Transcript

34:

Democratic Convention
Transcript

Originally aired 08.30.1996

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/34

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Sure, the Democrats are doing great in the polls this week, but to consider where they are as a party, consider please the case of Joe Cabazuela, a middle class guy, used to vote Democratic, lives in San Diego, in a state that the Democrats have to take if they're going to take the White House. And let's begin with this fact about him. Although his parents emigrated from Mexico and eventually became citizens, he says that his entire family is in favor of proposition 187, the law that would deny public services to illegal aliens, no public schooling, no social services.

Joe

To me, I don't think they should get a free education. If they want an education, they want to come over here, let them pay for it. Me, as a Mexican-American, I cannot go over there and get it. Their government is not supplying the needs of the people over there. That's why they're coming over here, because this government's giving it away free. Charge them for it. That's the way I see it.

Ira Glass

He says he voted Democratic most his life. And then, when George Bush ran for president, he just started seeing things differently. And although he, himself, had been on and off welfare a couple times, and although his daughter has been on welfare for five years herself, what the Republicans were saying, especially about welfare, made a lot of sense to him.

Joe

Because I could be on disability if I wanted to. Because of my legs I am disabled. I've had three surgeries. But I refuse to sit at home and watch TV and collect a monthly check. That's not me. I believe that that's what made this country great, is the fact that we can work.

Ira Glass

The Republicans seem to share these middle class values. When I asked him if he liked any of the things that Democrats stood for, he paused a long, long time. And then finally he said--

Joe

Well, what do they stand for? Women in the military. Gay rights.

Ira Glass

It wasn't that he disagreed with them. It's that they seem to stand for nothing, which brings us to the topic at hand-- this week's Democratic National Convention. Delegates had been instructed that when they talked to the press, they were to talk about the three big themes-- three big themes, I should say, designed precisely to win over voters like Joe Cabazuela.

Ruth Horowitz

We have been told that we should be emphasizing the themes of opportunity, responsibility, and community.

Ira Glass

But these themes are so vague. It's so vague. Anything could be community, opportunity, and responsibility. I mean, those could be the Republican themes.

Ruth Horowitz

That's true. That's true.

Ira Glass

In fact, this woman, Ruth Horowitz, told me that her delegation, which was from Vermont, had been playing this little game with the theme. The way that it worked is that you'd try to make up a sentence using all the three words, and then you'd try to work that sentence into everyday conversation.

Ruth Horowitz

So for example, if you're getting into the cab, you say something like, I feel it's my responsibility as a member of this community to give you the opportunity to get in first.

Ira Glass

In a certain way, this was not that different from what people were trying to do in seriousness. Several people went through the motions for me of trying to express their beliefs in terms of the three big themes. But it always had the air of somebody fulfilling a ninth-grade essay topic. It never had the directness and conviction that the Republican delegates in San Diego had when they talked to me about their very concrete goals-- 50% tax cut, banning abortion, getting school vouchers, stuff like that. And it's hard to imagine Joe Cabazuela would have been satisfied with what he heard among the Democrats.

Well, I don't know if I can find a fancy way to say this, but from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week, we bring you stories from a variety of writers and performers on some topic. In this hour, today, stories from the Democratic Convention you probably have not heard elsewhere, and how did the Democrats communicate what they stand for?

Act One, A Little Tour Inside the Message Machine. Act Two, the latest installment of Michael Lewis' Campaign Diaries. This week-- Michael makes Al Gore nervous. Act Three, this act, you may remember a bestselling book from a few years ago called There Are No Children Here by a writer named Alex Kotlowitz. There was a Oprah Winfrey movie of this. It was about two boys growing up in Chicago's Henry Horner public housing projects. Well, those projects are the projects that are directly across the street from the Democratic Convention. And one of the kids from that book, who's now grown up, gives us a tour. There's been some superficial cleaning up for the convention, you've probably heard, but there's a way more profound and interesting change going on in the neighborhood as well. Act Four, webmaster and Beverly Hills, 90201 expert, Danny Drennan on the convention, and more. Stay with us.

Act One. A Little Tour Inside the Message Machine.

Ira Glass

Act One. Two days before the Republican Convention started, security was already very tight. Two days before the Democratic Convention, it was still possible just to breeze into the hall, walk into all the hidden corridors, go straight to the makeup room, to the speech writers' room, to the sign rooms, which are basically these big freezers filled with pre-printed signs for the pre-planned floor demonstrations. They said stuff like "The Brady Bill," "10 Million New Jobs," "Protecting Education."

Late Saturday night, senator Barbara Boxer came into the mostly empty hall with a few aides, just to check it out. The wall of TV screens that's behind the podium had no images on them before she stepped on the dais. And then, as if activated by the mere presence of a United States senator, they filled with heartwarming black-and-white images of everyday Americans. Most of the other people in the hall to witness this were balloon wranglers.

One of the problems of trying to report on these conventions over a television and radio is that it's hard to convey the sheer size of what they're about, the hundreds of lavish parties each day, the millions of dollars of TV studios and offices bought and brought in just for this occasion, an Olympic village of these in trailers outside the hall, which all get torn down after four days. So to get a sense of the scale of this, let's just take one small aspect of it, and let's take the balloon drop. 150,000 balloons, in bags of 1,000 balloons each, they get hoisted slowly up to the ceiling of the United Center.

This is the second biggest balloon drop ever, according to Tanzi Lewis, who's one of the minority contractors who got the contract to do the drop.

