Thought we had house-guests for the weekend, so hadn't made any plans -- when the guests got sick, I was sorry to miss them but happy to be able to take advantage of an invitation to be a blogger member of the press at an event today sponsored by the American Democracy Institute
, an obscure but earnest year-old organization focused on getting young people involved in civic life (or at least, that's the impression I got from this event, although their website
talks a bit more vaguely about civic discourse and fundamental principles of democracy
). It was a big convention of students and other young folk from the Philadelphia area, going to panels and workshops on voting rights, the relevance of the Constitution, faith and politics, empowering youth, and the role of the media. But the thing that made me willing to give up a much-needed morning to sleep in was that Hillary Clinton, the organization's honorary chair, was giving the keynote plenary talk. I thought it would be interesting to hear her speak in person, as well as to see what it was like to be part of the press at a high-visibility event.
Bloggers appear to inhabit a nether realm of event organizers’ awareness -- they want you there, but they only half consider you "real" press. None of us got credentials (although I did get a press pack, which reproduced many of the website blurbs, but didn’t offer, say, any of the names of the presenters), so I had to be walked up the stairs by the woman in charge of things, who smoothly got me through the three checkpoints and into the zone set up for bloggers (with stubby ethernet cables in case we wanted to live-blog in a tight circle). Actually, our position was great -- we were along one side of the room, even with the front rows of seats, and thus about 20 yards from the podium. I was there with Albert "dragonball" Yee, Tulin of PoliticsPhilly, the Booman, and a woman Robin who blogs at Factesque. Duncan Black (or Atrios) was also there, but had an official reserved seat
since he was part of the Media panel... In fact, much of the first 5-6 rows was reserved seating, with local bigwigs, conference participants, and a section for student press. There was also a raised platform for press video cameras, and a constellation of other camera-wielders, professional and amateur, flitting like insects around a porch light, working the shots and angles (Albert was among these; I’m counting on him for the photos I didn’t take).
The plenary session began with a disembodied voice calling for folks to sit down and announcing a requirement for civil discourse. Then there was a moment of silence (I missed what we were commemorating, but I suspect it was war-related) and then two students led us in the Pledge of Allegiance (? !!). Then some guy (press pack, anyone? or even a program for the bloggers to share?) gave a short introduction on the need for involvement in public life and then introduced the first of the official speakers. There were two of these "warm-up" speeches, and I’m not really clear how they were selected. The first guy gave a rather professorial speech (and I think might have been a Princeton professor) of a historical nature – invoking the great historical documents signed nearby, and pointing out that the principles of democracy have always been a challenge and required defense (he pointed out a period in the 18th century when dissent was briefly outlawed). He concluded with the argument that it’s not might that makes right but "right makes might." It was probably a decent talk, but a snoozer in the context; the student press wasn’t even looking his way, for the most part, peering into the hallway where organizers and Secret Service guys were milling around...
The second speaker was the president of The College of William and Mary (I guess I could look up his name, but I’m still annoyed about the press kit). He made a joke about feeling "like a garage band opening for the Rolling Stones (although Hillary Clinton is much younger than the Rolling Stones)." heh.
In fact, this guy turned out to be quite an enjoyable speaker, with a good natural cadence, a mix of jarring statistics with inspiring quotes, and a little humor along the way. High points:
- In talking about the ill effects of pay-to-play culture on our society, he quoted Barney Frank as having said that we’re the only country in the world that imagines that "our politicians walk up to complete strangers, beg them for thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then walk away completely unaffected (thus achieving a perfect state of ingratitude)." heh.
- He talked about other things that create disparities (or undermine equality) in our nation, from gerrymandering, to attempts to eliminate judicial review, to poverty. A striking statistic that he quoted for that last issue was that children from families who earn over $90k per year have a 1/2 likelihood of becoming college graduates; for families earning under $35k per year, the figure is 1/17...
- The general theme of the talk was really "What is the American idea of equality?" and he suggested that the disparaties that we see in our country are not what the Constitution, scripture, or our ideals envision. Quoting Lyndon Johnson, he said "we may not know much, but we know the difference between chicken salad and chicken shit."
