By Norm Winick
The Zephyr, Galesburg
How things have changed in just 40 years. ItÕs the Democrats who just held a perfectly-orchestrated convention at two locations with all the major vanquished rivals being gracious in defeat and the party faithful more unified than ever.
ItÕs the Republicans who are in the midst of a convention with rioters being tear-gassed outside, with the first sitting President in that same 40 years to not appear at his own partyÕs convention, and a defeated contender, this time Ron Paul, hosting his own confab across the river in Minneapolis that drew nearly as many participants as the big show in St. Paul — including some big names such as Jesse Ventura.
IÕm on my way to St. Paul but I will share some of my observations on the Democratic National Convention in Denver. YouÕve seen the speeches on TV and heard the talking heads so I wonÕt go there.
Denver is a nice place but itÕs not a city. I donÕt think you can be a city without good public transportation and Denver fails miserably. The airport is beautiful and well-designed and in the middle of nowhere — literally. ItÕs a $60 cab ride to get to town. There are some private $20 shuttle buses but they were booked up well in advance. There is a city bus that runs, despite all the convention traffic, once an hour, for $9. If you are going to build an airport so that nobody could ever complain about the noise, at least run a rail line to it.
My hotel was at 18th and California Streets. As I alighted from the bus at the Market Street Station, I asked a policeman, ÒWhereÕs California?Õ His response, ÒOn the other side of the mountains.Ó I thought he was being a smart-ass and scowled. He politely said he was from Colorado Springs and had no idea. He also explained that Denver doesnÕt have nearly enough police officers (because they donÕt generally need them) and brought in thousands from other cities. They were there for crowd control and public confidence. Nobody bothered to give them a map or some basic directions. I did notice that there were police from lots of places, but rarely Denver, and everyone soon learned not to bother to ask them anything.
Getting thousands of delegates to the convention at the Pepsi Center and Mile High Stadium was also a logistical nightmare. When Chicago hosted the convention in 1996, Mayor Richard M. Daley closed off a few streets, prettied them up, and the buses full of delegates and media and the limousines and motorcades of big shots had a back route direct to the United Center. Denver is too polite and didnÕt want to inconvenience their residents. The buses and limos had to fight the gridlocked traffic like everyone else. Many delegates and others started walking after the first day.
I would be remiss if I didnÕt mention ÒThe Line.Ó The media hasnÕt. There were 85,000 people at Invesco Field/Mile High Stadium Thursday evening. They all went through metal detectors. They all had to go in the one entrance with security. The line was reported to be six miles long at its peak. It snaked through mazes in the parking lots of the football field, up and down dirt hills, under a bridge, along a fence and finally toward the entrance. The line became a phenomena of its own. There were no markings or guides or arrows or any clues as to which way you should be going. As people kept coming, it just kept getting longer. At one point, part of it had turned on itself and thousands of people spent more than an hour going in circles before realizing they were in an infinite loop. Some people waited as long as four hours to get in. Did I mention it was hot and sunny?
Since the stadium was fenced in, leaving was just as bad — or worse. It was dark; nobody had a clue as to which way to walk. There was only a fraction of the buses they should have had and there were no signs to indicate where they went. Despite all that, a good time was had by all.
I learned a few things at the Republican National Convention in Saint Paul. I learned that the Saint Paulians donÕt abbreviate ÒSaint.Ó Even on their many police cars, itÕs ÒSaint Paul,Ó not ÒSt. Paul.Ó
I learned that the Twin Cities are bigger than Denver. So with half as many delegates and a lot more locals, the Republicans had a lot less impact on Saint Paul than the Democrats did on Denver. While Denver had vendors all throughout the downtown selling political tchotchkes of every type, in Saint Paul, there were much fewer of them and they were concentrated only around the Xcel Energy Center. Most of the downtown streets looked untainted and unfazed by the arrival of so many politicos. Denver also had a lot more choices in street food — and at much lower prices. Saint Paul had lots more places to park inexpensively. I found a meter on a street about five blocks away from the convention and just outside the security perimeter. I put in all my quarters for about an hour and a half credit and asked a nearby cop if I needed to come back and fill it up for the evening. ÒParking is free after 4:30 and weÕre too busy to give parking tickets anyway.Ó When I asked about ÔDenver bootsÕ or ÔLincoln Park Towing,Õ he just laughed. The worst that can happen here is a parking ticket.Ó
Whether Saint Paul learned from DenverÕs mistakes or just works better, I donÕt know, but instead of chaos outside the convention after the session ended, there were organized queues for clearly marked buses to transport delegates back to their hotels. The line to go through security took maybe a minute. Instead of guest credentials being in short supply and a hot commodity, volunteers were brought in to fill empty seats. It may have been from that group that a few protestors sprouted. When McCainÕs speech was interrupted at seemingly random times by shouts of ÒUSA, USA,Ó it was because floor leaders had started the chant to drown out the occasional rabble-rouser being led out.
