The Atlanta air is clear and sultry, yet there’s a different air in the Democratic Convention’s Women’s Caucus in the Hyatt Regency—an air of conspiratorial illusions which stifle zealotry with their cold, hard calculations, but promise victory and the triumph of total human rights.

In the hallway adjacent to the meeting room I’m the recipient of a lecture on the need and right for long-term care legislation. I’m assured that this issue will come to dominate the political arena, and that no less than Claude Pepper supports it. What’s the price tag? I inquire. Twenty billion dollars—without batting an eye, yet spoken in a slightly subdued fashion. Can’t the private sector answer this need? Unthinkable. Can this cost be squared with Dukakis’s goal of deficit reduction? In time, yes. Regardless, the need is surpassing. There it is: the Democratic economic illusion—spend more on social programs, and watch the deficit contract. Of course, the world doesn’t work that way, which is why Dukakis never speculates on how to balance the budget. Call it the economic veil.

Moving into the actual caucus, wondering what luminaries might be involved, I spy Geraldine Ferraro on the podium. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, representing New York but sporting a Southern accent, hails this historic, living monument to the women’s movement. “Geraldine,” Congresswoman Slaughter informs us, “created a moment in history which will never, never be surpassed.” Previous moments of some significance flash through my mind, but I succumb to the tingling sense of unity pervading this religious gathering. (Geraldine informs us that to have secured the additional 15 percentage points necessary to beat Reagan in ’84, “you would have needed God on the ticket and She wasn’t available.”)

The Women’s Gaucus is deep in self-congratulation. The buttons say simply “5%,” for the number of women in Gongress—only one more Democrat than Republican, with probable growth favoring Republicans. I see Bella Abzug, who meanders about the room as if able to occupy any space at all, possessing total dominion from her matriarchal place within the Parthenon of women’s activists. I speak to her and ask her if she has not broadened her appeal beyond women’s activists, even appealing to more conservative women. She exclaims she is the same today as she ever was; that she holds out hope for all women across the broad spectrum. It is not she who is changing, but other women everywhere who have changed.

Now appears Ann Richards, treasurer from Texas and the star of the opening night of the convention. More than others, Ms. Richards recognizes the task at hand—to conceal the goals of all the interest groups which flourish under the Democratic umbrella long enough to secure the presidential crown.

From the cluster of people surrounding her at the podium Ms. Richards suddenly whirls to face the audience, cameras, and microphones, and calls out: “Well, how y’all doing? I didn’t put on my fancy face cream today so whatever shots you photographers get, get ’em straight on!” Ms. Richards honestly assesses the rigors of the woman as politician but considers the benefits to outweigh the efforts. She recalls that Mae West story in which Mae encounters a friend at a party wearing a formidable mink coat. Mae asks her friend: “Why honey, where did you get that coat?” Her friend replies: “Why Mae, I met a man with $10,000.” Next year the friend meets Mae, who is wearing a coat of various pelts. When she asks Mae if she met a man with $10,000, Mae replies: “Why, no, honey. I met 10,000 men with one dollar.”

The Texas raconteur continues, claiming she had just been asked outside by a reporter what it was about George Bush that women didn’t like. She said, “Sorry, but its hard to explain unless you’ve gone to a high school dance and looked over at the stag line and seen this guy constantly raising his eyebrows at you, and you say to yourself, ‘Oh Lord, I hope he doesn’t ask me!'”

For all her down-home style, Ann Richards is this convention’s John the Baptist. She acts as a bridge, saying enough of the right things to retain unity with women activists, yet urging a muting of angry voices and forging alliances with those less vocal, and even apparently less Democratic, for the sake of victory. In effect, Richards appears to counsel, to speak the harsh truths about the goals of this caucus is to lose again. And victory is the goal. What better political veil to the truth of their concerns than Senator Lloyd Bentsen?

Bentsen appears amid a phalanx of Secret Service agents and mounts the podium. His voice is so weak as to be barely audible before an audience already stirred by fiery oratory and evangelical exhortation. So inept is the stately Bentsen that an aging women’s activist gently moves him closer to the microphone. Once positioned, he begins.

“This year we are going fo make this the year of the child,” says Bentsen. “For those mothers living below the poverty line we are going to see that you have proper support.” The still almost-inaudible Texan assures the gathering that “Michael Dukakis has a great record on issues involving women. He doesn’t make a lot of promises, but he has a record of action. Women will play a major role in his administration.”

What is the import of such mild platitudes served before a hungry Women’s Caucus? The political veil is drawn and coded under the scrutiny of the national media. Enough must be said to insure activahng the activists, but not too much to alarm the broader public. Here enters political gnostiism, for only the enlightened few can know what is really going to happen. The result is that suspicion lingers in the minds of the activists and is sure to grow in the mind of the American public. But in the aftermath of the party having said too much four years ago (with a 40,000-word platform), rest content that if the Democrats err this year, it will be on the side of verbal parsimony, for the veil will not be rent.