stellar moments.
“You’ve been sampling too much of your own product,” I said. Then, throwing caution to the proverbial wind, I mentioned that during the 2004 hurricanes, he was camped out in my neighborhood for two days. “And, you know what? Ever since then my property values have been headed south.” So ended my interview with Geraldo.
Last Night’s Convention
Many, many poignant, exhilarating, electrifying moments…the roll out of the women Democratic Senators, all of them powerful, thoughtful and committed public servants, took the stage to a standing ovation. Their message, even for the misogynist brigade, must have been clear: no return to the 50’s, no surrender of rights, reproductive and otherwise, equal pay for equal work…it was a triumphant statement about the place of women, the role of women and the future of women within the framework of both the country and the Democratic Party. As if to punctuate those sentiments, Sandra Fluke spoke – young, dynamic, commanding – our answer to Limbaugh in the flesh, who did not hesitate to point out that when HER President heard the slander, he spoke of his own daughters. It was a very human moment. Then came Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood’s chief fund-raiser. She told her own tale, including that of her storied mother, the late Ann Richards, former Texas Governor. You may remember her words at another Democratic Convention when speaking about Bush II, she said, “Poor George, he can’t help it, he was just born with a silver foot in his mouth.” When Cecile Richards mentioned her mother, the convention responded with a prolonged standing ovation and there were tears in her eyes. We forget that even politicians are human.
And as the night unfolded, we were building toward the appearance of the most human of politicians, the Big Dog, Bubba, Elvis or just plain Bill. Except there was nothing plain about Bill last night. Piece by piece, brick by brick, Bill Clinton took apart, dismantled – fairly demolished – the GOP and made the case for supporting Barack Obama. Bill Clinton hasn’t always been the best Obama spokesperson. Sometimes he has damned him with faint praise, a vestige of the hotly contested battle for the nomination between Obama and Hillary in 2008. We saw none of that last night. For forty-five minutes, the former President conducted a straightforward clinic in response to Republican distortions and the festival of lies that spewed last week from Tampa. At the same time, he made a compelling rationale (making sense, of course, only to those who are rational) for re-electing Barack Obama. As he concluded, the noise level in the arena grew to almost unbearable levels as each of us reveled in Clinton’s extraordinary, spot-on message. Well, near unbearable until The Man showed up to embrace Clinton. Then the noise level became stratospheric – as though some primal enthusiasm had been rediscovered and reclaimed and then allowed to escape. What an incredible night!
Every morning we have to receive new credentials. From a security standpoint, this is essential. Even though we pass through a screening process to access the arena (run by TSA and the Secret Service), I imagine that duplicating credentials would not be all that difficult. We receive these documents before our morning caucus-breakfast – 8:00 AM, authorization, 8:15 AM, breakfast with the Florida Delegation (some wonderful people, diverse as our state, and all deeply devoted to the ideals of the country and party). I was seated this morning when my telephone began to vibrate and I excused myself to step into the hallway to answer it. It was a 772 area code and while I didn’t recognize the number, I am – while Emeritus – still a Rabbi.
At the end of the line there was a fellow who identified himself as a Jew, a Zionist and he had been to Israel several times and even read the Jerusalem Post. This, apparently (in his mind) established his bona fides with me and also gave himself permission to harangue me.
“How can a Rabbi be a Democrat?” he asked (quite indignantly)…”don’t you know that Obama has thrown Israel under the bus?”
Where have I heard this before? Geraldo? Faux News? Mitt Romney? Paul Ryan? Glenn Beck?
Let’s make several things perfectly clear: I wouldn’t be here in Charlotte if I didn’t believe that the President and his administration fully support Israel. This fact has been repeated time and again by US vetoes at the Security Council, the US diplomatic commitment to a two state resolution that will allow Israel to remain a Jewish, democratic state, greater intelligence sharing, more military assistance and more security guarantees than any previous administration. So, when confronted with the nonsense that the President is somehow anti-Israel, I ask for facts, not Fox or Romney sound bites. The only thing my hapless interlocutors can point to is the sentence in the Republican Platform that says they will recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It was also in W’s platform in 2000 and 2004 and the American Embassy is still in Tel Aviv. Yes, it has symbolic meaning, but truth be told, I am more interested in substance than form – and so should we all be.