I also learned that I have misunderestimated Illinois all these years. I always figured we were the third most corrupt state in the union, behind only New Jersey and Louisiana. But after hearing about all the corruption that Sarah Palin cleaned up in Alaska, IÕm sure the frozen tundra hides enough dirty secrets to put it at the top (or bottom) of the list. And after hearing Republican delegates from several states tell me, in her defense, that firing cops and librarians for personal reasons is de rigueur for mayors and governors, IÕm sure that there must be many more places in this country more corrupt than Illinois; they either just have a different definition or their politicians are better at it than ours and donÕt get caught.
Finally I discovered that the transformation is complete. The Republican Party has been taken back by the Country Clubbers. It was obvious at the convention that the right wing zealots who have dominated recent GOP gatherings were relegated to the podium and the gallery. Politely sitting in the seats were predominately male, white delegates, wearing suits and ties, and generally ignoring the attacks on the Democrats and Barack Obama emanating from the speakers. They did cheer enthusiastically at any mention of cutting taxes or free trade. These were traditional businessmen and they were looking out for their own best interests. Social issues were of no concern to them. The male delegates did let their wives or girlfriends in the gallery cheer for any mention of Sarah Palin breaking through the glass ceiling they previously had installed and maintained.
The speakers were a different matter. Their job was to unite the base, to get the folks at home from abandoning the Republican Party — and they did a thorough job of trashing Barack Obama and Joe Biden. They all learned from the master, Karl Rove, that facts are irrelevant and they played fast and loose with them. Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani and dozens of other speakers dismissed the opposition as foaming at the mouth to raise your taxes and wanting to lose the war in Iraq.
What nobody spoke was any reference to the past eight years of Republican domination of Washington or the lies that lead us into war.
But that was all for television. The delegates I spoke with were universally polite, friendly, and really didnÕt hate Barack Obama or Joe Biden at all. They were partisan Republicans and fiscally conservative but not fire-breathing fanatics. They were Alex P. Keatons all grown up. Diversity was not a virtue here; delegates were 90 percent white and two-thirds male.
They were the John McCain delegates. The evangelical folks who were former Bush supporters had been supporting Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney or Tom Tancredo or even Ron Paul and lost out in the RepublicansÕ all-or-nothing primary system. The McCainiacs were local elected officials or businesspeople who were interested in profits — and more profits. They just wanted the economy to improve (without admitting that it tanked during a Republican administration) and their taxes to go down. Those are the lines got the biggest reaction from the crowd on the floor.
Sarah Palin, however, wasnÕt one of them. She electrified everyone in the hall who wasnÕt on the floor and even a few delegates who figured out the abrupt change of plans that experience doesnÕt matter anymore. She was given a red-meat speech filled with ad hominem attacks and taking credit for all sorts of things she never did but she delivered it masterfully; the truth be damned. And her speech, much more than John McCainÕs monotonous lecture, is what attendees will remember and what changed the course of this election. She received effusive praise from the Republicans who just a few days earlier had dismissed ObamaÕs acceptance speech because Òspeeches donÕt matter, experience does.Ó
There are differences between the Democrats and Republicans in the way they run their national conventions. While Democratic delegates could feast all week on hors dÕoeuvres provided for free by politicians, labor unions and private companies at parties in the morning, afternoon and after the proceedings of the convention , Republican delegates and guests from Illinois had to pay $600 to participate in the delegate functions and receptions.
The Republicans listened politely in their half-full arena for the bulk of their convention. Aisles were kept clear for the most part and you could move around at will and jump in any empty seat you wanted. The sound system was at a polite level but if you were quiet, you could hear everything. Even during John McCainÕs speech, you could hear cell phones on the jam-packed floor ringing constantly.
The Democratic convention was much more chaotic. It was so loud on the floor and in the arena at all times, you couldnÕt even talk on your cell phone, much less hear it ring. The sound system was always turned up to rock concert levels so that it was usually heard above the cacophony. Getting anywhere was a major undertaking; there were few aisles not packed solid with bodies. Fire marshals prevented r‘entry to the floor at many times when the crowd exceeded some secret pre-set level.
The McCain college-aged floor leaders wore suits and ties while they passed out homemade signs painted in the bowels of the arena by volunteers (some of whom were spelling-challenged (mavrick?)). The Obama floor leaders wore t-shirts and fluorescent green vests while they did the same.
Of course, none of this really matters. The conventions may not really matter, either. The next 54 days matter a whole lot.