The 2008 convention in Denver marked Barack Obama’s first as a presidential nominee and Edward Kennedy’s last as the lion of the Democratic Party. Following are edited excerpts of recollections from four participants, as told to National Journal.
I remember sitting at breakfast at the Brown Palace, and I got a call from Howard Dean. He said, “OK—it’s Denver.” The people just didn’t believe it. It had been 100 years since we had a convention. The word spread by noon. Everybody was just really hyped up. The mayor, who is now the governor, got a terrific committee that tackled every possible issue.
I knew what went into a successful convention. President Clinton had appointed me to the site-selection committee eight years earlier. I had the experience of going to a number of cities. That year, LA got it. Then Boston. At that point, Denver didn’t have enough hotel rooms, and they didn’t have a hotel close enough to the convention center. But eight years later, a new Hyatt had been built, and we had a lot of new hotels downtown. It came down to New York and Denver. New York had hosted before, and everyone knew they could handle it. But Denver hadn’t hosted a national convention since 1908. When we presented to the committee, we pitched it as the 100th anniversary. That played perfectly.
Dean said, “Will you commit to raise the money?” He insisted I give him a handshake. We committed to raising somewhere around $50 million. Ultimately, we raised more than that.
Our role as a host committee was to figure out how to raise the money, create a venue that could be televised to 20 million people, transport delegates, find hotel accommodations for guests, and organize events and activities for the media to promote Denver.
Safety is a big deal. You have the U.S. Secret Service, the Capitol Police, local police, and state patrol, but you also have a local community, and you have to balance everyone’s interests. We began to see the effects of the recession on fundraising. Folks who had given a lot in previous years weren’t giving any or were giving at significantly reduced amounts. There has also always been a history of tension between the local committee and the DNC. By and large, people work things out, but you always have that period of time where you go back and forth.
For Denver, it was the celebration we envisioned. We certainly had people from all over, but we also had our own city come downtown to the venues. They might not have had credentials or tickets, but they wanted to be a part of it. We were hosting the first African-American to be nominated for president. There was a lot of expectation that something special is happening here.
Rev. Leah D. Daughtry
The night Senator Kennedy was supposed to speak, he was very ill, but we didn’t really know how ill he was. I was up on the podium with the convention staff and I get a call from a Kennedy staffer about 10 minutes before he was scheduled to go on, saying Senator Kennedy was in the building—it was supposed to be a surprise—and then he said, “We need permission from you for an announcement to be made that there will no flash photography when the senator arrives; it could cause a stroke.”
I looked at the phone [and thought], of course we could make that announcement, but we’re Democrats, and we don’t always follow instructions. I said, “I can make the announcement, but that doesn’t mean there’s going to be no flash photography, even if you say no flash photography.” I talked to Rod O’Connor who’s running the program, and I said, “We need to track down a doctor.” Was this a real medical threat or an overprotective staffer? Maybe eight minutes later, the call came from Kennedy’s doctor: He would be fine, we would not have let him come if it was too risky, don’t worry. I said, “OK, let’s go.”
Of course, it was in my head all the time that something could happen. Senator Kennedy came on the stage, and the hall exploded, and all I could do was pray. I didn’t hear a word he said, because all I could think was, “Please, Lord, help him, please let everything be OK.” I sat on the edge of my seat. It was the worst night of the convention for me, I was so afraid something was going to happen. It was a great speech. I am a minister, so the first thing I did after the speech concluded was say, “Thank you, Lord.”
When you’re a convention CEO, you’re very conscious that millions of people are going to be watching on television, but you’re also aware of the details behind the scenes that most people don’t see. What you want is for people to come away and say, “Wow, that was a great night.” And what’s under the rug, you hope nobody sees. Your attention is divided by what America sees and what’s behind the scene, that you know that carpet is loose.
I’ve been to every national convention since 1974, and they’ve all been amazing in one way or another. But 2008 was different from all of the rest. Certainly, it was the most exciting and exhilarating. After all, it’s not every day, or ever, that 75,000 folks gather at a stadium to listen to a newly nominated candidate making history under the stars.
But part of the magic of the week was also due to the suspense and uncertainty around the roll call. While it was very clear that Obama had won the nomination, no one was quite sure what was going to happen on the floor that night. Both the Obama and Clinton folks had been working feverishly to make this the moment when the party came together. But every presidential candidate has passionate delegates, and some were hesitating over whether they would take direction from their candidate. We weren’t quite sure how they would react.
We were trying to time when Senator Clinton would come to the floor for her motion to the maximum audience, at shortly after 6:30 p.m. It was unbelievably crowded and intense on the floor, backstage, and at the podium. Delegations were reporting their tallies so efficiently that we were ahead of schedule, and staff would pass me notes, saying, “Stretch it.”
Well, it’s pretty hard to stretch Ge-or-gia; just not enough syllables. So I began, at their behest, to ad lib—actual unscripted moments at a national convention, imagine that. I would say things like, “Georgia, where I was born.… New Jersey, where I went to grammar school...,” which was kind of fun, but I know that this is serious business and not about me. It’s about nominating the next president of the United States, for heaven’s sake. So there was relief and tension when Senator Clinton finally was able to get to the New York delegation and eloquently moved to make it unanimous. Speaker Pelosi, who was chairing the convention, banged her gavel, everybody screamed and hollered and cheered and cried, and we knew we had made history. And to this day, I cannot remember a more exciting roll call, and, frankly, to be a part of it, was and will always be one of the most honored and moving moments in my life.
And I cannot help but recall Senator Ted Kennedy. We put a stool behind the podium for him. He had been in a hospital bed backstage, but he wanted so much to be a part of Obama’s nominating convention. He got up to the stage and the lights came back on. He stood up there, and he was beautiful and strong and tough. Many of us kind of knew this might be the last time that we all, the Democratic Party together, would hear him give one of his glorious speeches. He didn’t disappoint, and I doubt there was a dry eye in Denver that night.
This article appears in the September 6, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.