Angry PUMAs on the prowl in Denver

They don't care if they make Chris Matthews happy, or if they make Hillary Clinton look bad. They don't even care that she wants them to stop.

Published August 26, 2008 10:50AM (EDT)

"This is where you see the civil war!" burbled Chris Matthews, experiencing near-asphyxiatory pleasure on an outdoor stage in the sweltering Denver heat, while behind him two competing groups, Obama supporters and the PUMA (Party Unity My Ass) backers of Hillary Clinton, chanted "Obama! Obama!" and "Hillary! Hillary!" at each other. Matthews looked as though he might wet himself as a camera panned the crowd, and he declared, "We're at ground zero!"

Actually, he was about six blocks away from the Pepsi Center, the crowd behind him was probably no more than a hundred strong, and at least one of them was dressed as a toilet, (a gesture that seemed to have nothing to do with Clinton or Obama). But this is how media fantasy gets made, a miniature tableau of political discord, played out in front of a couple of well-placed television cameras and a television host who finds fetishistic, hyperbolic meaning in everything having to do with the defeated Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her still-sore supporters.

Whether they knew it or not, the PUMAs who had congregated next to the MSNBC stage were making the night of the man who has done everything in his power to destroy their purported heroine. They held aloft Clinton signs and hand-markered cards reading "Stop Delegate Intimidation!" and "South Jersey PUMA." At one point, three women and three men holding "McCain" signs started a melodic chorus of "Clintons for McCain, sweetie, Clintons for McCain, sweetie," in reference to Barack Obama's bad habit of referring to women by that diminutive. Next to them, a man in an Obama hat shouted, "You're all irrelevant! Jesus!"

But irrelevant is not how the protesters will be portrayed by a media that has been salivating over the possible disruption of the Democratic convention -- by angry, broom-riding succubi! -- for weeks. Never mind that there were probably no more than 50 shouting PUMAs. Never mind that every national political convention in modern history becomes a locus for vocal agitators. Never mind that over the weekend, antiwar protests had been larger. Never mind that in three days in Denver I had not spotted a single PUMA or Hillary protester until I found where Chris Matthews was broadcasting. Never mind the guy in the toilet outfit. To hear Matthews, and the talking heads at CNN tell it, these demonstrators were "ground zero" in a rift that could potentially destroy the Democratic Party and ruin its national convention.

This scene was pretty much the worst nightmare of the women I had spoken to earlier in the morning at the Unconventional Women program, devoted to exploring the current climate for women in politics. At the Buell theater, mentions of Hillary Clinton, as well as a clip from her stirring concession speech, were met with enthusiastic applause and some light cheering, but nothing resembling disruptive anger. In truth, most of the current or former Clinton loyalists could not be more different from the afternoon's demonstrators, but they will likely be tarred with the same hysterical brush.

"There is such a fear of women coming into power, that when they protest, they are given more weight," said Marie Wilson, head of the White House Project, before speaking as part of the Unconventional Women's programming, acknowledging the likelihood of protest. "Just the fact of women saying they support their candidate and want to make their voices heard sounds more scary than it would be if it were guys. That's just part of backlash. But come on. When women gather around a water fountain, men get scared. People oughta just chill."

Wilson acknowledges that there will be residual tension at the convention. But she sees the discord as a positive thing, a perhaps painful step in the right direction. "Putting issues on the table" -- as opposed to keeping political frustrations pent up -- "is what is going to bring people together." Wilson believes that in the wake of Hillary's run, "we are in the middle of a revolution. Women are stepping up and taking power." She said her organization, which encourages women to seek elected office, has seen a 61 percent increase in participation in the past year.

A half-hour later, many of the same sentiments were echoed by a woman who sat behind me during Nancy Pelosi's presentation, which was taken over by Code Pink protesters. As the demonstrators shouted for peace, I heard a soft voice say, "Ask Pelosi why she asked Hillary to get out of the race." After the speech was over, I spoke to Pat, a 73-year-old retired teacher who declined to give her last name because her husband is a delegate.

"I'm not anxious to disrupt the convention," she said, adding that she plans to go to a pro-Hillary march on Tuesday, but that "if it gets rowdy, I'll step to the side. I consider that march a thank-you to Hillary for having not given up." Pat said she'll vote for Obama, but that she just wonders, after listening to Pelosi tell the crowd about how there should be more women seated around her at the White House table, "Why, why, why did she ask Clinton to leave the race? And why did she encourage superdelegates not to vote for her? That whole speech she just gave was about how women have to strive for power, but she used her own power to diminish and destroy Clinton's."

This was anger, no doubt about it. But it was reasonable, rational, thoughtful and politically sophisticated anger, not the "No-bama!" protests I would see later in the day. "The thing is," said Pat, "if Obama loses the election, don't think it won't be Hillary who's blamed." But, she said, she doesn't believe the convention will be badly disrupted by protest. "A roll call vote, that's traditional!" she said. "Dennis Kucinich got one, and Shirley Chisholm. I don't understand why it should be such a big deal."

Neither did Dana Kennedy, a 40-year-old Hillary delegate from Arizona who is one of the 300 signers of the petition to get the roll call vote for Hillary. "My hope is that in the first round of voting I get to vote for her, and in the second round, I will vote for Obama," said Kennedy. "A vote for Hillary is a vote for history and not against him."

Kennedy said that most of her Hillary-supporting compatriots are torn about what they are going to do. "They want a unified party," she said, "but this was the first woman to win a primary -- and then primary after primary after primary. I think how we unify the party is to recognize the history that this candidate made." Kennedy said she had not talked to any Clinton delegates who have any interest in causing a disturbance or making a scene. She said she is not going to a pro-Hillary march scheduled for Tuesday morning, "only because I can see exactly how the media will portray it."

