CHICAGO — At about 7 p.m. on opening night, a tall Indian Sikh in a sky-blue turban was nearing a heavily manned security checkpoint at the Democratic convention when he began fumbling nervously with a cord around his neck.
"My dagger. I'm wearing my dagger," Sikh political activist Jaspal Dhillon whispered to his American escort. He grasped an ornate, seven-inch-long steel weapon - a sacred emblem of his Hindu religious group.
A burly Chicago policeman, spotting what he called "a swami with a knife," unceremoniously ordered the Sikh to surrender the dagger or leave. Mr. Dhillon was stunned.
This diplomatic run-in outside the convention was matched by cultural confusion inside, as hundreds of foreign VIPs tried to comprehend one of the world's puzzling political traditions. These ambassadors, lawmakers, and dissidents-in-exile represent a broad spectrum of political beliefs and backgrounds. From struggling Burmese opposition party members to seasoned Canadian diplomats, their countries also stand at vastly different points along the often rocky road to smooth-functioning democracy.
Through their sometimes jarring, sometimes humorous reactions to this week's events in Chicago, the visitors are deepening their own appreciation - as well as that of Americans - for the strengths and weaknesses of the United States political system.
For Kolawole Ilori, an embattled Nigerian magazine editor and observer at both the Republican and Democratic gatherings, the US presidential campaign starkly illustrates basic freedoms lacking in Nigeria and other military dictatorships. "Here, I have seen political tolerance at its best," Mr. Ilori beams on the way to the convention hall, his flowing, multicolored robes mirrored by the riotous diversity of a downtown Chicago street.
"[President] Clinton cannot wake up one morning and put [Bob] Dole in detention or annul the election because Dole won," he says. In 1993, Nigerian strongman Gen. Ibrahim Babangida annulled Nigeria's freest election since the country won independence from Britain in 1960. The country of 105 million people is now ruled by General Babangida's former right-hand man, Gen. Sanni Abacha.
"Democrats and Republicans don't kill each other because they are in opposite camps. At San Diego, there were demonstrators outside, but no one molested them, no one beat them, no one tear-gassed them - democracy gave them ample room for dissent," says Ilori, who with his colleagues, has been detained repeatedly by Nigeria's military authorities.
But while the US comes close to being a political Nirvana for some, others take a more jaded view of the American electoral system. "The democratic process has suffered in recent decades everywhere in the Western world, and also very much here," bemoans Canadian Ambassador Raymond Chrtien, during a corporate-sponsored boat cruise on Lake Michigan. "Distrust of elected officials has crossed a threshold," he says, noting low rates of voter turnout in the US.
Envoys from Canada and other parliamentary governments expressed shock at both the lack of substantive debate during the conventions and the willingness of candidates to ignore their party's platform.
"Dole says he doesn't even read the platform. In Canada [where platforms are 'gospel'] he'd be crucified," says Ambassador Chrtien.
For many foreign visitors, the overwhelming impression of the convention was of its sheer magnitude and carnival-like atmosphere.
"It's an American political fair. It's a celebration, a showcase, a circus," says Egyptian Ambassador Ahmed Maher El Sayed as colleagues nodded in agreement. "No policy decisions are made here."
Visitors from poorer countries see the millions of dollars spent and rampant commercialism at the Democratic shindig as extravagant.
"Clearly, without a lot of money it's difficult to be a top politician in the United States," says Nepalese lawmaker Ram Thapaliya amid the wall-to-wall fast-food shops and souvenir stands at Chicago's United Center. "Why spend all this money when there are a lot of homeless people in America who are suffering?"
While expressing admiration for US democratic institutions, many overseas visitors hesitated to fully embrace America's brash political style.
Approximately four minutes in the riot of sign waving, cheering, camera lights, and flashing neon "Kansas" hats was enough for exiled Burmese Prime Minister Sein Win, a quiet man in a dark blue suit.
"If we have a political convention in Burma, we won't invite so many people," says Dr. Win, a Buddhist and former mathematics teacher.
Win then drew a sobering comparison between the jubilant Democratic conclave and the restrained weekly political "gate" forums held outside the Rangoon home of his cousin, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
At the forums, which began spontaneously last May after Ms. Suu Kyi's release from six years under house arrest, she answers written questions deposited in her mailbox. Because the sessions are videotaped by the military regime, few people dare do more than listen.
Suu Kyi was honored Monday with an award from National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, which along with the International Visitors Program of the US Information Agency is hosting some 700 foreign dignitaries at the convention.
On accepting the award, Suu Kyi's husband, Michael Aris, described how his wife is constantly vilified in Burma's official media and her relatives and friends jailed and persecuted. "President Clinton," he says in a bittersweet joke, "when it comes to embattled wives, you can't compare."
Yet despite the huge divergences, all the foreign visitors seemed to gain important insights from their time under the big tent.
The blue-turbaned Sikh Mr. Dhillon discovered that electioneering in America is nowhere near as chaotic as in India's northern state of Punjab. "Politics in Punjab is less issues-based. It's just 'those guys are corrupt, throw them out,' " says Dhillon, chairman of the human rights wing of the Akali Dal party.
Dhillon even won an American friend at the convention. After repeated explanations that Dhillon's dagger was a religious ornament that he had vowed never to wield in anger, Officer Cooney of the Chicago police bent the rules and agreed to hold it for him during the convention.
"OK, gimme the knife," he said with a grin.