BOSTON — Forget Disneyland. For the next few days, Beantown is the happiest place on Earth. Or at least the most civil.
The Kerry campaign has put the kibosh on Bush-bashing, preferring to make their candidate's positive vision for the country the overriding theme of the convention. It's the "Anger Management Platform" — and a very sensible strategy.
Of course, it's not easy to impose. Unfettered rage at President Bush, his corporate cronyism and his lies about Iraq (oops, I think that's one of the proscribed phrases; my bad) has fueled the Democrats since a movement of activists gave the party a much needed spine transplant during the primary season. At the moment, 54% of Americans feel that the country is moving in the wrong direction, and nearly three-fifths say we need to change course.
But John Kerry understands that four days of unrestrained Bush-bashing in Boston could lead to a backlash. His top priority at the moment must be to turn the "Anybody but Bush" backers into out-and-out Kerry enthusiasts — and that requires a positive spin. So everywhere you go here, everyone is reading from the same upbeat playbook.
At a star-studded and jampacked pre-convention event honoring Bill and Hillary Clinton, the former first couple was humble and on message, with Bill describing himself and Hillary as "foot soldiers for Kerry/Edwards." They clearly had gotten the anger management memo, and the former president, in particular, avoided the critical stance he has recently adopted toward Bush. The only whiff of a dig at W. was Clinton's assurance that the one thing Democrats could count on was that, this time, "every vote will be counted." (This must be on the list of preapproved phrases; I've heard it a number of times here.)
If there was one place where you would have expected the gloves-off approach to fall by the wayside, it would have been at the tribute honoring the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. The event was attended by some of the most progressive members of the party, including Jim Hightower and Al Franken. In 2000, Wellstone delivered a fiery call to action to progressive Democrats: "It's time for us to find our own voice, to do our own organizing, to push forward on reform, to push forward on issues of economic justice and to make the United States of America, this good country, even better."
But even among this most passionately anti-Bush crowd, the wellspring of rage bubbling just beneath the surface remained bottled up.
You know that the Positivity Party is in full swing when Al Gore, who The Times' Ron Brownstein says has been "channeling the Democratic id in podium-pounding speeches that seem designed to end with the distribution of pitchforks," takes to the stage and delivers an unfailingly upbeat message. One of his few discordant notes Monday was: "Let's make sure that the Supreme Court does not pick the next president — and that this president is not the one who picks the next Supreme Court." Also on message was former Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg. "Anger," he said, "is the defining characteristic of the Nader voter."
I had my own close encounter of the newly unified kind when I shared a stage Saturday with Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe. Only two years earlier, after the Democrats' November 2002 debacle, I had written a column titled "Bring Me the Head of Terry McAuliffe!" Now here we were, hugging, him saying nice things about me, and me giving him my Greek secrets for helping his battle-ravaged voice to heal. It just goes to show you what four years of Bush in the White House can do to bring people together.
With trashing Bush all but verboten, the Dems' natural feistiness has been routed into other directions. The most conspicuous of these is the outbreak of hotel envy. At this convention, you are where you stay. As bad as hotel envy is, skybox envy is even worse. There are so few at the Fleet Center that even high-end contributors Ron Burkle and Steve Bing have been asked to share one.
The vital next step for the Democrats is winning over the majority of Americans who have moved away from Bush but who are not yet comfortable turning control over to Kerry.
David Thorne is convinced Kerry will convert these voters with his speech Thursday. Thorne is one of Kerry's closest friends and the twin brother of Kerry's first wife — they were together at Yale and joined the Navy at the same time. He's also the mastermind behind Kerry's highly successful Internet operation. I ran into Thorne, who has seen The Speech, and he gave me a preview, not of its content but of its character. "Have you seen the letters that John wrote to me when we were in the service?" he asked. "They show what a passionate, thoughtful, committed person he was — and that's the guy you'll be seeing on Thursday night."
The flip side to the Democrats' anger management strategy is the widespread anxiety over whether Kerry will deliver in his big moment. Absent the anger, will he still be able to convey his passion and his vision for the country?
Arianna Huffington's latest book is "Fanatics and Fools: the Game Plan for Winning Back America" (Miramax).
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times