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.: 2004 --> notes on the 2004 democratic national convention

notes on the 2004 democratic national convention

@ I volunteered for the Democratic National Convention because I could: one of my husband's employees has made a career of managing events, some for the Democratic Party, so he was our in. We were going to be in NYC the week before the convention for jjg's all-day seminar, and so we thought...why not? We'll be there anyway. My husband, Jesse James Garrett, worked with the network liaisons; I was a celebrity handler. It was our first time at any political convention. What follows, in no particular order, are my notes on our experience.
[ 08/03/04 ]

@ The funniest thing I saw at the convention happened on the street outside the perimeter. I was walking toward the Fleet Center one evening when a group of young men wearing white shirts marched, singing, across my path. I slowed to let them pass. Upon crossing the street, I found that they had arrayed themselves in two or three rows and were singing, in perfect intonation and really lovely harmony: LaRooooouche, LaRooooouche....

LaRouche, by the way, has formed a political action committee.
[ 08/18/04 ]

@ In my experience, the volunteer process at the DNC was extremely unorganized--this, in spite of having a man on the inside who could keep abreast of available opportunities and steer us toward those that seemed most interesting. I was first placed as a credential-checker manager, but then chaos ensued when it transpired that I would be required, in that position, to wear khaki pants. (Actually, I was perfectly willing to see if I could find a pair at the thrift store, but my contact got special permission for me to flaunt the dress code before I could communicate that information.)

As it turned out, that orientation meeting conflicted with my husband's talk, so I opted out. Next, I was told I had been placed as a credential-checker, and would receive an email to confirm, but I never heard from anyone at all. My contact worked to find me another position, and finally I was placed as a celebrity handler and told to join a conference call the Sunday before I was to arrive. I called the number at the designated time and waited a full 45 minutes before giving up; and then called the next day on the off chance I had been given the wrong date, but again the owner of the call never appeared. I forgot to ask the other volunteers whether they had participated in such a call, or whether all of us spent part of Sunday on the phone waiting for someone to come and run the call.

I would have loved a web page listing and explaining the available volunteer positions and maybe even a submission form to allow volunteers to apply for specific jobs. I suppose they might have trouble filling slots if all the information was out there, so undesirable are some of the positions. On the other hand, surely everyone would have benefitted from some sort of central data clearinghouse.

I would also recommend a page containing essential volunteer information, for example, the information needed for pre-convention security checks. This page would have enabled individual managers to point volunteers to the general information from the beginning. The entire process would also have benefited from a set of pre-written, coordinated materials made available to every volunteer manager. These materials, preferably housed on the Web (where they could be printed off if necessary), could then be supplemented by instructions that were specific to individual positions (again based from a pre-designed template). No one has enough time for everything that needs to be done before a convention. Supplying managers with well-thought-out materials and templates would have enabled them to communicate with their volunteers in a timely and consistent fashion, and saved them the time necessary to think through their communications, compose correspondence, and then answer volunteer questions as they arose.

Another aspect that could use some work is volunteer housing. We were told that we could stay in dormitory accommodations for $40/night whilst volunteering, but that never materialized. I know, from the other volunteers I talked to, that there was housing available in at least one dorm, but somehow our contact--who was working hard to place us--was never given this information. We ended up staying in a bed and breakfast just outside of the city, and very convenient to the train. Nice, clean, and comfortable, but much, much more expensive than dorm housing would have been. It really would seem fairly straightforward to create a web-based clearinghouse for this, too, ideally allowing volunteers to place themselves in available housing.

I understand that the convention goes from city to city every four years and that the person in charge of volunteer housing is likely different every time. But after all these years, housing volunteers should be a well understood problem. If each coordinator simply typed up their strategies, successes, failures, and suggestions for the next convention and put them in a notebook that lived at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters until the next such event, surely some institutional knowledge could accumulate in the course of just a few elections. Either that or the DNC could just pony up and hire someone with some experience in the field.
[ 08/18/04 ]