Ira Glass

What's the next biggest job you've done to this job?

Tanzi Lewis

To be honest, my largest odd-job was at the Taste of Chicago this summer.

Ira Glass

How many balloons was that?

Tanzi Lewis

That consisted of only 1,000 balloons.

Ira Glass

So that's just the number of balloons in one of these bags.

Tanzi Lewis

That's correct.

Ira Glass

It took 150 people four days and nights to fill the balloons. They did it at Malcolm X College, which is just two blocks from the convention site. One can only imagine what Malcolm X would have said about all this. Upstairs in the school, "By Any Means Necessary" is painted on the wall. Downstairs, 150 people were filling balloons to celebrate Bill Clinton, loading those into huge nets, each 40 feet long.

If you picture a bag that you could drive three pickup trucks into, you've pretty much got the idea of what one of these things look like. And 11 of them, filled with red, white, and blue balloons, lay on the floor of the gymnasium. The air was thick with the plastic, powdery smell of balloons. There's a sentence you don't get to say very often.

Tanzi Lewis

Take, twist, turn, in the net. Take, twist, not in the net.

Ira Glass

What is that, athletic tape around your fingers?

Tanzi Lewis

Right, to keep it from burning, because after a while your fingers start to burn. You get, like, a blister.

Ira Glass

Surprisingly, even here, in Democratic Chicago, in a roomful of people preparing a big party for Bill Clinton, people who don't even know if they're going to get paid for their work, feelings about the president were tepid.

Ira Glass

Now, are you a big President Clinton supporter?

Woman

No. I mean, I support him because he's the president, but I'm voting for Dole.

Ira Glass

Really?

Woman

Yeah.

Ira Glass

How come?

Woman

Because I am a born-again Christian, and I don't believe in abortion, and I don't believe in certain things that President Clinton is for. America is turning away from God. And so, therefore, the God is turning from America. And I really do. And that's why you're having high crime rates.

Ira Glass

Across the room, 11-year-old Jaris King and two other people hoist a 40-foot-long bag of balloons over their heads and carry it out into the hallway. And Jaris declares, to no one in particular--

Jaris King

I feel like I'm a black smurf.

Ira Glass

It does kind of look like a job for the smurfs. The balloons are carried down the hall, up a stairway, around a series of tight turns and doorways, out onto a loading dock, and over two blocks on Damen to the convention building, where they're checked by the Secret Service, and then lifted up to the ceiling.

Woman

There's three days of work for a few seconds of special effects. And it doesn't really make sense, but we gotta do it anyway.

Ira Glass

Of course, there has to be a balloon drop. It's the kiss at the end of the wedding. It's the money shot.

Heather Booth

Democrats all, delegates, alternates, friends, families, on to victory in '96, welcome to this issues forum, this overview.

Ira Glass

Monday morning, the hotel ballroom.

Heather Booth

We've got several speakers today describing what the winning strategy is for the Democrats, and to arm us so we go out for doing battle. I'm Heather Booth, the training director of the Democratic National Committee.

[APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

Every day, the DNC held these morning seminars. They combine practical information about campaign law, the latest talking points on issues, speakers, like campaign strategist James Carville, who used a mix of truths, half-truths, and, I have to say, real whoppers to inspire the party faithful.

James Carville

And I love when the Republicans and Bob Dole say, "Well, the teachers are all for the Democrats." OK, yeah, the teachers are for the Democrats. The tobacco companies are for the Republicans. Now, I got a question for ya. When your kids grows up, what would you rather do, be a teacher or smoke cigarettes?

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

In fact, the tobacco companies sponsor both political parties, and that support included sponsorship of a number of events at this very convention. After Carville, Congressman Steny Hoyer presented a series of charts and graphs on overhead slides to make the case for how the Democrats could take 20 new seats in the House of Representatives, which would give them the House majority, and knock Newt Gingrich out of the speaker's chair.

Steny Hoyer

Now, this is the important point, because I want all of you to believe, deeply ingrained, intellectually and emotionally, when you go back to your states, Hoyer was right, we can win back the House of Representatives. Republicans currently hold 28 seats that traditionally perform Democratically. These are Democratic seats. We oughta have 'em. Republicans hold 77 seats that Clinton won.

Ira Glass

33 of these Republican seats belong to freshmen who came in with less than 55% of the vote. It was one chart after another, each with a climbing upward yellow arrow. When it came to the part of the presentation where Congressman Hoyer had to name actual races that were in the bag, he could only name five or six. If you ask nonpartisan experts who follow this kind of thing, like Charles Cook, who publishes a well-known Washington newsletter called Cook's Political Report, they put the Democrats' chances of taking back the House this way.

Charles Cook

I think Democrats have about a 30% or 40% chance of getting the House back, but that's down from about 50%, 40% or 50% maybe a month or so ago. One of the questions we're watching very carefully is something called the Generic Congressional Ballot test. It's when you ask, if the election were held today, would you vote for the Democratic candidate for Congress or Republican candidate? And we were seeing Democrats with a six-, seven-, even eight-point lead on a lot of polls late June, early July. And at that level, it was roughly a tidal wave of the magnitude that you saw Republicans win in 1994. Today, it's down at the two- or three-point range, which is right about at the edge of what they need to to get that House back.

Ira Glass

Interestingly, Mr. Cook was one of the experts Congressman Hoyer cited, but when Congressman Hoyer quoted him, it was to support the case that a Democratic sweep was imminent.

