Posted: July 27, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

There was nothing Fleet about the FleetCenter. Getting around was actually a slow crawl.

Boston’s sports arena, home to the city’s storied hockey and basketball teams, was supposed to be transformed by Monday evening into the Democratic Party’s nominating hall, representing a mighty engine of an enduring Republic, but it looked more like Guantanamo Bay without the jumpsuits.

There was a checkpoint to get inside the metallic maze of the perimeter. There was another one at white security tents that had metal detectors and a pen where passers-by were warned not to get too close to avoid agitating the dog.

Umbrellas and water bottles were forbidden, a topsy-turvy turn that threatened in the name of safety, although hardly common sense, to leave people wet outside and dry inside.

The convention-goers who made it into the FleetCenter were still subject to a string of security professionals and volunteers, checking badges every so many yards and again at all the entries to the vast, banked interior-in-the-round that housed the main event.

The saving grace was that the security personnel made a point of being pleasant.

“There was plenty of security,” said state Rep. John J. Viola, one of Delaware’s delegates. “It was kind of like you do in an airport, take all the stuff out of your pockets, and they still wanded you. It makes you feel good.”

Once finally inside, the gulag melted away, and there were all the trappings of a convention, the mammoth stage and video screens, the networks’ skyboxes, the colors of red, white and blue in patriotic overkill, the crush of people, the solemnity and silliness that politics is.

The speakers talked about Sept. 11 and Iraq, and the delegates roared when President Clinton pumped up John F. Kerry by declaring, “Strength and wisdom are not opposing values,” but they also danced happily to the rocking chorus, “Go, Johnny, go.”

The ratio of outlandish hats to delegates seemed way down at this convention, although there was the occasional star-spangled, Uncle Sam top hat. Maybe it was too intimidating to go through security as a Wisconsin cheese-head.

Just as the opening night was designed to do, the Delaware delegation was transfixed by Clinton’s speech.

“He just has an incredible ability to boil things down the way people can understand,” said Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. “He has such presence, such magnetism. You feel like he’s just talking to you! In the whole room!”

While the state’s delegates loved what they heard, they did not love what they saw. Their seats were a problem.

They were in the front of the second bank of seats, behind the states with higher political percentages to them. States like Iowa and New Hampshire, which delivered for Kerry in the early going, were ahead, along with the battleground states of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, as well as Kerry’s home state and the convention host, Massachusetts, and John R. Edward’s North Carolina.

The problem for Delaware was that the walkway in front of them kept getting filled up and congealed, jostling them and blocking their sightline.

“Because we were on the first row, there were people just standing there, accumulating. We had a tough time seeing,” said Lee Ann Walling, a Sussex County delegate.

Within the delegation’s seating, there also were seats with higher percentages to them, and it was easy to see where the prime spot was. It was the grouping that surrounded Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, although it was maddening ambiguous about who is closer in the Democratic line of the succession to her throne.

The seat on Minner’s right went to state Treasurer Jack A. Markell. On her left it was Carney. Curses, no clues there.

Next to that threesome – natch! – was state Sen. Nancy W. Cook, the queen of the legislature. Very little in Dover gets by Cook, and it did not look as though it was going to happen here, either.

Cook had another reason to like her seat. Delaware was right in front of New York, so she helped herself to one of those signs that read, “NY {heart} Hillary,” and re-lettered it to say, “NancY {heart} Hillary,” personalizing her message to the New York senator and former first lady.

The convention emptied to the same security it had left. Boston feels strange, like the Brady Bunch at doomsday. The weather has been beautiful, and people are strolling along the streets and historic greens, buying ice cream for the kids and looking content even on a workday, all in the midst of signs of a clear and present danger.

There are security forces everywhere. Cops in light uniforms. Cops in dark uniforms. Cops in squad cars. Cops on motorcycles. Cops on horses. Cops on foot. SWAT cops on top of the gold-domed statehouse.

There was the odd contrast of the Secret Service ringing John Kerry’s home in Beacon Hill, while blocks away, Michael S. Dukakis, wearing a short-sleeved flowered shirt and carrying a well-worn briefcase, walked along the Boston Common by himself, no target for anyone.

Probably the most poignant moment of the first convention night was the tribute for Sept. 11, when a 16-year-old violinist keened “Amazing Grace” while the delegates stood in the darkened hall and held up cigarette-size flashlights, tiny lamps of liberty.

Security may or may not be getting it right, but that sight was a reminder of why it was there.