@ As I have said, the last night of the convention was just crazy. In order to ensure that my actress had a good seat, I sent Jesse up to the skybox with her friend to save two spots in the front row. While he was waiting for us, he had to leave his seat a few times on various errands. On his first trip out, he accidentally kicked the elderly man at the end of the row. He apologized and moved on. On the way back in, he did it again. As he apologized again, Jesse looked down and realized who it was he had been kicking in the shins: George McGovern.
[ 08/18/04 ]

@ On the first day he was onsite, Jesse reported that al-Jazeera was covering the convention, a fact that really pleased me. Whether or not you agree with their perspective, they are the equivalent of CNN for much of the Arab world. I was happy to think they were there with the rest of the media. Like all the major networks they had a large banner with their name strung across their skybox. The day before the convention began, Jesse told me the banner had been removed--it was, after all, just behind the podium.

I wish the Democrats had done something different, in a couple of ways. I can see how having the al-Jazeera banner on full display behind every Democratic speechmaker during the convention would cause campaign strategists to lose some sleep. I can only imagine the hay that would have been made from that image by the right-wing crazies.

Physically, the space behind the podium is probably the least desirable--from there you can only see the back of people's heads--and that's probably how al-Jazeera landed there instead of the NewsHour or CNN. It makes sense to place the networks that are speaking directly to your voters in the more desirable spots.

But just a little pre-visualization would have saved the whole mess from happening. From the start, a different, inoffensive network should have been given the behind-the-podium spot (ruffled feathers be damned) and al-Jazeera should have been placed--with their banner--in a less-photographed spot. If asked about their presence, the Kerry people should have said simply that John Kerry strongly supports freedom of the press. That a free, working press is a necessary condition for democracy, and an important force in the democratization of the Middle East. And that they were proud that al-Jazeera was there to cover the convention.
[ 08/10/04 ]

@ On the way out of Fleet Center the last night of the convention, we walked past a few fire trucks parked along one of the side streets leading up to the arena. I stopped to ask directions of one of the firemen lounging on the back of his truck. Then I noticed that the firehoses were already hooked up and resting across the top of the truck, their nozzles pointing toward the road. "That's to make a shower for the people as they come through," the fireman helpfully explained. "It's not perfect, but it would clean people up pretty good." [more...]

Oh. The fire engines weren't there in readiness for a fire--those fire engines were deployed a few blocks over. These fire trucks were there to create an ersatz decontamination shower in the event of a chemical attack.
[ 08/10/04 ]

@ I'll bet you're wondering how the balloons work. We did, from the moment we saw them hanging from the ceiling before the convention started. Reportedly it took a week to blow them all up and 6 days to install them. So how do they make them fall? [more...]

Standing up high with the bloggers, we were able to see how they did it. Of course, as mere spectators, we had no idea of the drama that was being played out on CNN by convention producer Don Mischer. We listened to Kerry's speech and we applauded, and after a few minutes, the balloons started descending to the floor. Perhaps I expected them to start falling a few minutes earlier than they did, but when they started it seemed, in the moment, like it was the right time for that to happen.

The balloons were suspended between arena rafters in what appeared to be long net bags. From what we observed on Thursday night, these 'bags' were actually just wide strips of netting. At the end of each strip, both corners were secured to the ceiling, perhaps from hooks. When it was time, a stagehand reached over, unhooked one corner, and let go. The netting would open and the balloons would fall. We saw two stagehands, moving on the catwalk from area to area so that the balloons would fall on one part of the floor and then another. Just as low-tech as it comes.

I wonder how they get them up there?
[ 08/10/04 ]

@ Food at the DNC:

[ 08/09/04 ]

@ The Volunteer Lounge, by the way, sort of cracked me up. I appreciated the thought and the food, but it was set up in a storeroom. Everyone, the first time they tried to find it, would follow the signs and then miss their turn into the backways of the hotel, proceeding instead into an office that was clearly too nice to be for volunteers. Once you found the right door, you would often have to walk past stacks of half-eaten food from the ballroom next door, on the way to the 'lounge'. [more...]

