Big Speeches In A Half-Empty Hall

generic silhouettes america map flap people census population immigration
CBS/iStockphoto producer Jarrett Murphy reports from Boston.

At a little before 5 p.m. on Thursday night, the seats in the FleetCenter were half empty, delegates were milling around in the aisles and the hallways, and the broadcast networks were hours away from the start of their live broadcasts. That's when C. Virginia Fields stepped to the microphone to address the Democratic National Convention.

"Fellow Democrats — and especially the New York delegation — good afternoon!" she said.

The speech by Fields, the borough president of Manhattan, was not one that media analysts were scrutinizing or that history books will likely remember.

But it was far more representative of the day-to-day business of a political convention than the better-known moments featuring Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore and Al Sharpton or the various members of the Kerry or Edwards families.

Each night of the convention, long before national television coverage (with the exception of C-SPAN) begins, dozens of speakers like Fields take to the dais for brief addresses to the delegates — those delegates who are there, and who are listening, that is.

The mayor of Toledo, Jack Ford, was on stage Thursday. So was former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer. Mike Miller, the Maryland Senate president, also made remarks.

The speakers list for the early shift also included members of Congress like civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, and Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Jack Reed of Rhode Island.

All were greeted by applause, especially from their home states. Some received more general cheers when they launched a good applause line. But many spoke to a hall buzzing with activity and swirling with bodies wearing buttons or bearing notebooks.

"Tonight, John Kerry will share with the American people his vision for our nation's future," Fields said. "It is a vision that speaks to hope and opportunity. It is a vision that speaks to inclusion and a stronger America. I share John Kerry's vision. And it is this vision that makes it possible for me to move forward."

Much as Kerry was expected to due in his crucial acceptance speech later in the evening, Fields told the delegates her story: Growing up in Birmingham, seeing segregation up close, feeling the push of a devoted mother and marching with Martin Luther King Jr.

"John Kerry's long record of fighting for equality, civil rights and women's rights earned my early, wholehearted endorsement," she said. Recalling September 11, which struck her constituency directly, Fields said the scars "may never heal."

"Let us return to our homes determined to elect the Kerry-Edwards team because it truly matters," she said, thanked the delegates and asked God to bless the country.

Out in the seats, some delegates paid no attention. But many sat alone, silent, listening to all the early evening speeches.

"It's just the energy – you get fired up and you get ready to go home to Wyoming," Betti Beatty of Casper said, explaining why she was listening so intently at 5:30 p.m.

Others were more selective. Audrena Redmond from Long Beach, Calif., said she listens for "tonality."

"I listen for a while when they first start, because if I can't hear you, if your voice isn't pulling me in, it's too much stain," to keep listening. She tunes in when she hears things like "Bush" and "health care."

After Fields left the podium, New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell took the mic. Evett Simmons from Port St. Lucie, Fla., was scanning the newspaper as Pascrell finished his remarks.

"A few things that he said were important — that was in regard to the first responder people," she said. "We have to make reality not rhetoric, and if we want them to first response, then we're going to have to take care of them."

Fields, who endorsed Kerry in April of last year, said she found out she was speaking last week. Others, she said, found out they were speaking only upon their arrival in Boston. Fields did not know exactly when she was to speak until Monday.

For Fields, the moments on the stage were "very exciting." She was nervous at first, but felt herself warm to the task because she believed in what she was saying. The topic was of her choosing.

"I think they kind of left it up to the speakers, but then I do know when some speakers presented what they wanted to say it was not accepted because it was either so far off, I guess," Fields said.

The only regret Fields had was that she was unable to talk more about education and jobs, why there were important issues, and what Kerry intended to do about them. "We had that in but it had to be cut out."

The obvious question was why it mattered.

"It gives people across the country an opportunity, number one, to speak to their specific delegations," Simmons said. "It also gives them exposure to a national audience and to find new leadership in our country because you've got to have a forum for leadership."

Boyd Richie of Graham, Texas, said he thought some of the speeches were intended to showcase speakers for the future, and others as a form of political payback.

"And frankly, a lot of it is to fill up the time," he said. That happens at the state level, too, Richie said, noting that his wife once ran for state representative and spoke at the convention not once, but twice, to fill out the program.

Fields saw her spot as "for the millions of people who are watching us, and they have an opportunity to either see it now or later when C-SPAN replays it."

"The people here are already converted," she said. "We're talking to a larger audience."

Then she returned to her seat on the stage, to hear Kerry address an even larger one.

By Jarrett Murphy