There is a segment of the American Jewish community, largely clueless about the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian-Arab-Iranian circumstances and they are a vulnerable population, easily swayed by oft-repeated mythologies and continuously stated assertions that simply ARE NOT TRUE. But mention Israel in ANY way that even sounds as though there might be a scintilla of criticism embedded in the message and their hair spontaneously combusts in a pyre of righteous indignation and it usually presents as “Obama is throwing Israel under the bus,” even though there are no facts to support such a contention. Look, we have Tea Party people who furiously rail against the government – but how many of them are returning their Social Security checks or dropping out of Medicare? Ours is a country of limitless freedom and among them are inconsistency and stupidity.
And you should know that there is a minority in Israel that believes that ceding one inch of land to the Palestinians is a sin and talking to them is a waste of time. It is instructive to be aware that Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was raised in such a home. There are also Palestinian parents who would rejoice if their son or daughter became a shaheed, a martyr, a homicide bomber who was able to serve up as many dead Jews as possible. Unfortunately, just as the majority of Israelis want peace, so do the majority of Palestinians…but, please remember that memory itself is a potent piece of each people’s history and while the past is best utilized as an instrument with which to shape the future, we can also be held captive by it.
There was morning and there was evening, a Second Day.
September 4, 2012
There are times that DO take your breath away. After some time during which my days have passed through Presidents and Prime Ministers, Hollywood icons, Nobel Laureates and military heroes, I have to confess to a certain "been there, done that" internal rhythm. Not jaded, just experienced enough to automatically separate the wheat from the chaff. Nothing in my experience could have prepared me for last night. From the opening gavel to the crescendo of Michele Obama's powerful speech, it was a night of tears, laughter, inspiration, motivation and a spectacular showcase of the Democratic Party, who we are, where we have been and whither we are headed.
The Keynote address was delivered by Julian Castro, the 37 year old mayor of San Antonio. With just the right fire and tone, Castro delivered a masterful paean to Barack Obama and his policies and while he was critical of the Romney-Ryan ticket, there was nothing mean-spirited, hateful or mocking about his words. There was a parade of speakers that preceded him and followed. Some were civilians with stories to tell - auto-workers whose jobs had been saved, a firefighter who had been a life-long Republican until his "own party abandoned him and put his own job at risk." There was a family with a child who was born with a congenital heart defect requiring three operations to repair. Were it not for the Affordable Care Act (many speakers called it Obamacare - derisive on Republican lips, but becoming more popular as more of us realize that Obama DOES care) she would top the cap of her insurance before the third operation. Tammy Duckworth spoke. A light colonel who lost both legs and part of an arm in Iraq, she is running for Congress in Illinois against a Tea Party opponent who says she's not a real hero. Rahm Emanuel was at the podium as were a panoply of Democratic mayors, Senators, Representatives and non-elected folks who were great examples of Obama's successes (providing credible blow-back to the GOP assertion that this administration has failed in every way - when I was a debater in high school, our coach taught us 'Don't EVER say that against your opponent; it opens up too many doors"). Making an appearance as well were Barack Obama's sister and Michele Obama's brother. There was a moving tribute to Sen. Edward Kennedy, missing from a Democratic Convention for the first time since 1946. We felt his presence. And then there was FLOTUS, strong, energized, dramatic and who, at the close, said that her most important role was that of "Mom-in-Chief." She was electric, the hall was galvanized. It was, to put it mildly, quite a day.
Under the heading of "Can you top this?" tonight will be Vice President Joseph Biden and the inimitable, irrepressible, invaluable, William Jefferson Clinton. Can't wait!
I had seven interviews yesterday, squeezed between a Planned Parenthood event that featured Mayor Cory Booker (who was on fire), Rep. Gwen Moore, Aisha Tyler, Lisa Edelstein, Cecile Richards and Rush's favorite slut, Sandra Fluke (what a lovely, thoughtful and exceptional young woman). It WAS a busy day. One interview on NPR with John Hockenberry was interesting. At the close, he threw me a curve: "The convention is deadlocked. Yours is the vote the will decide. What are the things that will earn your vote?"
I said, "The kindness, generosity, compassion and commitment to justice would all be important to me."
As any good journalist (the guy does have a Peabody), he seized on the "kindness" and exclaimed, "So the fate of the entire convention depends on kindness?"
Now, I don't know where or when I heard the line and I averred that it was not mine, but that I agreed with it 100% - that I'll take the heart of a community organizer over that of a venture capitalist or corporate raider any day of the week!
There was morning and there was evening, the first day.