The handwritten sign on the outer door said: 'Volunteer Lounge. No Staff!' One day, we found the inner door locked from the inside. One of the volunteer coordinators retrieved the key and let the collected volunteers into the room. Two (I presume) paid staffers were inside, one of them on his cell phone. As we entered, the one not on the phone started shushing us. The staffer who had let us in was incensed. "Ignore the phone call," she snapped in decidedly unhushed tones. "Ignore it." The paid staffers left the room, still on their call.
[ 08/09/04 ]

@ Jessamyn is, in my opinion, a master of the art of the photo essay, and I'd like to take a moment to point you in the direction of her lovely and interesting impressions of the DNC: Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5. The essays themselves are more interesting than the titles might suggest. In writing and photography, I aspire to be more like Jessamyn.
[ 08/09/04 ]

@ The bloggers mentioned in their coverage that they had trouble hearing the speeches. That was true. From the 7th floor, you had to listen very carefully to hear what anyone was saying. Everyone I talked to assumed the sound had been optimized for the delegate floor, but I wonder. I spent some time behind the podium during the last day, and the sound quality there was even worse. Behind the podium, they were surprised to hear that we couldn't hear very well from up high. On the other hand, the sound was crystal clear in the skyboxes, so it was optimized at least for them.

I had a funny moment on Thursday night, standing next to a blogger who was reading the embargoed speeches as they were given. I found myself trying to choose between watching the speaker on the big screen behind the podium and reading the speech as he delivered it. Suddenly I realized that there was a third option that hadn't even occurred to me: watching the speaker himself. I forced myself to watch only the living person for a while, but it didn't seem more real than the artificial versions. And the minute I let my attention wander, back my eyes would go to the enlarged image or the computer screen next to me. The mediated versions of the experience clarified reality to such an extent that they naturally drew my attention away from the little men behind the podium.
[ 08/06/04 ]

@ Fleet Center areas:

Credentials, in order of ascending exclusivity:

[ 08/06/04 ]

@ I've never heard so much baby-boomer music in one week in my life.
[ 08/06/04 ]

@ When I volunteered for the convention, I didn't much care what my job was. I thought it would be interesting to be behind the scenes and to attend the convention. What I didn't realize until halfway through the week was that most of the volunteers--and by "most" I mean the vast majority--don't get to attend the convention at all. My assumption at the start was that access to the convention would be the reward for volunteer service, but I couldn't have been more wrong.

There were volunteers who worked in offices all day, there were volunteers conducting traffic around the Fleet Center before and during the event, there were volunteers checking credentials at the various access points. The visibility whips were technically on the floor during much of the event, but they spent their time running up and down aisles passing out signs, not listening to the speakers. Credential checkers might be at the door of the hall, but that was no guarantee that they could hear anything that was happening inside. Others checked credentials at escalators or at the Fleet Center entrances. They probably didn't get to see much of the convention at all.

I got a note from one reader who spent the week sitting in some sort of volunteer pool, waiting for an assignment. She wrote to tell me that, though she was only given credentials for one night, she managed to get credentials on other nights simply by asking passersby if they had any extras--she said it usually took only 4-5 people before she scored. That's not the experience the DNC promises you when you volunteer. But it is The Quintessential Convention Experience. Based on everything we saw and heard in both of our departments, the single universal activity of both staff and volunteers during convention week was trying to score better credentials.
[ 08/06/04 ]

@ I've read several places that stem cell research was the unacknowledged issue of this election, but I haven't really understood just why that would be. I thought Ron Reagan's speech on the subject was exemplary: clear and calm without being boring. And he was very enthusiastically received. I had regarded the issue as a simple Science vs Faith sort of thing until the end of the week, when the real significance of this issue--and Ron Reagan as its spokesman--suddenly dawned on me. These are baby boomers. They want a cure for Alzheimer's. Soon. Before they get old.
[ 08/06/04 ]

@ Jesse worked as an assistant to the media liaisons, people charged with providing the networks with television guests during the convention. Each day of the convention had a theme, and each day's guests were selected to illustrate or support that theme. Everyone who appeared in even a semi-official capacity on behalf of the Democratic National Committee--including the celebrities my office dealt with--was given talking points for the day.

Below is some campaign (or Beltway?) lingo jjg learned as a network liaison:

[ 08/05/04 ]

@ As the week progressed, the Fleet Center became more and more (over)crowded. Celebrities and VIPs flew in to attend the final nights of the convention, and the crowd grew accordingly. Reportedly, access to the Fleet Center was shut down early Wednesday and Thursday nights. I was part of a mob scene at about 7:30 Thursday night. [more...]