In the convention hall, the rule of thumb is that the fewer colorful buttons someone wears, the more important they are. You probably also didn't see this at home-- but does everybody know this-- periodically throughout the convention, everyone on the floor would stop the business of politics and just do the Macarena. It happened over and over. The Macarena is the official song of the Democratic National Convention.

A political convention like this essentially has to solve a theatrical problem, how to take an ordinary person and make him seem larger than life. And that problem is compounded in the age of television, because who could we possibly know more intimately then we know Bill Clinton. He's in our homes every day on television. We've heard about his sex life. We've heard about his finances. We've heard about his bad investments. We know his ideas. We know what he eats. We know what the man wears jogging.

I mean, do you know what your friends wear jogging? Justin Hayford attended the Convention for American Theater. And he said to make him seem larger than life in this setting, they used one of the oldest tricks in the book, and that is the long, slow arrival. You know, where the person's constantly being announced. We're constantly hearing word of the great man's imminent arrival. And of course, there was the train trip, the 1,800-mile mile train trip.

Justin Hayford

That's gorgeous, because the most postmodern element about this convention is the performance of absence, that they are working extremely hard to make his absence a sort of ache, a longing for this man. And so, from the very first day, there are train updates. I don't know if these ended up on television or not, but there are train updates where they cut away on the large video screen to a little schematic map of his 1,800-mile train route, going through the Heartland, of course. And they would say, and here's a live shot of his train pulling into Lindley, Ohio or somewhere.

And you see a train going by. And people cheer as though they haven't seen a train before. And so he's getting closer and closer, and the gospel choir comes out and they sing, "If you want him, if you need him, if you adore him, shout yes." And they never mention who him is, so one must assume it's the president. So we're following his progress. I thought he was going to sail across the lake, is what I had heard, which I thought was a sort of beautiful, Cleopatraesque move, like coming in on a great golden barge, but he didn't. He came in by helicopter, which is quite an entrance.

And then Daley said, "Mr. President, we've waited four days to see you." Which I thought was the ultimate capper to that entrance, which is, we're dying for your presence, we are dying to eat you with our eyes, as though we haven't for the last four years. Every intimate detail of his life, we've seen.

Ira Glass

So in the hall, did this create an aching desire to see the president? Well, Justin Hayford says that on the first day, with the first train update--

Justin Hayford

People screamed like it was David Bowie or something. And yesterday, I was there in the afternoon, and they did the same thing. It was the newest train update, and nobody paid any attention to it.

Ira Glass

Of course, he says, when Bill Clinton finally did appear in person, by that point, he had appeared so many times in the hall on video, that there was something kind of thrilling to see him in person. You know, you're so used to him on television,. And in the age of television, that is the rarest thing of all, to see the man live. And the theater of it is really hard to beat.

Wesley Willis

[SINGING] You are so nice to me. You are on my side. You are the man with the Midas touch. You are on my side with the Midas touch. Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton. You are the man who has the plans. You have the ability to put people to work. You are the President of the United States.

Ira Glass

I'm just going to stop the song right there. That is my favorite line in this song, and maybe in almost any song. OK, here's your writing assignment. You want to write a song about the president. This, by the way, is Wesley Willis, a local Chicago artist. So what are you go to say? Well, you know, you can kind of run out of things of inspiration, so then you can just going into just straight factual mode. You are the President of the United States.

Wesley Willis

[SINGING] You are the man who has the plans. You have the ability to put people to work. You are the President of the United States. I like you a lot and I will award you. Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton.

Act Two. Campaign Diaries.

Ira Glass

Act Two, No Show. 15,000 members of the press were here in Chicago for the convention. And, well, you probably have guessed that political conventions are a big reunion for party regulars of the two major political parties. And unless you think about it, you might not realize that, for many reporters, it's also a big reunion. I saw people at the convention who I have not seen in years. And that was true in San Diego as well.

So what do people talk about at these very high-powered media events? Well, as far as I can tell, it's a little politics, a lot of gossip. And then, the other night, I was with some friends visiting from New York City to cover the convention, and my friends from New York got into this conversation that was so strange to me that, at some point, I pulled out my tape recorder and just started taping them.

The conversation was about The New York Times. And it began when one of the New Yorkers said, with pleasure, with a kind of intense pleasure, actually, that the Times arrives at 7:00 in the morning at the hotel. She sort of announced this. At home, she gets the Times at 5:30, which is better, of course, but 7:00 was still just very, very good, above the sort of standard that they were all used to when they travel around in hotels.

Then all the New York media people started quizzing each other about The New York Times at length, in minute detail. Chess columnists who'd gone on to other beats, and people who had moved to Atlanta and from Atlanta, people who I have never even heard of.

Man 1

Who does his main beat is basically, like, feelings and psychology.

Woman 1

Oh, Gorman.

Man 1

Yeah. Wow, I thought--

Woman 1

Do you know Gorman?

Man 1

--that it'd be harder. Who's the doctor columnist? Medical?

Woman 1

Ah, what's his name? Altman.

Man 1

Who sometimes uses MD and then sometimes doesn't.

Ira Glass

My more or less atheist friends from the liberal, elite media have the same relationship to The New York Times that certain Catholics have with the Vatican. The Times speaks definitively. They kneel before it. They quibble with it. They sneer. I have to say, this was the most animated conversation they had all night, and it lasted, like half an hour. I mean, at some point, I just had to say good night. They could've kept going.