When asked about how Hillary loyalists are being portrayed in the media -- as hysterics and harridans, Kennedy choked up with frustration and sadness. "It makes it so much harder," she said. "This is the right thing to do for the party. I'm not disruptive. I believe this is the best way to recognize what Hillary symbolizes. I was elected to come to this convention and vote for Hillary Clinton."

This was precisely the argument put forth by New York Hillary delegate Rosina Rubin, who said directly, "This is not about anger. This is not about a lack of desire for party unity. We all want to elect a Democrat in November. But why wouldn't her name be placed in nomination? She is the only woman who has ever come this far. Her achievement represents a giant moment in American history. We just want to celebrate that."

Rubin, a small-business owner from suburban, purplish Rockland County, said that people have stopped her on the street and begged her not to give up their vote. "We had a huge turnout in the primary, and they turned out for Hillary. The Democratic Party tells us that a delegate's job is to in good conscience reflect the sentiments of the people who elected them. I don't know why they equate an expression of democracy with ruining the convention. Hopefully Hillary supporters will be respectful, but I don't think it's disrespectful to cast the vote I was sent here to cast."

Talking to these women, I began to believe that the threat of PUMAs, or aggressive Hillary supporters who planned to take over the convention, was a full-blown myth. I couldn't find any; I hadn't seen any. I half suspected that they were the creation of a media anxious to gin up a story in which the villains were a bunch of grumpy old white chicks.

But that was before I left the confines of the official indoor events and stepped out into the wide world of public protest and freedom of expression. And before the news of Monday's shifting policies on the roll call vote began to leak out, and before Hillary supporters lining the streets of downtown Denver heard convoluted versions of what was likely to happen.

On a downtown street corner, Colorado Clinton delegate Sonya Jaquez Lewis was comparing what she knew with Washington Clinton delegate Michael Wagner. "I heard we're not going to be able to say 'And the great state of Colorado...,'" marveled Jaquez Lewis. Her mother -- a delegate for Ted Kennedy at the 1980 Democratic Convention, where Kennedy supporters were allowed to vote for their candidate -- told her daughter she was surprised that Clinton delegates were allegedly going to be denied the same opportunity. Wagner, another delegate for Ted Kennedy in 1980, also expressed shock at the lack of a roll call. "Ted Kennedy was challenging an incumbent president," he recalled, "and he was allowed to have a roll call. I just can't believe what's happening here. Party leadership wants to show that we're a party of unity, but what it's doing is fracturing the party."

A few minutes later, a parade of about a dozen women wearing buttons with pumas (the actual felines) marched past holding "Elected, not selected" signs on their way to find Chris Matthews. A woman sitting next to me on a park bench leapt up at their approach. "Oh, it's the Hillary dumbasses," she said. "I'd best get out of here before I get to fighting."

But the dumbasses were already primed for a fight. "We've been told by Pelosi that we're ungracious," said Robin Carlson, a cancer survivor from Los Angeles and a member of the Clinton for McCain contingent whom I interviewed after the made-for-TV demonstration. "We've been told that most of Hillary's supporters have united behind McCain. That is absolute crap." Still, Carlson says that 500,000 people have pledged on her Web site to endorse John McCain sometime during this convention. "Our foremothers marched in the streets so that our voices could be heard. We will not be silenced now."

I asked Carlson why, if she was offended by being called "Sweetie" and invested in the legacy of her foremothers, she would express her disappointment over Obama's nomination by supporting a man who would rob women of their reproductive rights and who does not support equal-pay legislation. "We are really sick and tired of having women's rights held over our heads as a threat," she said. "It's country over party now."

Also leaving the rally were Cynthia Novacek, a 54-year-old from Minnesota, and Mit Mar, a 57-year-old from Sugarland, Texas. "We're all shouted out," said Novacek. Asked what their goal for the week was, Novacek replied, "I want to make it an open convention, where delegates make their voices heard." Barack Obama, she said, "was greased through by the media. They loved him. Everything bad about him, they didn't want to focus on: Bill Ayers, Reverend Wright..."

"You mean Reverend Wrong," Mar interrupted. "Look, I know about the race card. I know about race. I'm African-American. And it was Obama who played the race card, and it's going to come back and bite Obama in the butt." African-American supporters of Obama, in Mar's view, "are proud. Yes, I understand that. But you want someone who can lead America, not because he's African-American, or because she's a certain gender, but because she can lead." But what about the woman they wanted as America's leader? Clinton has been leading her supporters, or trying to lead them, to vote for Obama. "We want Hillary," said Novacek, with the fingers-in-her-ears insistence of an implacable toddler. "She can stand on her head and plead with us, and I still will not vote for him. I want her. She is best for the country."

Putting aside the fact that Clinton is no longer running for president, I asked how they thought she would feel if they successfully disrupted the convention and attracted the news cameras, only to see PUMAs -- and the candidate who is trying desperately to get them in line -- being blamed should Barack Obama lose in November.

"I'll tell you who should get blamed if he loses," said Mar. "Barack Obama. It should go back to Barack Obama." Novacek, meanwhile, thought that perhaps the media who hyped Obama should be ready to get some blame. Neither Novacek nor Mar seemed open to the possibility that maybe it wouldn't work out that way, that neither the media nor the candidate would bear the brunt of the finger-pointing after a loss. They didn't seem to care that they might be dooming their heroine to a legacy she never sought and certainly does not want. Instead, Mar showed me her shirt, which read: "PUMA Clinton Democratic No Deal Obama. DNC a disgrace."

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Democratic Party Hillary Rodham Clinton