The Democrats spent the day in a rumble of speeches, but it was Alexander Haig rather than a prize presidential candidate who took over the start of the noisy cauldron they call a miniconvention. Gossip about the resigned secretary of state raced through the aisles of the Civic Center back to the bars and the snack counter, where a small knot of curious onlookers stuck a television on an old cigarette machine. Congressmen, asked for comment, were caught unaware; as Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) put it: "We're all winging it."
"I just think the administration's really adrift in foreign policy," said Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) as former vice president Walter Mondale was yelling his speech from the podium. "This is a very sad development."
"Al Haig was the best person they had on foreign policy in the administration," added Aspin. "He was strange in several ways, but he'll be missed."
"I'm worried," said former Peace Corps director Richard Celeste, now the Democratic candidate for governor of Ohio. "What you've got now is foreign policy in the hands of amateurs."
After the surprise announcement the real business of the convention continued--the unofficial presidential race at times referred to as a "beauty contest" by less-than-respectful delegates.
By evening, the contest was rolling. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was the guest of honor at a mammoth party given by his political action committee and the Massachusetts Democratic Party at the Bourse, the old Philadelphia stock exchange that has now been turned into a trendy shopping mall with quaint stores. More than 3,000 Kennedy supporters, most of them young, tanned and prosperous looking, lined up frantically for lobster as Kennedy shook hands at the exact rate of 1 1/2 seconds each. "Come meet Sen. Kennedy," a young aide said pleasantly as she quickly shuffled the fans through a conveyer-belt receiving line. In case the fans lingered, several more aides on the opposite end hustled them on through.
Finally, Kennedy spoke, yelling his thanks as the crowd became frenzied. But it was over in less than a minute.
"That's about the right length of speech for a mob," said Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.). "Never make a long speech to a Democratic audience that's been standing up and drinking--Udall's Fourth Law."
Scuttlebutt at this party was that Mondale had beaten everyone in the afternoon speeches, or at least that's what the Mondale people were saying. "The Mondale speech was the only interesting thing that happened here so far," said David Rubenstein, a Carter White House aide and self-described Mondale "hanger on." "A lot of people doubted he could give a speech like that." Then he beamed: "It's like you had a baby."
"I was satisfied, yeah," said Mondale, who arrived in a grand flurry at Kennedy's party similar to the way Kennedy had arrived at Mondale's party Thursday night. Mondale seemed to be enjoying his new stardom.
"Great speech!" said a woman.
"Hey, still looking good!" said another.
Meanwhile, Mo Udall, who is considered to be in the second string of possible candidates, was left on the sidelines. But suddenly: "Mo!" said a breathless young woman. "I worked for you in '76. I was a delegate for you." She smiled longingly.
"Smart woman," said Udall.
During the day, the seven candidates (none of them officially declared for president) took turns shaking hands and speaking at "drop-bys"--breakfasts, lunches, parties--and then afterward, everybody sat around and talked about them. It was difficult to tell who was more amused.
"Let me just tell you right off the bat," Kennedy said in another appearance, "I kind of enjoy midterm conventions. I do better at midterm conventions than conventions where they take the roll." Kennedy, who brought the house down with his speech at Memphis in 1978, lost the nomination to Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Kennedy still gets the loudest applause and has the largest entourage of press trampling after him, but Mondale, former Florida Gov. Reuben Askew and Sens. John Glenn (D-Ohio), Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and Gary Hart (D-Colo.) are trying hard.
Hart decided to distinguish himself with a serious "issues seminar" which, unfortunately, was held in a disco. "I found out after I booked it," said Hart's press secretary, Kathy Bushkin. "The guy said, 'You'll love this room.' I said 'Okay.' Then I called back the next day and said, 'Why am I going to love it?' " It was hot pink, decorated with pictures of Marlon Brando, Burt Reynolds and a sign that said "Fun Center."
Nonetheless, it was crowded. "Good turnout," said pollster Pat Caddell. "It's amazing. Most of the people I know didn't come here for this."
Although much of the first official day of the Democrats' midterm convention was taken up by speeches and speculation over Haig's resignation, there was still a lot going on. Before lunch Pamela Harriman held a press conference attended by such Democratic old favorites as Bob Strauss.
"Don't you call me an elder citizen of the party," said Strauss, who as former chairman of the Democratic National Committee was being referred to as "statesman." "I'm a mature and experienced member of the Democratic party with a high energy level."
Harriman's press conference was to announce the publication of a "fact book" for Democratic candidates in the fall. It was held in a "rod and drape," which is weekend lingo for the impromptu working areas that have sprouted in the cavernous Civic Center. Harriman, who is the wife of recognized Democratic statesman Averell Harriman and who also leads a political action committee sometimes referred to as "PamPac," arrived a few minutes late..
"The Reagan tax cut gives more to the wealthy than any other tax cut in history," she said. Soon after, a grab bag of Democrats leapt up to endorse her book, among them Stu Eizenstat, Jimmy Carter's domestic policy adviser. "It's chock-full and brimming with new ideas," he said.
A few hours later, delegates at a National Education Association lunch watched as the candidates filed in one at a time. Each came out in favor of education, so about the only difference was oratorical style. Glenn spoke in a calm monotone, Kennedy boomed, and Mondale was almost hushed, as if saving his voice for his more important afternoon speech. Cranston distinguished himself by telling a joke.
"I just got a bulletin from the South Atlantic," he said, explaining that the 2,000 inhabitants of those islands would be moved to Malta. "We would then," he said, "have Maltese Falklands."
The place groaned.
By late last evening, no Alexander Haig jokes had yet emerged from the Democrats, although Udall did pretend to be sticking a microphone in Sen. Christopher Dodd's (D-Conn.) face and asking in his best newcaster voice, "Tell us about Gen. Haig. How's he doing?" Dodd laughed, so Udall answered his own question by saying, "He's looking for work."
Soon after, the former prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, arrived at the gargantuan Kennedy party. She took one look at the crowd and said, "I'm flabbergasted. They were right. It's wild and big just like I imagined."