Man 2

OK, now, Steven I know knows this, so I'll just post it to the rest of you. Who is most likely, if it's discovered that there is or is not a god, who is most likely to have the story?

Woman 2

Rosenthal.

Man 2

No, there is one reporter who is the existential reporter for the Times.

Ira Glass

There you have it, life in the fast lane. Overpriced drinks came from the hotel bar, went quickly onto some TV network's charge card. Well, one reporter who was here with the 15,000 was Michael Lewis, who has been publishing his Campaign Diaries in The New Republic. I'm reading them from time to time on our very program. He's new to this whole pack journalism thing, and to political conventions. And here's the latest installment from his Campaign Diaries.

Michael Lewis

August the 19th, one moment I'm sleeping soundly in my hotel room in San Diego, the next the phone is ringing and a voice on the other end of the line is asking, "This is the Vice President's office, can you take the call?" Al Gore himself is on the line. In a moment of weakness, thinking that maybe I should interview someone important, I had sent a message to Gore's office saying that I wanted to speak with him. I hardly expected him to take it seriously.

"It's nerve-racking getting a call from the Vice President," I say, pretending to be wide awake. Gore chuckles unhappily. I've made him uncomfortable. "No, seriously," I say. "This is the highest I've climbed in the world." This merely makes things worse. "I don't believe that at all," he says nervously, attempting to maneuver me back into some acceptable mode of political discourse. "I have only five minutes to interview. Two of them are now gone."

Well, I'm sort of curious to know if Gore's environmentalism, as it appears, has vanished down the sinkhole of practical politics. But the Vice President's conversation is littered with "franklies," and "to be honest with you's," and "it is my understanding's," all of which translates into civilian English as, I'm never going to tell you the truth about anything, so why on earth are you asking?

Before he hangs up, Gore tells me that, A, Americans truly are committed to nature, B, that he's not more intimidated having to debate Jack Kemp than having to debate, say, Connie Mack, and C, that the collection of speeches written by White House speech writers and now published as a book by Bill Clinton was penned entirely by Clinton himself. It is his understanding, Gore says.

August the 26th and 27th. Your first day at a convention is like your first day at school. Upon seeing the hordes, your first instinct is that something important is happening, that everyone must know something you don't. For a few hours, I'm engaged in a wild, undignified scramble to find out what that something is. During this uncomfortable period, all sorts of information lands on my lap-- a stack of old articles from Chicago Magazine, drafts of speeches by retired congressmen, lists of delegates, stuff no one in his right mind would read. But nothing can be ignored. I even interview a delegate.

But then there is this tremendous noise on one side of the convention hall, a spontaneous outbreak of whistles and cheers that draws all the attention to the entrance beneath the Nevada delegation. The sound is exactly what you would expect if a billionaire was handing out sacks of cash, of if a woman were performing a striptease. Here, I think, is clearly where the action is. I plow through the crowd to find out what it is. It is Al Gore.

A normal person might well wonder what 15,000 journalists are doing covering an event of dubious importance. It's not an easy question to answer. The journalists who write about other journalists, like Howie Kurtz of the Washington Post, write about the futility of being a journalist at the Democratic Convention. The Post, I'm told, has sent the same number of people here as they have in all their foreign bureaus combined. The famous journalists invert their occupation and give interviews to other journalists. The rest of us are resigned to finding some nugget slightly different from the nuggets of others.

It turns out few of the journalists actually attend the convention, except during prime time. The journalists remain in their tents outside the United Center. In the first two days, between 3:30 in the afternoon and 7:00 at night, maybe a few dozen people pass through the section of the hall reserved for the periodical press. This is a shame, because the best time to be in the hall is when no one is paying much attention.

For example, Hillary Clinton pops in mid-afternoon to check the mic levels and the height of her podium. She steps up in her pink suit, and when she sees that the podium is too high, kicks off her pink heels. She stands there girlishly in her stockinged feet, asking too many questions of the men around here. And you can see that, like everyone else who plays her adamantine role, she is far more vulnerable than she lets on. Later I hear from one of her speech writers that she's as nervous as she looks. It's her first speech in prime time.

Even after the convention begins, no one pays it much heed. And so, when Dick Gephardt speaks, I'm able to crawl right up behind him on the platform and see what life looks like from the speaker's point of view. Essentially, life looks predetermined. The speaker stares into four teleprompters, one at his left shoulder, another at his right shoulder, a third mounted straight ahead of him across the hall just beneath the cameras, so that he can appear to be looking at you when you're watching him on TV. The fourth is embedded into the podium, just above his navel.

Gephardt's speech, in letters four inches high, like the text of a book for the elderly, scrolls gently across. Gephardt has only to swivel back and forth between the teleprompters and pretend not to be reading word for word, which he is. "We meet here to offer a vision, not just a show for television," he is saying. No wonder no one listens. Part of the thrill of watching a public speaker lies in the risk the speaker takes in putting himself before you.

Jesse Jackson, for one, understands this. In the first two days, he alone shuts down the teleprompters and speaks from loose notes. And he alone fully engages the crowd. Interestingly, the moment he first brings the crowd to its feet is just the moment that he leaves his notes.

But Jackson is the exception. The average convention speech arises not out of the need of the speaker to say something important, but out of the speaker's desire to have delivered a speech at the convention. Its purpose, from the speaker's point of view, is to establish his position in the official structure of the Democratic Party. The big exception are the speeches designed to make people cry-- Ron Brown's widow, Jim Brady's wife, and Christopher Reeve are, of course, well-known victims. The speeches delivered by relative unknowns in the wee hours of the afternoon contain wagon-loads more of the same bathos.

