Embedded: Day 2

The media circus at the Republican National Convention

Zac Farber

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Mac Weekly Managing Editor Zac Farber reported from the Republican National Convention at the Excel Center in St. Paul Sept 1-4. The following is his report from Day No. 2.Do not let the politicians fool you; it wasn't their convention. The stage may have been reserved for Minnesota elected officials, failed presidential candidates and White House residents, but hogging the limelight from the politicians under the klieg lights Tuesday night were the 100,000 balloons pinned to the rafters; the three-story, high-definition video screen featuring--for much of the night--a billowing image of the American Flag; and the Xcel center convention floor itself--a blur of flashbulb photography, elbows, press credentials and power ties.

Nor was the convention for the delegates. Given front-row seats to the spectacle, the dilettantes' were rewarded for their interest with supporting roles in the kabuki. Their part is to look like average Americans and to hoot and holler; political knowledge is optional. Asked for her favorite part of Sen. John McCain's education policy, fifth-grade teacher and delegate from Marshfield, Wisc., Jeanie Moore replied, "Well, actually, I guess I would have to delve in to it more, but from what I hear he is right on." At the first commercial break, the House minority leader John Boehner of Ohio took the opportunity to ask the delegates to face the rear and stand still for the "official convention photo." Opportunity for purchase to follow, he told them, as if he were a carnie at the end of a thrill ride.


The real audience of the political theater (and the real subject) is the media. According to the National Journal, the RNC distributed 15,000 press passes to the convention, and microphones and voice recorders were thrusted to the lips of party insiders, delegates, other members of the press corps--anyone who claimed the authority to translate the staged pap into conventional wisdom and hard fact. Off the Xcel Center floor, the RNC catered to members of the national media, treating them as celebrity customers. Major newspapers, and a smattering of national magazines, paid exorbitant sums (the price of a four-day internet connection could exceed $5,000) for makeshift office space--rows of cubicles where reporters filed stories in privacy, secluded from prying eyes by an encirclement of blue fabric draped over metal poles. The conditions were less than luxurious. Yet, one could still catch a glimpse of Newsweek editor Jon Meacham through a gap.

But, through it all, the true stars were the television journalists. (The big-name politicians hid backstage or in skyboxes.) With their coiffed hair, fitted suits, and flattering makeup, the talking heads seemed carved from wax and larger than life. While Sen. Lindsey Graham slipped through the crowds unbothered and unnoticed, Bill O'Reilly was flocked in the hall by a scrum of adulatory fans. George Stephanopoulos cut a brisk path through a packed crowd in a back corridor, attracting stares from the star struck. During the mic check, NBC's Tiki Barber, film crew in tow, marched to the front of the convention floor, demanding that Rudolph Giuliani take a question. Giuliani demurred, instead opting to make the type of fall-flat joke that was a hallmark of his run for president: "One, two, three, four ... what comes next?"


The Republican performance stayed relentlessly on message, a message that boiled down to a couple of phrases repeated in speeches and hoisted on signs: honor, prisoner of war, service, country first. "We hear a lot about hope these days, [but] John McCain knows about hope--that's all he had," said former Sen. Fred Thompson, in an inspired speech.


There were, however, moments that seemed to slip the grasp of the organizers' stranglehold on uniformity and polish. Jo Ann Davidson, co-chair of the convention, made a Freudian slip when she referred to the Republicans' vice presidential nominee as "Sarah Pawlenty." When Sen. Thompson recalled how the spirited McCain once dated "an exotic dancer," he incidentally invoked memories of the colorful youth in which McCain courted his second wife while married to his first. The entire sickly-sweet performance of local congresswoman Michelle Bachmann seemed at odds with the night's theme of "service." Bachmann was more Minnesota mascot than effective surrogate as she pleaded to the spectators, "Come back to Minnesota--we're a really nice state that loves you" and offered a stilted, weak Democrat attack line, "we have a lot of liberals here in Minnesota ... but they're happy liberals."


The Republicans instituted successful political theater, solidifying loose platitudes and slogans into the plaque of cultural wisdom.