I was conducting my charge from an interview behind the podium up to her box on the 5th floor, where I had saved a seat for her. As we approached the escalator, a policeman blocked it and announced that he was shutting down access to the level. Chaos ensued. Dozens of people crowded around the foot of the escalator, waving their credentials and saying things like "But I have a pass for General So-and-So's box!" It was like the US embassy leaving Saigon, only over nothing.

The policeman kept on warning everyone to move back, or he wouldn't let anyone through, but no one would comply for fear of losing their place. The crowd swelled. People continued to push forward, waving their passes in front of them, trying to make the policeman understand that they were entitled to move to the next floor. It took some time for people to understand that their credentials--which had promised them access--did not guarantee them a reserved spot.

Another policeman appeared, alarmed by the size of the crowd that had collected. "What's going on here?" he asked loudly, as he charged in. The first policeman tried to explain. The new policeman quickly took command. A tall, well-dressed man whispered in his ear, and, after some cajoling, managed to get about a dozen people through. Another man approached him, and then the policeman called out "Who is press? Who here is press?" A dozen more people fought their way through the crowd and were allowed onto the escalator. Everyone had a pass, and everyone felt their case was more important than everyone else's. Then began the negotiations--with occasional successes--as everyone who could get close enough plead their case. It wasn't clear what the criterion was, but everyone who could get the policeman's attention tried to convince him that they were the exceptions who should be allowed passage to their party.

I managed to maneuver my charge to a position close to the escalator, where she would occasionally raise her pass in the direction of the two policemen, and then helplessly drop it. I worked to get within hearing distance of the second policeman, who was fending off pleas for indulgence. "I need to talk to you," I said as soon as I could catch his eye, and he turned to hear my request. I had to speak very loudly to be heard over the crowd.

"I don't care if I get upstairs. But I have been charged by the Democratic National Committee to get this actress to her box on the 6th floor." I pointed to the girl standing behind him.

"What actress?" He looked around. I pointed again. He looked at her, nodded, and let her through. I started to thank him, and he motioned that I should follow her. I shook my head and started to move away, but he grabbed my hand and pulled me through the crowd and onto the escalator.

"Thank you!" I called out to him as I moved up and away from him.

My actress looked at me and said feelingly, "Thank you."

The escalator moved us into the relative quiet of the upper hall. Behind us, the mob waved their passes and demanded to be let through.
[ 08/05/04 ]

@ One way in which the bloggers were treated like the press is that they received advance (embargoed) copies of the speeches that were to be given every night (in either paper or electronic form). This was a real boon, because from the nose-bleed seats, it was often hard to hear exactly what the speakers were saying. [more...]

Matt Haughey, following along from home, made a brilliant connection: The FOX network broadcast Democratic Convention speeches very selectively, cutting from commentator to speech and then back to the commentator again. Knowing that they had an advance copy of the speech to work from, it's clear how scripted these cuts could be--essentially, FOX was able to 'edit' the speeches to their liking. But to the average viewer, I'm sure it appeared that the short portions of the speeches FOX broadcast were simply random samples, and therefore representative of the whole.
[ 08/05/04 ]

@ Many people, my husband and I included, had their picture taken with the convention floor in the background. We had a photo taken again at the convention's close, with the balloons and confetti falling behind us. I was slightly surprised to see the camera crews on the platform next to us taking each others' pictures against the same backdrop; I was floored to see one of the anchors, who had been broadcasting against that backdrop all week, do the same thing.
[ 08/05/04 ]

@ What were the celebrities like? Well, I didn't work with very many of them, but by all reports they ranged from wonderful to awful, just like everyone else. The worst story I heard was of a celebrity who hired a car that had room for just their party--the volunteers who were escorting them had to hire a cab (I hope the DNC reimbursed them) and follow. At one point the celebrity just dumped their handlers without notice (as the volunteers found out when they arrived at a party and the celebrity wasn't there). [more...]