Here is a representative sample of opening lines, snatched in a single pass at the press table. "As the father of a child brutally murdered by a habitual violent criminal--" "As many of you know, my husband was a former tobacco lobbyist who died this past March." "December 7, 1993, that was the day a man with a semiautomatic weapon boarded the train. My husband was one of those killed."

By early in the second day, you can see that people's capacity to absorb bad news has dwindled to nothing. A pleasant middle-aged woman describes the recent death of her husband from lung cancer, for instance, and no one in the hall pays her any mind. It is an incongruous sight, a woman in bright yellow, on the verge of tears as she relates her tragic loss, over a loud hum from the audience below, most of which is engrossed in small talk and hot dogs.

Raising my binoculars-- necessary equipment here-- from the floor to the ceiling, I can't help but notice something. The higher you get, the whiter the people get. Almost all of the black people are on the floor. The faces in the sky boxes are lily white. A nugget!

At the end of the first evening, I make my way up to the sky boxes. The sky boxes at the convention, it turns out, are much like the sky boxes at the Bulls games. They've been reserved for the rich people and their companies who can afford to pay for them. These include some of the 72 corporate CEOs, many of them Republicans, who coughed up $100,000 each to be honorary vice chairmen of the Democratic Convention.

Here is where you see curtained-off rooms decorated with signs that say "The Democratic Party would like to thank especially the Chicago Board Options Exchange and Patton Boggs LLB." Here is where you can find the people on whom the politicians focus their private attention. These people sit sipping red wine and nibbling on goodies, looking down upon the politicians, who tomorrow will have no choice but to take their phone calls.

It's the end of the first night and pretty much everyone has left. But inside one of the many suites toils a middle-aged woman in a black-and-white penguin suit. For maybe half an hour, the woman works alone, tossing out open but untouched bottles of wine, and dumping large silver trays of food into giant green trash bags. The food tumbles into the bag in mouth-watering heaps. Chicken and beef satay, fried potato puffballs, shrimp remoulade, thinly sliced meats rolled up like oriental carpets.

I'm curious what the woman is being paid to chuck out thousands of dollars of untouched food, but ask instead more generally about salaries at the United Center. "You mean what do I make?" she asks cheerfully as she empties a cow's worth of beef satay into the garbage. "$4 an hour." "This was one of the rooms reserved for the White House staff," the woman says idly. "They never came. They never called to cancel."

That's when you know you've arrive in the Democratic Party, I think, when you don't even care to use your reserved suite. When I watched George Stephanopoulos in the Chicago Health Club earlier today, reading the newspaper as the convention unfolded on the TV above his head, I didn't appreciate what I was seeing. The coolest thing to be at the Democratic Convention is a no-show.

Ira Glass

Michael Lewis' Campaign Diaries appear in The New Republic. Coming up, Michael Lewis lets us listen in on a private conversation he has with President Clinton, and read some advanced copies of Hillary Clinton's speeches. Actually, he just talks to us about Dick Martin. Dick Morris. Dick Martin! He talks to us about Dick Martin. He talks to us about Dick Morris. Anyway, that's coming up in a minute, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week, on our program, of course, we choose a topic and bring you documentary stories, radio monologues, reportage, found tapes, anything we can think of. Our subject today is the Democratic Convention that has been happening right here in our own backyard in Chicago, which is where we broadcast from.

So Michael Lewis wrote those diary entries that you just heard. And then, on the last day of the convention, when he came into our studio to record them, the news had broken that campaign strategist Dick Morris, the strategist who pushed the president to embrace family values, had let a prostitute listen in on phone conversations he had with the president and looked at the first lady's convention speech. Michael had not written about this yet, but he had thoughts about it.

Ira Glass

Your first emotional reaction to the news about Dick Morris was--

Michael Lewis

Glee. I was very happy. And I guess I shouldn't have been, right? Because it's a very sad thing that happens to someone, a family man caught with a prostitute. And I'm not quite sure why I felt such glee. But I'm still very happy, as you can see. I think what it is is that I've been covering this process for now six months, and the serious political people-- Dole and Clinton, anyway-- present this sort of slick facade that's entirely phony, so that whenever anything like this that's seemingly authentic happens, it comes as an enormous relief, some little glimpse of reality.

And you feel like their best-laid plans have been completely shattered by their advisor's desire to get laid. You can't help but dwell on it. I mean, compare that one incident to the entire Democratic Convention, and which is more interesting? Which will people talk about? It's no question, people are going to talk about Dick Morris and the prostitute.

Ira Glass

And what could they have been talking about at the convention or in their campaigns that would have provided a counter?

Michael Lewis

Well, I just imagine if it had been a different time, or a time when the major parties were seriously grappling with major social problems, if someone was talking about, I don't know, things like the maldistribution of wealth, or the need for universal health care, or big social problems and addressing them in an interesting way, there'd be at least some counterweight to this. There'd be something else you want to talk about. There's nothing that's been said at the Democratic Convention that you care to dwell on.

Ira Glass

Right. Instead, in the Democratic Convention, it's all just, let's not get kids to smoke.

Michael Lewis

Right. It's a parade of unobjectionable sentiment.

Ira Glass

And small issues rather than big ones.

Michael Lewis

Right. Let's not frighten people, let's just-- it's just kind of, I don't know, low-level niceness, which I find really unpleasant.

