Stars, parties, protestors and politics: A guide to the political conventions
Don't judge me. But there's no place I'd rather be right now than in Tampa, six press badges on lanyards around my neck, pounding down the street to catch a keynote somewhere, short on sleep from having to cover the crack-of-dawn daily Texas delegation breakfast after closing out the hotel bar with the delegates the night before.
Why am I sulking for the next two weeks? In spite of not having to endure 18-hour work days, endless bloviation and rhetoric, violent protesters, throngs of bloggers, 50 deadlines a day, celebrity interviews, two weeks of pasta salad delivered to a makeshift press center and absolutely no news scoops whatsoever in an extraordinarily competitive (yet completely staged) media environment?
The answer, of course, is in the question. The conventions are FUN.
I've covered a handful in my career as a newspaper reporter, and now that I'm sitting these out in favor of obligations at home, I miss it badly. I'm having a host of flashbacks, but I'm not alone on that one.
No doubt GOP leaders experienced a bit of dejavu this week when Hurricane Isaac made them cancel opening day at the GOP National Convention in Tampa. Four years ago, they had to cancel their first day festivities all the way in Minneapolis because Gustav was bearing down on the Louisiana Coast.
This was 2008. They hadn't even removed all the FEMA trailers from the last, uh, big storm there. It couldn't have been a more stark reminder of the failings of the Bush administration, and by perceived association, the GOP, in the wake of Katrina. It was like Mother Nature had just formed a 527 and released a big fat anti-GOP attack ad. "REMEMBER THIS?!"
The conventions are such enormous events, so richly textured and dynamic, so filled with emotion and hilarity and whirlwind action and so very much more than the talking-head speeches you see on TV.
I was in Minneapolis with a team of reporters, editors and photographers from the Dallas Morning News, having just flown in (on a plane with Walter Cronkite) from the Democratic convention in Denver.
We had watched Barack Obama accept his party’s nomination for president at Invesco Field in Denver, with FBI snipers lining the top edge of the stadium and a good majority of the crowd flinching throughout the whole speech, hoping the security had worked.
Then we’d flown straight on to Minneapolis on Aug. 30, and the very next day, some 1.9 million people fled southern Louisiana in what would be the largest evacuation in U.S. history. Three years to the day after everything hit the fan in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina.
The party, still taking criticism for President Bush’s handling of Katrina in 2005, had to turn on a dime and cancel all non-essential activities on opening day at the request of their nominee, Sen. John McCain. Bush and Cheney skipped the convention altogether, as did Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, both rising stars in the party at the time.
The Democrats got lucky that year, as their convention could not have been more celebratory and joyful. By contrast, even with Sarah Palin’s cheeky winking and media-bashing in what was her first — and many say best — week as the veep nominee, the GOP convention was more of a somber affair.
Nobody likes to be accused of playing the fiddle while Rome burns.
As it happened this time, the hurricane went sideways and missed Tampa, and it looks as though the conventions — this week in Tampa for the GOP and next week in Charlotte, N.C. for the Democrats (lucky again) — will continue as they have since the first one in 1832.
And I absolutely could not be happier about that. You who are politically apathetic or even (gasp!) bored by the idea of the conventions, stay with me on this.
The conventions are such enormous events, so richly textured and dynamic, so filled with emotion and hilarity and whirlwind action and so very much more than the talking-head speeches you see on TV. For example, on Monday, the Texas delegation decided to start scrapping with national GOP leaders they say are trying to take power from the grassroots. Seriously, they never disappoint.
Why they exist
It may appear like a lot of showboating, but the conventions are, first and foremost, for the party. They energize the grassroots by celebrating their leaders and bashing their opponents. They are the epitome of preaching to the choir.
They use it to get voters’ attention, set the stage for the tone and message of their campaign over the next two months, introduce themselves and their candidates to the public. It’s like one giant press conference.