Other incidents fell more in the 'a little bit spoiled' range: a celebrity who tried to cajole a volunteer into giving them a unique political button, and who was peeved when the volunteer wouldn't do it; a celebrity who complained repeatedly that they had paid their own way to the event [ed. note: so had all of the volunteers]; that sort of thing. By all accounts, the better-known celebrities tended to be better behaved, but I don't know if that's because they were given more perks or because they had attended other political conventions and knew what to expect. Maybe their handlers just didn't tell on them. On Wednesday night my husband saw people scrambling to find Rob Reiner a seat--and he wasn't the only one. Once the house was full, the house was full. (No hint of any bad behavior on the part of Mr. Reiner, by the way.) I heard of celebrities who wandered around looking for a place to sit, but who seemed pleased just to be there.

As I see it, in either political party, your importance is judged strictly by the amount of money you can bring in, either through your visibility or your personal checkbook. No one cares whether you have a hit movie unless some of that money is going to get funneled into campaign coffers. The people who understood that--who understood that in this pecking order they might be just a few notches above the volunteers who were escorting them around--seemed to be the ones who most successfully dealt with the unpredictable conditions at the Fleet Center and with their own unpredictable status--and who consequently had the best time.
[ 08/05/04 ]

@ Much was made of Ben Affleck's ubiquity during the convention, but I don't think the press knew the half of it. When they were preparing to allocate 'celebrities' to 'handlers' (my position), I was told that Mr. Affleck's schedule ran from a grueling 7am to 2am, and that after the convention he would be hitting the road with the Kerry campaign. Note that he was giving speeches and actively campaigning, not just attending parties. Lots of celebrities attended the convention, and some of them even campaigned a little. But most were there just to rub elbows with the powerful. Ben Affleck's involvement is on another level, and I think he deserves praise for it. I'm in awe of his commitment to this campaign.
[ 08/04/04 ]

@ Political conventions really are made-for-TV affairs. Numerous minor political figures are scheduled to give speeches from 4pm to 9pm (before the major networks begin their broadcasts at 10pm) to varying numbers of spectators who pay varying amounts of attention. My husband noticed that typically the delegates from any speaker's state would be in attendance for his or her speech, even if the rest of the arena was empty. But convention planners save the most famous and dynamic speakers for primetime. [more...]

Because it's crucial to get these important speakers in front of the television audience, the entire schedule from 9pm on is padded (with periods of 'padding' scheduled on each night's breakdown). That means that plenty of time is scheduled between each major speech. During this downtime, the delegates are treated to a variety of interstitial pieces projected onto the big screen behind the dias.

One of these diversions was called 'America Remembers' and consisted of a photograph and inspiring quote from a famous Democrat (John F. Kennedy, Shirley Chisholm, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton) rolling onto the big screen behind the dais. A moment later, the loudspeaker system would play a recording of that person saying those words. And then the crowd would cheer.

In another type of segment, (which, according to my media liason husband, was a scheduled event, and not in fact designated as 'padding', as the others were) a group of ordinary people would be shown, sitting in a room in another city--for example, teachers in Birmingham, Alabama, or steel workers in Muncie, Indiana. I was under the impression that these were live video links, because occasionally during a major presenter's speech, the video would switch back to one of these groups as they applauded an especially eloquent line. A spokesperson for the group would stand and explain why he or she supports John Kerry for President. At the end of their speech, the group behind them would applaud, and the crowd at the Fleet Center would cheer. (This wasn't a terribly difficult crowd to please.)

The third type of interstitial was accompanied only by music. First, a person's picture would be displayed on the big screen. Then, their name would appear, with a party affiliation, which was always "Republican". Then a sentence stating their position, along the lines of "Worried about the effect a record-high deficit will have on the economy." Then, at the bottom of the screen, the words "Voting for John Kerry in November" and a red slash would appear through the word "Republican" (which, it seemed to me, didn't necessarily follow). As usual, the Fleet Center crowd would cheer.

At first, I thought the time between speeches was there simply to provide the networks an opportunity to run commercials and analysis. But on Wednesday, I realized that they were there to calibrate the entire evening: to guarantee that every speech would begin on schedule, and that the last speech would end on time.