Ira Glass

It's interesting comparing it to '92, because remember in '92 when the Gennifer Flowers story came out, one of the spins that was put on it, I remember, was precisely James Carville saying, look, you can talk about the sex stuff all you want, but what we're talking about is national health care. That's what we're talking about.

Michael Lewis

And it worked. I mean, people are interested in big issues. And if you confront the society head on and talk to it directly about things that concern it deeply, people won't be that distracted by the other things. I mean, you can see kind of a maturation in the electorate with regard to peccadilloes that-- I think there are all sorts of reasons for this. But Bill Clinton has been a great educator-- that we don't need our politicians to be saints.

Ira Glass

Are you sort of surprised what you found once you went out and followed the campaigns around as much as you have?

Michael Lewis

Well, you know, I've always thought of myself as a good Democrat. It's probably more true to say that it was a good liberal. But I'm having this very weird experience in covering the campaign, actually getting close to politics, which I've never really done until six months ago. I think I know now what it feels like to be an adolescent boy who discovers that he's more sexually attracted to boys than to girls. That I'm discovering, here I've gotten into this process thinking I'm a Democrat, and I'm discovering that I'm more attracted to Republicans than to Democrats, thinking maybe I'm a Republican. So I'm just sorting this out, why I have these feelings. And maybe a few months of therapy and some discussion with friendly Democrats, maybe I'll come around.

Ira Glass

So why do you think you're having these feelings? Is it because of their ideas? Are you agreeing with them on the school voucher and on the 15% tax cut?

Michael Lewis

No. You see, this is what's so strange about it, is that I still disagree with them as much as ever. I just like them more. I found that they're generally more truthful, easier to-- I've learned more from them. And I also feel like, it's easier to have an open discussion and disagree. With Democrats-- and maybe because they're in power in the White House, I'm covering a presidential campaign, it just always feels like this-- their careers are at stake whenever I'm talking to them. Whereas with a number of Republicans who I've been writing about, I feel like they're just talking to me, and making sense to me. And where we disagree, we can disagree.

Ira Glass

So do you feel like that's also a function of the fact that the Republicans are themselves more the party of ideas and more trying to work out their ideas of what it means to be a conservative? Does it mean you're more libertarian? Does it mean that you're more a fiscal conservative? Does it mean you're more Christian right kind of--

Michael Lewis

Oh, I think that's very true. I think it's completely true, that most of the interesting debate is taking place in the Republican Party. Where is the interesting debate about welfare reform? It should be in the Democratic Party, and it's not happening. There's a war in the Republican Party about abortion still, and about all sorts of related social issues. There are Republicans who will fight it out with Jack Kemp about supply-side economics.

Ira Glass

And on the Democratic side?

Michael Lewis

Well, my feeling on the Democrat's side is just, right now it's all about winning, that no debate will happen until after November. It's very fallow on the Democratic side, not very interesting. You don't sit down with Democrats and have interesting discussions about policy.

Ira Glass

Michael Lewis. If you want a good time, pick up his book, Liar's Poker. He's assembling his Campaign Diaries in a new book. That'll be out some time.

Act Three. Neighbors.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Neighbors. You've probably heard at this point about the multimillion dollar cleanup Chicago has done for the convention, along the route between the downtown hotels, especially, and the United Center where the convention is held. Well, one night after the convention, I jumped into a cab with some other people, some strangers. We sped up Monroe Street, them to the hotels, me back to the radio studio. The moon was out, the air was perfect, the street was freshly paved.

And a woman from Washington, DC, a lobbyist, who had attended the convention in a sky box, remarked, "Chicago is so wonderful. There are no potholes, no homeless people, and the weather's so beautiful." I don't even know where to begin with that. I mean, I did not know that money could buy that amount of misinformation and misperception. I did not know that it was possible to create that. I'm sure you know about the weather, right? She's just as wrong about the potholes and the homeless people.

Well, our next story is about our multimillion dollar civic cleanup. You may remember the bestselling book There Are No Children Here from a few years back. In There Are No Children Here, writer Alex Kotlowitz described the lives of two brothers at the Henry Horner homes. And the book was made into a TV film by Oprah Winfrey. It's been mentioned many times in speeches by Jack Kemp and others.

Well, Henry Horner is the public housing project that sits directly across the street from the United Center. And when Chicago did its multimillion dollar cleanup for the Democratic Convention, it cleaned up some of Horner as part of it. Well, the boys from Alex Kotlowitz's book are now young men and they don't actually live at Horner anymore, though they go back every now and then. And one of them, Pharoah Walton, who's now 18, put together this story. He gives us a little tour of what has changed at Horner because of the convention, and what hasn't changed.

Pharoah Walton

When I left Henry Horner five years ago, it looked like a ghost town, no green grass, broken windows, graffiti everywhere. Now Henry Horner is a different place. There are rows of flowers outside the maintenance building, and new windows in the office where my mother used to pay rent. There are trees, new elevators. Most of the changes are on the side of the buildings that face the United Center. And on Washington Street, where the old [? Bernie ?] School used to be, there's a new playground, with a big lot and a huge, new blue and green jungle gym, nicer than any playground I've ever seen in the city, even on the north side, and everyone knows why.

Girl

I like it. It's fun. I know why they did it, because the president's coming. And then they'll all be taking kids and they gonna be killing people. The president [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Pharoah Walton

People say a lot of other things, too, and not all of them make sense, like what Canoe Howe told me about the playground.

