Commentary: DNC worthy political theater

Confab equal parts hype, history and Hollywood

DENVER -- A heady mix of hype, history and Hollywood -- that's what best defines this week's Democratic National Convention as Barack Obama became the first black candidate to be nominated for president by a major American political party.

For hype alone, it would be hard to top the moment Wednesday when the roll call of delegates was halted by his chief rival, Hillary Clinton, who moved to anoint the freshman senator from Illinois by acclamation, sending the convention floor into a sea of banner-brandishing whirling dervishes.

Although Obama's Republican rivals have been quick to deride their opponent as a self-absorbed, shallow "celebrity," they likely will find it hard next week in St. Paul, Minn., to conjure the same level of storytelling finesse, of star aura and of cool that surrounded Obama and the other key protagonists who punctuated and punched up the four-day confab.

At the very least, the GOP has nobody like the Clintons to offer such a suspense-filled "will they or won't they?" story line; nor are they likely to come up with such resonant anniversary dates as the Democrats did -- women's right to vote 80 years ago, Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech 45 years ago -- to riff off throughout the week at their own lovefest.

As for the real Hollywood types, they did as expected and showed up in droves -- from Ben Affleck and Annette Bening to Steven Spielberg and Jessica Alba, from Chevy Chase and Josh Brolin to Spike Lee and Angela Bassett. But mostly they stuck to their roles as support players and goodwill ambassadors, clearly aware of the risk that their presence might detract from the main political event or, heaven forbid, turn off those Midwestern housewives who might actually disapprove so much that they vote the other way.

"No one wants to be the reason Obama loses this election" is how one longtime Democratic observer put it to me in describing the low-key approach the stars took. (Only lobbyists, a group that comes under even greater opprobrium than Hollywood celebs, kept a lower profile here.)

Nor did convention organizers relish the idea of talking about Obama himself as "a star," though media pundits throughout the week mulled his choice of delivering his acceptance speech at mile-high Invesco Field, a football stadium that seats 75,000, rather than at the Pepsi Center, where the confab unspooled and which accommodates just 15,000.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe told a discussion group Wednesday that the rationale for the stadium locale was simply "to open the occasion up to the wider public." Still, Obama's perceived or real loftiness is something his opponents are likely to continue to exploit.

Not that there was anything to stop other politicos from making their own star turns.

However boring or woodenly delivered many of the daytime speeches and exhortations were, each evening was crafted to culminate with polished and precisely delivered remarks from the main players, building from Ted Kennedy's emotionally charged call to arms and Michelle Obama's grounded discourse Monday through to Hillary and Bill's -- finally, finally -- elocuted embrace of Obama.

The Clinton perorations, which had been dissected by the pundits all week, did not come across to me as necessarily heartfelt, but they were at least definitive enough to leave no doubt they'd be no obstruction to the Democratic cause. "No way, no how, no McCain" is how Hillary put it to the cheering, banner-waving crowd.

On Wednesday, Bill too managed to pass the baton, declaring that Obama was "ready to lead America and restore American leadership in the world."

After that, DNC organizers and the city of Denver must have wiped their collective brow that by and large their extravaganza unspooled toward its big finish at Invesco without any major hitches.

Yes, there were Cannes-like long waits at the security lines and late starts to delegate events and panel discussions, but most attendees seemed in good spirits.

And just like that Sunday morning in Cannes three months ago when the hordes amassed to await the world-premiere screening of the latest "Indiana Jones" installment, so too by midday Thursday the politically minded hordes were converging on Invesco for a punishingly hot six-hour wait -- but to their minds for a history-making moment.

Said one Denver resident: "Why am I going so early? To make sure I get in to hear Obama. It's the hottest ticket in this town since the Broncos won the Super Bowl. And that was 10 years ago."