It would be easy to write off
DebateFest as a college party with no beer
-- a political rally where the politicians received pleasant rounds of applause while a hot dog-eating contest really got the crowds screaming.
It was, more than anything else, an unserious event.
But there was something refreshing about the extravagant picnic the University of Denver threw to celebrate the first presidential debate Wednesday afternoon, something graceful and necessary.
This has been
a dark political campaign
and Coloradans are muddy and divided from the slinging that goes on in a swing state. DebateFest recognized all that but made it less dirty.
Republicans and Democrats -- and all sorts of others -- were drinking lemonade and throwing bean bags into little holes. They were waving tiny American flags and registering themselves to vote.
DebateFest offered relief, and a reality check on what counts for politics in America. Middle-aged men may make their points at podiums, but so do co-eds in short denim skirts preaching the gospel of Greenpeace. So do
dressed in country club shorts and wearing Mitt Romney masks. So do guys in fuzzy elephant costumes holding PETA signs.
The outrageous proved itself a lot more interesting to the crowd. The 50 booths pitching party lines and social causes may have been popular at first, especially the ones that gave away tote bags or Tootsie rolls or protein bars. But that got old. Just 90 minutes into the event, there were 23 people in line for Ben & Jerry's and no one talking to the sincere volunteers staffing the booth bannered "Global Dental Relief."
Among the skinny-jeaned, shaggy- haired set, it was cool to dress in patriotic colors, though hard to treat the DebateFest like an important moment in the political process. Chris Matthews, who broadcast live from the MSNBC stage, was followed across the grounds. Senator Michael Bennett passed through the place virtually unrecognized.
It might have been massage fatigue that kept the event more "fest" and less "debate." Or it might have been the messages themselves. that failed to resonate. Both AARP and Rock the Vote are a bore when they show up in fancy trailers spouting slogans we've all heard before. They appeared stale, an energy drain.
The students who did arrive with signs that said "Forward" or "Fire Obama" seemed resigned to carry them under their arms rather than wave them grandly. It wasn't a day for that.
And that's OK really. The event shaped itself and took on a meaning of its own. Just yards away, the presidential candidates were sharpening their attacks, and everyone knew things were going to get serious soon. But the crowd agreed to postpone all that.
In democracy's busiest, ugliest season, DebateFest managed to slow things down and lighten things up. It was a pleasant diversion.