On Wednesday night I was standing with the bloggers, who were given (as was the press) embargoed copies of the speeches for the night. Al Sharpton's speech consisted of a series of two-line paragraphs. Now, the DNC must have known that he would go over his time limit. In fact, looking at his written speech, I wondered if he always writes his speeches in that style, using the text simply to jog his memory. Rev. Sharpton would read out the first line or two of each paragraph and then off he would go, riffing on the ideas contained in those lines. After a while we would notice that he was back to the text, but never for more than a line or two before he took off again. It was like watching a dance.

I was worried when he was through: How will they maintain the evening's schedule? Will they have to cut a speaker? What will they do?

Remove some interstitial material, that's what. Subsequent speakers started their speeches on time, and the evening ended exactly on mark, just as the DNC--and the networks--had planned.
[ 08/04/04 ]

@ Interestingly, as a volunteer celebrity handler, I was part of the Finance Department, not the VIP group.
[ 08/04/04 ]

@ Bryan Mason managed the visibility whips, those unfortunate souls who run up and down the aisles like mad, distributing signs to delegates and other audience members in a just-in-time fashion. After sitting in the upper levels for three nights, watching these signs appear and then change like magic, I can tell you that he--and all of his volunteers--can be proud of what they accomplished.
[ 08/03/04 ]

@ I spent Monday night up in the cheap seats with Stephanie, a volunteer who formerly served in the Clinton administration. We were given 'Special' passes, which, in fact, are not particularly special at all. 'Special' is the third tier from the bottom: there were Perimeter passes, which got you past security, but not into the building, and Hall passes, which got you into the building but not into a seat, and then Special passes, which got you into the cheap seats. We didn't care where we sat, we were just happy to be there. At the time, I didn't yet understand just how precious access to the convention center was, or would become. I thought all the volunteers were given seats in the hall, as thanks for their service. My husband, who was working in the Fleet Center, had a Hall pass, which meant that he could get onto floors that most people couldn't reach, but he couldn't sit anywhere. We had to sneak him into the bleachers so that we could have dinner together before he went back to work. [more...]

We were seated just one section over from the bloggers, who were given three rows in the nosebleed seats. I stopped over there for a few minutes to say hi to my good friend Jessamyn who disappeared somehow just before I arrived, and instead spent some time chatting with David Weinberger. The access controller challenged me as I walked through the entry--"This section is full"--and I said the words that would work magic for the rest of the convention: "I'm going up to see the bloggers." She let me through.

Monday had a rousing lineup: Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. It was a real pleasure to be in the room. Though they were tiny on the stage, this was close as I will ever be to a president or vice-president, and it seemed remarkable. Bill Clinton of course, simply basked in the crowd's applause when he walked on stage. It's not just that he could read a phone book and make it inspirational--he could--but I had a strong sense that the people in the room were remembering the best times they had ever had, remembering the 90's when their man was popular and in office, and the country was prosperous and at peace. I imagine it's much the same response Ronald Reagan would have received in 2000 from a sports arena full of Republicans, had he been able to speak to them.

I was surprised at the response Hillary Clinton received when she took the stage. For years I have dismissed any and all talk of Hillary as President as rather unimaginative attempts by right-wing talk-show hosts to stir up their base. But the press just won't let it go, and lately it seems that the Clintons themselves have left the door open when asked. It's preposterous. Mrs. Clinton is such a polarizing figure that she could never win the Presidency.

But when Hillary took the stage, she received an unbelievably enthusiastic response. I suddenly realized: the Democrats love her as much as the Republicans hate her. And though I think they are misjudging the tenor of the public by their own ardor, I finally understand why some in the party might think it possible for her to win.
[ 08/03/04 ]

@ I must admit, I was shocked by the blogger accommodations. For some reason, I thought they would be placed with the press, but instead they were given two rows of tables and a row of chairs, which, because they were centrally located, they had to fight the public for. Next door, the platforms on which various television cameras were placed were designated off-limits by the very low-tech method of stringing yellow police tape to block entry. The bloggers didn't even get that. Perhaps there were enough chairs (had they been available) for 35 bloggers, but there certainly wasn't enough table space.
[ 08/03/04 ]


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