He ended with a veritable war-chant litany of inspiring quotes from a wide range of (unattributed but often obvious) sources, some references to Dr. King, and a standing ovation from the crowd.
Then it was time for the Main Event. A student from Community College of Philadelphia (and head of some Latino youth organization) gave a brief introduction, and then Hillary Clinton came out from a backstage door, to thunderous applause. She looked chic but casual, but the thing that struck me, given the range of people at the mic before her and the excellent sound system, was how shouty her voice sounded -- not hoarse, but as though she had developed an Official Oration Voice that involved deepening and projecting to a somewhat unnatural degree. She was almost too loud in this well-amplified setting. Other than that, she seemed smooth and natural, rarely looked at her notes, and was generally a better speaker than I expected from the few clips I've seen on TV. However, she was hardly the Rolling Stones compared to the guy that preceded her, and it felt more like a campaign speech listing things that need to be changed than it did an inspiration to interested youth about ways they could get into the game. Perhaps that's par for the course. (I noticed to my surprise that many of the video cameras left a few minutes into her speech, implying that they just needed some visual for the 12:00 news, rather than a full transcript for clips.) Here are the notes I made:
- She got people to stand up to show their involvement; first public servants, then community organizers, then poll watchers and voters -- look! you’re already not apathetic youth! Of course, the crowd (especially down front) wasn't all students, but ok.
- She looked back at the many changes made through history to expand freedom in this country, not least to women and minorities.
- She listed a lot of issues still needing work, and called them "unfinished business for American democracy." (I’m starting to see the theme of the meeting, and have retro-bolded accordingly.)
- She gave examples of specific things that youth groups have done to have a national impact from "girlcotts" against sexism to student journalism (MTV reports on Dafur) that kept the mainstream media honest.
- She mentioned a flurry of voting-rights issues, ranging from the need of students to vote near their campuses to national voting reform "so that all votes are counted and every vote counts." As part of this she mentioned that the youth vote increased more than any other group between 2000 and 2004. I’m pretty sure I remember seeing this debunked (that is, more youths voted, but more of everybody voted, and the % stayed the same), but it could be a difference between the brackets used: she cited something like 18-25-year-olds, whereas the other research might have been specific to college students. Not sure.
- Finally, she talked about the need to fight the degradation of debate (yelling fests on TV) and the tendency to avoidance of facts (which served as a lead-in to discussion of global warming and the need for alternative energy sources).
She ended on the call for a broad-based progressive movement, sadly invoking the tired analogy of an Iraqi unit in saying that we should all work together. The crowd gave her a wild send-off, but I just kept thinking, Bring back the previous guy! While I didn’t disagree with anything here, it just left me a bit Eh.
Anyway, that was it for the big show. There was a pretty substantial break before any of the afternoon workshop sessions would resume, so I just had a look at the tables in the lobby -- Planned Parenthood, Habitat for Humanity, Association of Young Americans (? trying to give a greater voice to the 18-35 group), Save the Environment, Women’s Campaign Internation, Young Involved Philadelphia, Americorps, Aspira (? an education/leadership group for Puerto Rican and Latino youth), and the Young Democrats -- and then headed out. A little blogging and then maybe some sleep? I’ll link to Albert's photos of the actual proceedings as soon as he puts them into the net . . . Special thanks to Tulin, who live-blogged the whole thing!
, for putting in the names of the rest of us (to the organizers)! glad to have been there.Update 1: Robin's account
covers the whole conference. I agree with her that the clearly missing piece was the way to get from Things Needing Fixing to Where You Can Get Involved. Kids, especially, have no idea of how they can get active and really make a difference (other than, say, running for office or becoming Young Democrat feebs)...Update 2:
The Inquirer's description of the event is here
Albert's fantastic visual overview
of the event (and look! speaker names!) is now available online. Wonderful, as ever, for the artistic eye as much as for the subjects themselves... He also subsequently blogged the photos with his verbal summary of the event, in three parts: 1