As a first-timer armed only with a press pass, no one gave me a tour of the sprawling Xcel Energy Center, and I did not discover Diageo's complimentary nachos and open bar-an unsubtle ploy to win journalists' favor-until the waning hours of Day No. 4 when Cindy McCain was about to formally address the conventioneers.I spent three days of the convention (I skipped the abbreviated Day No. 1) wandering aimlessly through the back halls, passing Alaska delegates wearing orange vests in support of oil drilling and smug smiles to support their governor. I tried to slip into the background of Daily Show interviews, and I stalked Bob Schieffer until he entered the CBS trailer and Mitt Romney until he disappeared into a crowd. I rode in an elevator with McCain speechwriter Mark Salter and gawked at Newt Gingrich during a radio interview.
I was not alone. Credentialed journalists outnumbered the 2,380 credentialed delegates by a ratio of more than 6:1. All of them were competing for stories, sources and space. It was near impossible to take a trip to the bathroom without bumping into a TV station film crew. Along with $7.50 hot dogs, the journalists feasted on interviews with "the delegate," a convention delicacy whose deficiency in authority and perspective was offset by his willingness to gush pro-Palin and pro-McCain talking points into every video camera and tape recorder that entered his event horizon. Many incautious journalists found themselves nodding and jotting notes for hours, a hostage audience to a recitation of the diverse merits of Pointe aux Pins, Mich.
The journalists, delegates, strategists, senators, merchandise vendors, security guards, and organizers were divided into a caste system, status conferred by the scannable identification cards. The "limited access" untouchables were confined to the basement while the select few with white "official access" cards were given free reign. Inspecting the horizon for a glimpse of the famous, I looked for necks denuded of lanyards, upon which perched the heads of those whose faces left further identification superfluous. George H.W. Bush did not need I.D.
I was able to get a provisional media floor pass and I migrated to the convention floor. Its joy derived from what The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg described as "the three-dimensional, carnal corporality that comes from total immersion in an immense sea of human protoplasm." On the floor of the convention, I did not merely see senators and newspaper columnists at close range, but physically jostled with them for a spot closer to the stage and overheard their banal remarks to colleagues.
The energy and intimacy of the floor had a way of overwhelming my personal partisan inclinations and replacing them with the emotion of the moment. While I would never let myself be seen holding a "Mac the Maverick" sign, when he finally appeared on stage Thursday night, backlit like a superhero and smiling broadly, I let my personal feelings meld with the surrounding crowd and I released a gleeful "Woooo." As he spoke, I knew it was a terrible speech. But even as I noted the over-the-top exploitation of his time as a prisoner of war, I still hung onto every word, enthralled by the physical proximity of his familiar face. Later, when the opportunity arose, I fought through seven rows of waist-deep balloons to shake the hand of Sarah Palin, a woman I had barely heard of just two weeks ago.