CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Democratic conventions: You come to love them as the teeming human bazaar they are. Inside, a man brushed by, handing out lollipops from Roswell, N.M., representing "Space Aliens for Obama." Outside, a James Taylor concert got drowned after four songs, but the voice of gold cut through the clouds and rain. In a shared sense we were all in the tempest together, people shared umbrellas and joked about moving into each other's neighborhoods. That's what I like about you, Democrats.
On Labor Day, the partisan talk in the halls and out on the streets was not about Republican nominee Mitt Romney, a known known. (Thanks, Rummy.)
No, the guy making fur fly here is Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, an unknown unknown on the national stage. The Wisconsin congressman from Janesville pole-vaulted to political fame just after running a marathon in three hours or less—CRT (Central Ryan Time.) In fact, the 42-year-old House budget maven is earning quite the rap: as a teller of untruths, shall we say. Quite a sea change for the darling of the House Republican majority and Washington's clique of conservative think tanks and columnists.
But who knew Russell Feingold, the three-term progressive Wisconsin senator, flew in to speak to the state's Democratic delegation about Ryan's speech at the Republican convention? Feingold is slow to anger, but told his home state delegates Ryan was undercutting his own credibility as a policy wonk in Congress, a delegate told me. Feingold, also a Janesville native, seemed offended by a lack of integrity—even downright dishonesty—at certain points in Ryan's speech. The auto plant that closed at the end of the Bush presidency (not in the Obama years) is one glaring example; so were the Medicare claims. These points have been clarified by fact-checkers and the media. But Feingold further pointed out Ryan voted for the two trillion-dollar Bush wars and also for the Bush tax cuts, which is why the economy lost its lifeblood.
Feingold, who lost his seat in the 2010 Tea Party election, told the group he and Ryan were always "cordial" in Congress. So for him to speak out forcefully, even in private, means something. He would not do so lightly in the company of his friends and allies. Feingold, considered a truth-teller on both sides of the Senate aisle, came to Charlotte to warn Wisconsin—and by extension, the wider world—that something is rotten in the state of Janesville.
An African-American sidewalk vendor, Charles O'Hara drove six or seven hours from Atlanta with some friends to sell T-shirts that said, "I've Got His Back" about President Obama. O'Hara, a handsome man of 31, had three words for Obama: "We need jobs." O'Hara's family goes back to the slave plantation in Jonesboro that inspired the setting of Gone With the Wind, he said. The family has a log with names written in candle wax. This is where I needed my smelling salts, please, though I am a damn Yankee.
My newfound friend said the president had to negotiate the rocky shoals of race every day on the job.
O'Hara said, "[Obama] had to hold back and walk a fine line. Things were bad before he came in. I think he'll be better in a second term."
James Taylor never did get to singing, "Carolina in My Mind," a wistful song that goes back to 1968, the most tempestuous year in memory. The Democratic convention in Chicago was marked by brutal police violence on protestors in Grant Park. Tear gas was served. You remember—and if you don't, imagine a country with its heart broken in several places.
I had to get to Stonewall Street. And I was afraid to ask, but I did: Who's it named for? "Stonewall Jackson," said a black man with his wife and child, standing against the sophisticated skyline. "This is the South."
The Civil War, always there for you. And so is our current uncivil war, once again in a bitterly divided country.