Canoe Howe

The Democratic new convention coming. And now I can't be outside. [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] There going to be a lot of police in our building, and the president supposed to be in our building.

Pharoah Walton

People at Horner are glad about the physical changes, but most of them say that they're mad that it took a president before the city would clean up a parking lot, or plant a tree. Some things at Henry Horner have changed, and some things are still the same, like shooters and hot days. When I was a kid, I would run in the house when the shooting started, same with my nephew, Snuggles, and his friend, Jeremy, today.

Boy 1

They always trying to shoot on a hot day.

Boy 2

They start gang-banging whenever a hot day. And then all the kids gotta go in the house. Like two weeks ago, some girl got shot. She got shot in the eye.

Boy 1

Probably dead now.

Boy 2

She is dead.

Boy 1

They be shootin' all the time.

Boy 2

Over there.

Pharoah Walton

Usually, when you hear about the projects, you hear that things are bad and they're getting worse, but when I went to Horner, I heard a different story. There are still shootings, still drugs, still gangs, but mostly people told me that things have slowed down. In 1991, the residence of Henry Horner filed a lawsuit against the city and won. Because of that, the Chicago Housing Authority is cleaning it up, renovating old apartments, putting in a new elevators, tearing down the worst buildings. They've moved 233 families out of Horner since 1995, and installed 24-hour security guards. My friend Sylvia told me she feels safer.

Sylvia

It's doing a lot better since 20 years it was looking around here, so crime gonna stop a lot better, too. They ain't doing too much shootin' or nothing, so it's good. Police are around a little more, so that's better, too, since they put that United Center out there, because they watch that a lot.

Pharoah Walton

Sylvia says police are always driving around the neighborhood since the United Center was built. Now, I visited my grandmother, and she said the same things, that things are getting better. We sat in her apartment, with gospel music on the radio and a preacher on the television, and she told me about life at Horner now.

Pharoah Walton's Grandmother

But it's not too bad around here. I never read about nothing happening around here, like somebody getting killed in a drive-by shooting. It's not too bad. I walk out this house every day and those lights be out. I have to take a flashlight, but I'm not afraid. I'm not afraid. Of course, I got God, first of all.

Pharoah Walton

One of the things that the president and the delegates at the convention won't see when they look at Horner from across the United Center parking lot is the Boys & Girls Club. Physically, the Boys & Girls Club hasn't changed since I was little-- old pool tables, a basketball court, cinderblock walls. It's not in great shape.

I talked to the grandfather of the community, Major Adams. He's worked at the Boys & Girls Club for 40 years. Everybody knows him and everybody respects him. Kids will listen to Major before they listen to teachers or parents or even the police. He's the only person at Horner who can walk into the middle of a gang fight and make it stop. In fact, he's famous for jumping into the middle of fights. And Major would be the first person to tell you about all the fights he's stopped.

Major Adams

He was going to jump on eight guys with these three knives. I didn't know he had three knives. But he had one in his hand. He was going to get these guys. So I had to grab this guy and take this knife away from him, while the guy-- I came out there, 12 of them was jumping on one guy. And it made me so mad. I said, "Well, look, I'm going to take all 12 of you guys one at a time." And I take them one at a time, and I whooped all 12 of them. I'm going to do it by myself. I picked him up and throwed him over the fence. I'm telling you, you've got to--

Pharoah Walton

Some people say the neighborhood is safer because over 200 families moved out. There are fewer people to get in trouble or shoot each other. My friend Sylvia says people have less time to fool around because the housing authority is hiring residents to do construction and clean the place up. Another friend of mine says people are getting their act together because now the city is kicking people out and tearing buildings down. And they don't want to lose their homes. But the way Major sees it, the neighborhood is better because there are people in Horner who are trying to make a difference.

Major Adams

I'll tell you, crime has went down in our neighborhood, this neighborhood, because you have a guy like me working in the neighborhood. When you walk in here, a lot of them gang-bangers just came, I fed them. So there's a lot of things I do for them. I let them play basketball. When they want to go back to school, I see that they go back to school. They go to jail, I send them money and stuff like that.

Pharoah Walton

Like my Aunt Milly says, you can't beautify the outside when the inside ain't right. Major is working hard to beautify the inside.

In the main room at the Boys & Girls Club, there's a trophy case. Inside, there are all the trophies won by Horner baseball teams, basketball teams, and football teams. And pinned to the back of the trophy case, there are pictures of Horner residents who've made something of their lives, who've gotten out of the projects, went on to do great things.

Major Adams

All three of those young men up there are teachers. They grew up in the area.

Pharoah Walton

Those three up there?

Major Adams

Yeah, those three there. And this is Dr. Steven Parker at Chicago State. That's Verdine from Earth, Wind, & Fire.

Pharoah Walton

Then he pointed out a blank spot and asked me for a picture, his way of saying he knew I was going to make it.

Ira Glass

Pharoah Walton. He's a senior at Culver Academy in Indiana. He asked us to play some of this song after his story.

[MUSIC - "THE GHETTO" BY TOO SHORT]

Act Four. TV Show.

Ira Glass

Act Four, TV Show. Danny Drennan is, as far as we can tell, an expert on two things in this world-- the worldwide web and the TV show Beverly Hills, 90210. I feel like we're going from the sublime to the ridiculous here. He created one of the more interesting and eccentric pages on the worldwide web, a weekly wrap-up of 90210 in a very unusual style. He writes about television in a way that no one else does, and a couple weeks ago we asked him to review a Bob Dole appearance when Bob Dole appeared on Larry King Live. For this week, we asked him to review the Democratic National Convention.