The conventions are also where careers are launched and stars are born. Ever hear Gov. Ann Richards’ line about how Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astair did except she did it “backwards and in high heels”? Richards uttered those words in a speech at the 1988 Democratic convention and launched herself and her folksy Texas wit into the hearts of the nation.
The stars and parties
Tip: Read the blogs for the best details on celebrity spotting and party hopping at the conventions. You won’t find those on CNN or Fox.
The days start at dawn and end in the wee hours, with huge concerts and nightly parties and luncheons with celebrities and political outsiders (Michelle Bachmann, for example, is hosting her own event, since she didn't get a spot at the podium this year).
Aside from the excitement of the protests, the parties and celebrity sightings are reason alone to visit a convention city.
We ate sushi atop a Minneapolis downtown restaurant at Rudy Giuliani’s party in 2008 and hung out with Tommy Thompson at a party celebrating New Orleans. In Denver, MTV’s Rock the Vote hosted a red carpet and Fallout Boy show, while Arianna Huffington’s luncheon featured will.i.am and Chevy Chase (who was avoiding the attentions of The Most Obnoxious Woman in TV, Tammy Haddad, Chris Matthews’ former producer).
Philadelphia in 2004 found me taking a breaking on a hot sidewalk bench during my coverage of the protests, when Phillip Seymour Hoffman strode up to me with his cameras, filming his documentary The Party’s Over.
Earlier in the day, he had stopped me to ask where the parties were that night. Now he wanted to know if I supported the death penalty. I didn't say, but answered that it wasn't why I declined to kill people. “My mama told me capital murder is wrong,” I answered, smiling. I didn’t make the cut.
Twelve years ago, thousands of protesters in Philadelphia shut down the entire downtown area during the 2000 GOP convention, demonstrating against everything from the WTO to the death penalty and beyond.
At one point, I watched them screaming their opinions into the cameras for CNN and then turn around and spit on me as I sat with my back to a wall typing furiously on my laptop. As I wiped off my screen and asked them what the hell their problem was, they yelled, “Corporate Media!” You’re aware you just interviewed with CNN, right?
In Minneapolis, Rage Against the Machine encouraged the crowd to be peaceful and not instigate anything with the riot cops that had been hanging out around the doors since people started arriving for the concert.
Click here for my somewhat rambling description of the events that followed, which included at one point a weapon pointed in my face as we cowered against a glass front restaurant, shocked patrons frozen at their window tables, forks halfway to their mouths. Good times.
Tip: This year, look for the Occupy movement to show up at the conventions, and the unions (just for Scott Walker!) and check out this site for some good protest info. YouTube is also a great place to find protest footage.
Over the next few weeks, you’ll hear platform news (down with immigrants, up with gay marriage, etc.) and speeches.
For us Watchers, they exist to tell us more about the party direction than even the party leaders care to tell us. Want to know whose ideology they follow? Check the headliners (and absentees). Want to know who they’re wooing? Check the introductory speeches, which are also a great clue as to who they’re grooming for the next cycle.
On the speaker’s list: Union buster Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin, and Texas political relative-newcomer Ted Cruz, the tea party favorite who just beat Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for the GOP nomination to the U.S. Senate in an upset heard ‘round the nation.
Notice who isn’t on the list: Bush, Perry, Michelle Bachmann. Organizers want to make sure that the 38.9 million viewers who tuned in to McCain’s speech four years ago don’t turn on their TVs and see someone that might chase them away from the party for good.
Watch the Democrats for a speech by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, the first Hispanic keynote speaker in Democratic convention history. Really, guys? First one?
And — this one I love — their speaker list includes Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, whom Rush Limbaugh called a “slut” and a “prostitute” after she testified in Congress in support of insurance coverage of contraceptives.
Translation: Women’s health issues won’t be taking a backseat in the campaign this time around, particularly with women voters supporting Obama, but Romney gaining among married women.
This week, Romney takes the stage at 9 p.m. CST on Thursday, with Obama doing the same thing a week later. Watch them because it's important. Watch the rest of the spectacle because it's fun.