Celeb sightings in Denver: Bunk, Biff - and Stalin?

The Baltimore Sun

DENVER - Free speech at the Democratic National Convention this week is where you find it. Near Market Street, maybe, not far from the Pepsi Center, where delegates hear party pronouncements in well-scripted speeches. Here, a nicely dressed man reads aloud feverishly from the Bible, as if the end were near. No one seems to be listening.

On the opposite corner stands a woman calling herself Nuclia Waste, representing a magazine called 5,280. (A mile-high periodical - get it?) She draws a few curiosity seekers. Maybe it's the tower of luminous, lime-green hair. It lacks the class of a "hon 'do," but it sure is luminous. Ms. Waste's ensemble includes a ruby-colored sequined dress and platform, high-heeled boots in pink. Neither she nor her colleague is thought to be toxic to any party or likely to set off unrest in the street.

By contrast, there is an official "Free Speech Zone" set aside for political protesters. That oddly Orwellian designation far from the Pepsi Center has all the charm of a county jail exercise yard or a prisoner of war camp. Concrete Jersey barriers mark the perimeter. There are 12-foot wire fences and a guard tower reminiscent of the ones used to watch for escapees from East Germany during the days of the Berlin Wall.

This site was chosen, no doubt, to minimize the possibility of anything like the tumult of Chicago in 1968, when what was later called a police-provoked riot may have cost Democrats the election. A travesty, says N. Reid Neureiter, a Denver lawyer, who has walked to the site with his 13-year-old, Austin, and Austin's friend, Zachary. "It's a cage," he says. "It's not anything that fits with the notion of free speech here in America. It's really a travesty of free speech."

On the plus side, unlike at the Beijing Olympics, at least here you do get to protest without being sent to a re-education camp.

A few steps from where Mr. Neureiter speaks is a mock sign-up sheet for commenters who thought authorities were onto something with their speech zone. "Awesome," wrote "Josef Stalin."

Said "Maya Angelo": "Now we really know why the caged bird sings."

Nuclia Waste had not signed up as of 7 p.m. Tuesday, but then she had found her own private zone.

At a political convention, reading the party platform is a barrel of laughs. If you finish, you know you're one of a small minority. Then it's on to a favorite game: celebrity spotting.

For convention delegate and teachers union official Mary Jo Neville of Howard County, it was "Bunk," aka Wendell Pierce, a star of The Wire. She spotted him at a party thrown by Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot. She asked Mr. Franchot if he would provide an introduction. "I love you, Peter," she said. "But I adore the Bunk."

Then there was the Kennedy factor. Marylanders may be a bit jaded about the Kennedys, given their familiarity with former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. But then there is the Caroline factor. I saw her one morning at the Maryland delegation's hotel. "Yes, that's her," whispered a helpful delegate. Not wanting to intrude and not wanting not to, I told her how JFK's "Ask not" acceptance speech had affected me in 1960. She smiled as if that declaration, heard by her innumerable times, was still pleasing.

Del. Susan Kullen of Calvert County found herself in an elevator with Susan Sarandon. Ms. Kullen and her muse were caught off guard. "Oh, my," was all she said.

Before her arrival in Annapolis, she says, she was apolitical. When you're not involved, she says, "that's when you get presidents like George Bush."

No one is more involved in Democratic politics that John T. Willis, former secretary of state and a scholar of presidential elections. Mr. Willis found himself next to Biff Henderson of the David Letterman show. Mr. Henderson is the comedian's stage manager and sometime interviewer of unsuspecting Americans on Times Square and elsewhere.

Mr. Willis scored a picture with the ever-obliging Biff.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column usually runs in The Sun on Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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