Diversity is Thy Middle Name
September 3, 2012
James Taylor's stage is on the corner about half a block from my hotel. Tonight (as it has been all day) will be a celebration of music, southern cookin', great hospitality and astonishing diversity. I do not find the latter in any way surprising. While Martin County may be a little tame in the diversity department (to some degree, a demographic reality), this national Democratic Convention leans happily and proudly in the opposite direction. There is such a broad range of humanity here that it IS a festival of our country's extraordinary heterogeneous character. Young, old and in between rub shoulders with GLBT activists, feminists and every imaginable racial permutation. A substantial number of African American delegates have brought their children. I remember a lot of Black kids with their parents at Dr. King's "I have a Dream" speech. It is ever important to remember or to be reminded that you were present for an event that altered history. The same will be true for these kids and this convention.
And there is genuine happiness in the air. Yes, there are two panel trucks making the circle just beyond the barricades, one from the Tea Party declaring the Democratic Party and Socialism are one and the same; I don't know the sponsors of the other truck, but it carries a decidedly birther message on its sides along with "Send Obama Back to Kenya" and other choice, fringe commentary. The Donald and Mittens Romney would be delighted as would the rest of the Republican base.
Thus far, I have been interviewed by the Huffington Post, Politico, the Daily Kos; tomorrow, a live interview on NPR at noon. I have told them or will tell them the same thing: when the convention opens tomorrow, you will not see a sea of white faces, alternating between smugness or snarling, frozen in hatred or contempt. You will see the face of America, not without its problems to be sure, but a Technicolor face vested still in hope and change and ready, anxious, enthusiastic, and eager to move forward.
Narratives, Mythology and Just Plain Lies
September 3, 2012
En Route to Charlotte
Every philosophy, religion and political movement has its own narrative. Sometimes this can be instructive. In choosing a setting in which to place the Jewish people into history, the authors of the text selected an unlikely avenue of slavery and degradation. In fact, the most oft repeated phrase in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Torah) is "Remember, you were slaves in the land of Egypt." No Promethean production values; just miserable souls indentured for generations. This would serve as a template throughout the ages for sensitivity, humility and a powerful aversion to the very idea of any sort of oppression. Narratives can also be maddening and highly individual. Imagine Menachem Begin, Israel's Prime Minister, being given the obligatory tour of the Giza Pyramids by Anwar Sadat. Sadat points out the various structures and Begin says, "Yes, I know. We built them." Sadat looked at Begin as though he had lost his mind. Enslaved Hebrews building the pyramids is the Jewish narrative; it enjoys no place in the Egyptian narrative. To hear Israelis tell their tale, the creation of the modern State of Israel represents a 2,000 year old longing fulfilled. The Israelis celebrate their independence day with gusto as a symbol of renewal, self-determination, restoration and freedom. The Palestinians also mark the day but they call it the Naqba, the catastrophe. Narratives can be maddening AND conflicting.
Mythology plays a central role (I would draw a distinction between narrative and mythology because I'm writing this piece and you're not) in shaping our consciousness about who we are. Did the chief protagonists of the Bible really exist? Some may be historical figures (certainly many of the Prophets,) but many more are simply exemplars, designed to teach very human lessons about how to relate to God and each other. No character in the Hebrew Scriptures is perfect; all are flawed in some manner, shape or form. You have to wait for the New Testament before you encounter perfection, but it presents in godly, not human form.
For three days last week we heard a repetitive mythology broadcast from the RNC in Tampa. That mythology is that Barack Obama has failed in every way - culturally, patriotically, economically, foreign policy - the litany of sins is long and grievous. Of course, the reason the President has had to deal with so much is because of the mess George W. Bush and his merry band of deregulators left behind. Fighting two wars off the books, allowing banks to play fast and loose with savings and pension funds, permitting Wall Street to invent exciting, new fiduciary instruments that were but smoke and mirrors and to have but one goal: to insure that Barack Obama fail, to guarantee only one term. They were not coy about this; quite the contrary. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, spoke in front of the cameras hours after the President took the oath of office. His avowed agenda: obstruction at every turn, opposition at any cost. The message was crystal clear: the country could go to hell in the proverbial hand-basket, but we're going to strive for a one term Obama presidency no matter the cost. So, just be way of example, we heard the Republican nominees decry the loss of America's triple-A rating while neglecting to mention that the reason we lost it was Republican opposition, resistance and ferocious enmity to raising the debt ceiling - that eventually gave way to partial sanity, but the damage had already been done.
I am on my way to Charlotte because I embrace another mythology (actually, several mythologies that teach lessons about patriotism, pro bono publico, responsibility, hope and change) just as I enshrine a number of narratives that speak with unmistakable clarity about kindness, fairness, generosity and justice.
Everyone is entitled to their own mythologies and narratives, but for them to find purchase beyond the fringe, you cannot wrap them in lies, decorate them with deceit or bind them with mendacity.
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