Danny Drennan

So I'm watching the Democratic National Convention the other night on C-SPAN, and let me just say how thankful I am that C-SPAN exists. The best part of the convention is when everyone is going home and all the other networks have moved on to other things, but there's good old gavel-to-gavel C-SPAN still filming every last bit, including interviews with teenage convention volunteers who refused entrance to one of the Gore daughters because she didn't have her ID with her.

And C-SPAN also does this great phone interview thing where people from Canada can call up and tell America how much they hate our political conventions. How about you mind your own business up there in Canada? And stop reminding us that liberal is not an epithet in Canada, and about gun control in Canada, and about health care in Canada, and about all the other things the Democrats should be doing here that already exist in Canada. I'm totally convinced that people from the Canadian tourist board or whatever are constantly calling up C-SPAN pretending to be interested in American politics to try and convince Americans to move up north.

And the other thing I like about C-SPAN is that it gets all the unscripted bits, like Hillary Clinton waiting for her cue to start talking, but then jumping the gun and then stopping, and then going "great" under her breath, totally angry, and then starting again and delivering her lines all deadpan, like so ticked off that she just made a fool of herself on live television.

So later on, we get a big, old tribute to former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, with a video of people saying nice things about Ron Brown, and then his widow, Alma Brown, talking about her husband. But then, all of a sudden, we switch to the Alma Brown variety hour, because in the middle of talking about her deceased husband, Alma Brown up and introduces Kenny G. How scary is that, to be talking about your dead husband one minute, and then to have to introduce some god-awful white jazz musician the next? If you combined the Lawrence Welk Show with Rod Serling's Night Gallery, you would get Alma Brown introducing Kenny G at the Democratic National Convention.

And if I were Kenny G, I would seriously fire my agent. The only gigs that Kenny G gets are the Democratic National Convention and Kelly Taylor's birthday party on Beverly Hills, 90210. And even more upsetting, perhaps, is the whole Hollywoodization of the political process. I mean, can I just ask how much plastic surgery did that house minority leader guy, Richard Gephardt, have done?

And how many so-called Hollywood stars could they bring in to speak during the convention? Like Edward James Olmos, who came up with the most brilliantly obtuse quote of the evening when he said, and I quote, "the complexity of this question is so intense that I could never try to attempt to answer it." That is a direct quote. What does that mean? And do I really need Edward James Olmos passionately giving me a definition of what dissing means?

And someone should also probably talk to Christopher Reeve's manager. I mean, I hate to say it, but how much in common with the so-called people does a rich, overpaid, covered-by-health-insurance actor who broke his neck while enjoying some totally elitist equestrian sport have? And maybe the producers of this convention, who also produce the Oscars, where Reeve also appeared, gave Christopher Reeve, a three-engagement deal or something. Or maybe Christopher Reeve just sells his Nielsen share to the highest bidder.

And let me just say, if I had to labor with every single solitary breath just to speak three words at a time, and then wait because everyone in the audience takes that as a cue to clap even though I haven't finish my point yet, I sure as hell wouldn't waste that breath on Bill Clinton. So then we get about five million people plugging Hillary Clinton's book. And then later, the convention moves on to the politically expedient death and personal medical catastrophe part of the show, exemplified by Al Gore's kid and sister and every other speaker this evening. Like there's nothing about Clinton that tugs our heart strings, so they have to bring in all these death and tragedy stories that have absolutely nothing to do with him.

And so then we see Sarah Brady and her husband, Jim, and I'm sure that Sarah Brady meant well, moving her husband, Jim, around the convention stage like a living political prop, and talking about the Brady Bill and gun control. But if you look at Bill Clinton's track record so far, you might worry that gun control is just another step in Bill Clinton's goal to declare a national state of emergency and establish martial law in this country. He already wants to set up curfews, and he's already responsible for the biggest increase in FBI wiretapping in American history, and he wants to take away guns, and he wants to put more cops on the street, and the political protesters at the convention were supposed to be content with receiving a lottery-derived slot of time for them to protest.

Could someone please clue me in to the moment in time when the Constitution of the United States started parceling out the First Amendment on a time-sharing basis? Are we going to have alternate side of the street freedom of speech at some point soon? And this is from the Democrats. And if you think I'm crazy, just count the number of times that Bill Clinton mentions the 21st century and new technology. How annoying is it when Bill Clinton goes on and on about wanting to hook up every school to the so-called information superhighway, when in reality the internet is a huge dumping ground of useless information? I mean, kids can't even read or write, but let's hook them up to the biggest waste of technology going. Of course, only after we sensor it.

And if I were paranoid, I would say that Bill Clinton is, in fact, Big Brother, who wants to preside over a hugely illiterate population, tied into the government via government-censored internet links, gunless and with cops at every street corner, entertained and sedated by Hollywood has-beens, in order to pave the way for his beast of the apocalypse, one-world government takeover. And maybe moving to Canada isn't such a bad idea after all.

Ira Glass

Danny Drennan's website, www.inquisitor.com. Proceed at your own risk.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Peter Clowney and myself, with Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike. Contributing editors, Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, and Margy Rochlin.

[ACKNOWEDGMENTS]

If you would like a copy of this program, it's only $10. Call us on the phone at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia. I am Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.