Colombian Ambassador Luis Alberto Moreno loves observing American politics. He compares the excitement and thrill to the roaring drama of a car race.
Moreno was among a number of ambassadors and other foreign diplomats and politicians at the Democratic National Convention last week. He has attended four presidential conventions, Democratic and Republican, first as a journalist, now as a diplomat.
Times have changed, though, Moreno said. The degree of security in Boston last week was remarkable. He said the crush of the crowd was intense Thursday night when Sen. John F. Kerry delivered his acceptance speech as the party's presidential nominee.
"The FleetCenter was closed at one point and people could not go up or down the stairs, yet many were scrambling to physically get in there," Moreno said in an interview.
Moreno was at the convention as part of an intensive program of panel presentations, focus group discussions and debates organized by the congressionally funded National Democratic Institute. The events were held at a hotel in Cambridge, but Moreno took shuttle buses to the FleetCenter across town.
"I was there every night," he said, marveling at the electricity such political gatherings generate.
"This was the first I have been to where foreign policy had become center stage, and the first in which you had officials such as New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson speaking first in English and Spanish. So did Bob Menendez," Moreno said, referring to the New Jersey congressman. "This was a nod to Hispanic voters and issues."
Moreno said it was not easy to predict how the presidential election would go. "You could clearly see the machinery of a party that wants to win very bad, the desire to come back," he said. "It is going to be difficult to project anything at this point, especially when you look at the polls and see how solid the support is on both sides."
He added, "The flag is down and the race is on."
Among the nearly 700 political figures from around the world and diplomats from more than 100 countries at the convention were a lone Arab female presidential candidate, Nayla Mouawad of Lebanon, and African opposition leaders. They braved the maze of metal detectors and rigors of tightened security for a firsthand view of American democracy.
Egyptian Ambassador Nabil Fahmy said he thought the Democratic message was most important this time around. This is his second round of conventions as ambassador.
"The convention was a show of force on the Democratic side for unity," Fahmy said. "That message came out strong from Boston. That would appear to be the logical thing to do, just as, I suppose, unity around stability will be the message to come out of the next [Republican] convention."
Fahmy said he was also fascinated by the process leading up to the convention, particularly the system of state caucuses. "I followed that very closely, and you really see the layman, the average American, participate in the decision to choose the nominee rather than leaders of the party, per se," Fahmy said.
He recognized the changes in recent political conventions, in which all the decisions are made ahead of time. "In the past, the decision was never sure until after the convention," Fahmy said. "For an outsider looking in, that took away some of the luster. It would have been interesting to see the decision taken on the floor, but I was really impressed nonetheless. It is something Americans can be proud of. I will be at the Republican convention, as well, to watch and listen."
Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez Herrera said he was attending a convention for the first time. It was a "good gesture" by the campaign to provide Latin American diplomats with a framework in which they could interact with U.S. officials who deal with hemispheric affairs, he said.
Kerry, said Herrera, "presented himself as a person with his own principles, values about the world. We might not agree with everything he said, but we appreciated the opportunity."
Venezuelans also face a political campaign, for a nationwide referendum Aug. 15 on whether to recall President Hugo Chavez. "We are optimistic. What is clear is that we need the constitution," Herrera said. He said Chavez was currently favored in public opinion polls to retain the presidency.
Aside from the political events, some ambassadors also attended a Boston Red Sox game on the first day of the convention. Others were hosted at gastronomic feasts by food critics from some of America's leading magazines.
Another highlight was a special tribute to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his 42 years of public service. Actress Glenn Close presided over the evening, with performances by the Boston Pops conducted by John Williams, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, U2's Bono, and Broadway stars Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell. Kennedy donned a white jacket and took the baton to conduct the Pops when it played "Stars and Stripes Forever."
"He was having a ball," said Moreno. "It was very, very moving to watch the Kennedy godfather and all those who worked for him over the years. That was a real treat."