Thursday, August 28, 2008

At 5,280 Feet, the Party Atmosphere Is Thin

EVEN if the modern presidential convention has become a largely symbolic affair, the constant flow of nightly parties and celebrations has always been reason enough to keep the stodgy tradition going.
But this year at the Democratic National Convention, there is a new complaint being whispered by disgruntled guests: partying in Denver is a downer.
“Normally at conventions, you’d have people regaling you with what happened the night before,” said Emil Hill, a Washington communications executive who has been party-hopping steadily all week. “This time, not a single person has given me a story. I guess when you lose two elections in a row, people learn from that.”
Blame nervous Democrats who are remembering their brash optimism in 2000 and 2004. Or the party leaders who have warned attendees not to drink because of the altitude. Or the tangled logistics of getting around Denver, with its sprawling layout that has left delegates, executives, lobbyists and the news media stranded in hotels up to 30 miles from the convention site, and locked in battle over scarce cabs at midnight. (It’s hard to party when you can’t get home.)
Or even the distracting presence of some young people — staff members of the Republican war room set up here — who have mischievously crashed social events and helped themselves to free liquor all week long.
Some high-powered lobbyists who were circulating at their own parties, where few members of Senator Barack Obama’s staff were in attendance, blamed the Obama campaign’s anti-corporate, anti-lobbyist attitude for the tame night life at the convention.
“The parties are flat,” a Democratic lobbyist said. “There’s a sense that the parties are completely detached from the populist excitement that undergirds Obama’s appeal.”
After the much-anticipated speech by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday night, a media-and-politics-heavy crowd packed Lure Lounge for a party sponsored by Politico and the Glover Park Group, confidently billed as “The Best Party in Denver.”
As a line of weary reporters formed outside, Joe Lockhart, the former Clinton mouthpiece, held court in one corner of the dimly lighted bar, and Representative Rahm Emanuel, Democrat of Illinois, chatted up a crowd of people in another, as his security detail waited outside.
Around 11 p.m., Bill Burton, the press secretary for Senator Obama, sat in the shadows in the back of an upstairs room, intently typing on his laptop. Standing a few feet away was the actress Ashley Judd, who arrived in a red-and-white sundress and without a spot of makeup. (After chatting politely with another guest about her home state of Kentucky, she jumped into a cab 20 minutes after her arrival.)
Blocks away, a party was underway in the lobby of the ultramodern Jet Hotel in lower downtown. The musician Moby worked his way around the room, and cocktail waitresses in tiny black halter tops carried shots of liquor on trays.
But in spite of the youthful crowd and free-flowing drinks, some guests still fretted out loud about Mr. Obama.
“The one thing that Democrats have learned is that if anyone can lose an election, it’s the Democrats,” said Kevin Bondelli, the owner of a design and consulting firm in Arizona. “In the last eight years, we’ve become a lot more respectful of the Republican political machine.”
Of course, there was no dampening the enthusiasm of some convention goers. At a “Sex, Politics and Cocktails” party on Monday, sponsored by the Planned Parenthood political action fund, Bill Walsh, a delegate from South Carolina, dressed the patriotic part in a cowboy hat and a button-down shirt in an American flag pattern. “The air is thin and we’re all high,” Mr. Walsh said.
The actress Aisha Tyler showed up at the same party, brimming with excitement and fresh from hearing Michelle Obama’s prime-time convention speech. “I was in tears,” she said, adding that the Planned Parenthood bash was “a hot party.”
Dan Abrams, the MSNBC anchor who recently lost his prime-time show, was spotted at event after event, wearing a muscle tee and bobbing to the music at a party on Monday night.
But a “Rock the Vote” concert later that night, with a musical appearance by Jakob Dylan, was only sparsely attended, said one guest who left early out of boredom. The red carpet outside a Rolling Stone-Trojan Condoms party was nearly empty for hours after its scheduled beginning. (Cindy Adams, the New York Post gossip columnist, walked in and out in 10 minutes. When asked what she thought of Denver, she answered, “Blech.”)
At a party on Monday sponsored by GQ and Maker’s Mark bourbon, the normally exuberant Terry McAuliffe lingered near the entrance, looking sober. Upstairs, a D.J. played, but only a few people were dancing.
Joe Trippi, the Democratic strategist who was a top adviser to both Howard Dean and John Edwards, got wistful after watching Senator Edward Kennedy’s speech. “Things were a lot better in 1980,” Mr. Trippi said before leaving the party with his wife.
There has been no shortage of Hollywood celebrities roaming around town this week, including Jennifer Lopez, Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, Daryl Hannah, Alan Cumming and Ben Affleck. There have been concerts by Death Cab for Cutie, Melissa Etheridge, Rufus Wainwright and the Black Eyed Peas.
Still, there was a distinctly subdued mood at parties like the “Red Hot Affair,” sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. There, as almost everywhere, Democrats acted as if it was too soon to celebrate. “There’s still a lot of apprehension and maybe nervousness about what actually may happen on Election Day,” said Malcolm Grace, a former Democratic staff member in the House of Representatives; he now working as a lobbyist.
Kweisi Mfume, the former N.A.A.C.P. president, said there is “a sense of fulfillment in the air that at the same time doesn’t allow anyone to take anything for granted.”
Or maybe it was just the altitude. Partygoers who crowded into the bathroom at “Red Hot Affair” complained of headaches from altitude-induced dehydration.
And June O’Neill, the New York State party chairwoman, warned that in the thin Colorado air, alcohol is absorbed more quickly into the bloodstream. “As you enjoy all the events that Denver and the convention have to offer, please monitor yourself,” Ms. O’Neill wrote in a letter to the members of her delegation. “And remember that drinks may go to your head faster than you’re used to in New York.”

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