Last Wednesday Karen I took ourselves down to the Staples Center to cover the Democratic National Convention. At least that was the cover story because the truth is we were really just a couple of tourists who had never seen a convention before on anything other than TV and we were curious.
I was embarrassed that my son Tony, now called Anthony York, in case you’re looking for his byline, was getting to lord it over me because he got to go to all the big shows and I was stuck in the minor leagues here in Malibu.
So we put on our press passes, which we had dutifully applied for weeks and weeks ago, and drove to Staples, which was in itself an eerie experience. I’ve never seen so many cops in one place–LAPD, L.A. Sheriffs, Highway Patrol, secret service and lords knows what else.
To get through to the Staples Center you had to go through a series of roadblocks. They had cordoned off the center, probably a mile in every direction, and you could only get access through specific streets. We drove from roadblock to roadblock, trying to discover the secret for getting into media parking. Each time there was a different group of police, different departments, different ranks, but they all had that very tense, combat mode kind of expression, and we got the distinct feeling it wouldn’t have been hard to light their fuse.
There we were, our bodies covered with press badges, driving a Lexus, and they looked us over as if we had come to overthrow the government. We finally found the right road, only to discover that we needed a special red pass to park, which we, of course, didn’t have, but luckily we found a spot on the street, parked and went in, well–sort of.
First we stood in line in front of hard-eyed cops checking the crowd, then security checking the cops, I suppose, then a metal detector, then our purple passes got us into Staples, and then into the auditorium, but only one at a time, because we had only one green pass. That’s when I discovered there is a press class system. Everyone from the dailies and TV got green auditorium passes, but periodicals, like us, had to share a green pass. I finally got into the arena where the convention was taking place and soon found out that to get onto the floor where the delegations sat you needed a yellow pass, which of course we didn’t have either. After much negotiation we finally got a yellow pass, but only for one hour (I’m not quite sure what they would do if you didn’t come back).
Finally I found myself on the convention floor totally exhausted, and the day hadn’t even officially begun. I hung around for a while, and then we went up to the top deck so we could sit together. That is where we watched scores of Democratic politicians, senators, congressmen, mayors, state officials, from all over the country, go to the podium, get their three or so minutes of air time, and their tape to take home to local TV and their next campaign video.
As Karen and I sat there, we found ourselves handicapping the speakers like horses in a paddock. Liked that one; good hair, good teeth, nice tailoring, resonant voice, could make it to the big show, while others were classified as strictly minor league.
Then it came to the main event — the speech by vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman. I must confess I knew next to nothing about Lieberman, other than his general reputation, and he turned out to be a surprise. Nice looking, easy manner and soft-spoken, the kind of soft-spoken that everybody leans forward to hear, and for a man with a reputation as a moralist, a much better sense of humor than I expected.
His speech was carefully crafted, in part to appeal to the party faithful, most more liberal than he, some to serve as a personal introduction to the nation and most to convince the press and all the rest in TV-land that Gore had made a sensible, if not courageous, choice. He hit them with the ‘man of humble origins’ bit, the first to graduate from college in his family and the child or grandchild of immigrants — the crowd ate it up.
It was a no-brainer in this crowd. Just to make sure to leave nothing to chance, every time he got to a good spot in the speech, the lighting and sound men, whom I’m sure had also worked the Republican convention, raised and changed the color of the lights — up went the excitement level of the room — and then cooled it off for the next portion. No one needed cards that said applause, but he wouldn’t have needed it anyway because he was good. He sensed the room and played it well.
Interestingly, what also was strikingly different were the roles the wives and children played. This was definitely a family affair for all the candidates, probably to counter the Clinton factor, but more so because we are interested in them and their families, and there is no ducking it. Apparently there are no black sheep in this group.
They knew what they were doing because, after the convention, the poll numbers jumped, the gap between Gore and Bush closed and it’s once again a horserace. I suspect the winner will be the one who screws up the least in the next 10 weeks.
We wandered over to the convention center next door, where the 15,000 members of the press were housed, and all I can say it was frightening. The sight of a long line of tables, of maybe 20 or 30 talk show hosts from all over the country, with angry looking talk show host faces, interviewing politicians and then hand-passing them down the line from booth to booth to be reinterviewed, and miles of cable and thousands of computers, and thousand and thousands of press, some of the worst dressed people you’ve ever seen, clearly could take your breath away.
The din of the “chattering classes” was a roar and I finally left with a heck of a headache, munching on the M & Ms, which the convention knowingly had put in every journalists’ goody bag as comfort food, sort of like survival rations.