Dispatches from the Cheap Seats at the RNC: Part One

Mitt Romney 2012

Dispatches from the Cheap Seats at the RNC: Part One

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review Editor

TAMPA, FL: Two important things happened to insure that I had media access to this past summer’s Republican National Convention, and depending on your spiritual viewpoint and your worldview, the two elements were either acts of God or the best kind of dumb luck.

I believe in luck, as any rational human surely would, but I believe a lot more in acts of God. And in the big scheme of things—and with no apologies to my agnostic friends—intervention by a higher power always trumps the small moments of good fortune.

What were those two things that opened the door to the convention? Bad weather, and a best friend, who happens to be a Catholic Priest. I’m a Presbyterian, but I’ve learned that having a best bud who is also a man of the cloth is a wonderful thing.

A Floridian by birth—as is my mother, grandmother, and even my great-grandmother, who was born in the tiny town of Taylor back in 1885—I have also a familial respect, developed almost at birth and fine-tuned through adulthood, for hurricanes and tropical storms. I take them very seriously.

So, let’s rewind the tape. Back in February of 2012 the folks here at Thursday Review decided it would be a useful outing for our politically active web magazine to attend one or the other of the two major political conventions this summer. I discussed the dates and locations with Earl Perkins, our associate editor, and he agreed to keep his calendar roughly free for those weeks. We agreed it was a long shot: it was already late in the season, and our website—though it’s been around for many years now—draws only a tiny fraction of the traffic of the big boys, like Huffington Post, Politico and RedState.com. Nevertheless, we had some logistical advantages, one being no need for hotel or other hospitality arrangements. With friends in various locations around Tampa Bay, we figured—correctly—we could simply bum sofas, freeload coffee, and grab showers and shaves as needed.

When I first checked, the website for the Democratic Party convention planners indicated darkly that press credentials were already in short supply for Charlotte as far back as early March. The GOP media credentialing process seemed a little more user-friendly, so I played ball—filling out all the proper online forms, answering all the required security questions, giving detailed descriptions, and agreeing to the full-body cavity searches if necessary on site.

Then, months passed by; it was business as usual at Thursday Review as we covered the remaining caucuses and primaries. The Republican Party was helpful in every way, sending frequent routine updates on convention planning and progress, reminders about various reservation deadlines, keeping us updated on security, traffic and logistical concerns, and sending useful emails with news about those who would be speaking at the convention. There was a second round of forms, meaning we had made the cut to the next level. There were also papers that needed to be mailed directly along with a cover letter. There was an email acknowledgement that the package had been received in Tampa.

Again, I checked the Democratic Party’s website, and the door was already closed tightly. There was no room at the inn, as it were, unless there were lots of cancellations. Too bad, since I have an aunt who lives in Rock Hill, South Carolina—a 25-minute drive from downtown Charlotte. But since there would be little real drama at the Democratic powwow, we agreed to move on.

In our planning it helped that one of my best friends, a buddy from my days at Florida State University, had an extra room in his house in Tampa. Back in the late 1980s Kevin Mineer and I had worked together at an operation called the Florida Economic Development Center, then housed in FSU’s College of Business. After he got married, Kevin’s house in Tampa became famous for being something of an open party on weekends. The rule is: if you know Kevin, you are his friend; and if you are his friend, then you must drop by and stay awhile for mai tais and hot wings. Kevin also lives close enough within Tampa to be a short drive from downtown, so he offered to be chauffeur—dropping me off each afternoon, as close to the Tampa Bay Times Forum as possible, and then picking me up late each night. So in my case, hospitality and transportation were done deals.

But, then the bad news arrived in late July, a polite letter from the GOP press credentials team informing me that due to overwhelming demand and 15,000 other journalists, reporters, analysts, writers, camera operators and media-hangers-on, there was simply no room in the Tampa Bay Times Arena for me and my laptop, and just like that, we were out. I made a few phone calls—including to my Congresswoman, whose aide told me it was too late to try to pull any strings. A couple of other Republican friends—one in Washington, another in Montgomery—lent a hand as well. But the results were the same. There were plenty of volunteer options left, but none of those would place me inside the Arena. Another email from a GOP insider said that my name was on a stand-by list in the event of enough cancellations, which I interpreted at that moment as “no.”

I accepted this stoically, and made other plans. I was using a whole week of hard-earned vacation time, and the thought of the crowds and traffic and heat of Tampa had already paled in comparison to the other things I could be doing with my time.

Then, with only days to go, a nasty tropical storm began to approach the west coast Florida, a storm so large that it teetered for days on the threshold of being labeled a hurricane—which, in fact—it would briefly become. I could see the whole unpleasant scenario: traffic jams, incessant rain, storm surges, downtown flooding, power outages, mobs of people stuck in hotel rooms with no lights, the strain to the emergency services, the hundreds of whiny Old School reporters unable to get a good scotch on the rocks, and the whiny young reporters without Wi-Fi. I would spend my vacation instead happily in Jacksonville while my neighbors back in Alabama fed my cat and collected my mail. Conventions, like football games, are best watched on TV.

But, only hours after I left Alabama to drive to Florida, a friend in St. Petersburg called to tell me that she had heard talk of hundreds of cancellations due to the possibility of rough weather—and the no-shows would include a representative slice of everything convention-related; visitors, guests, dignitaries, alternate delegates, and even reporters. There were also rumors that hundreds of protesters were packing up their sleeping bags and heading out of Tampa, proof indeed that common sense prevails when once is faced with sleeping in a public park in hurricane winds and rain. Some hotels, motels and even a few posh restaurants were reporting last minute cancellations.

No matter, I wanted no part of it, especially if large parts of Tampa would be under water or without power. As a Floridian by birth, I knew that the only thing worse than the August heat and humidity is the August heat and humidity without air conditioning or even an electric fan.

That weekend, as is my custom when I arrive in my old hometown of Jacksonville, I make a few phone calls to alert my friends that I have arrived safely. I called my buddy Edward, now the parish priest at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. We chatted for ten or fifteen minutes, and then he asked the question: why was it I was not attending the Republican National Convention as a member of the press, as I had planned? Too many reporters and lack of space, I said. But, he had also seen the reports and heard the rumors about sudden cancellations; and, more importantly, he had a friend at the church—a high ranking member of the local and state GOP—who might just have the clout to locate a pass. It seemed like a long shot, but I said, “sure, go ahead.” What’s the worst that could happen? The friend at the church says “no” and I’ll still get to watch the convention on TV. So I told Father Ed to give it a shot.

The next morning (Monday morning, mind you), a few minutes after 8:00, my cell phone rang. It was Rick Hartley, an old business acquaintance from decades earlier. Rick’s company, The Hartley Press, had—coincidentally—done typesetting and printing for Thursday Review back in the mid-1980s. Rick said he could not promise anything, but he would make a few phone calls and let me know later that day if he could secure for me some form of convention access. Hours passed, and then he called me back. No luck, he said, but he would keep me posted. Father Ed called again to say he, too, was throwing weight behind my cause. Another two hours passed, and the next call sent me into hyperspace. Rick had located a visitor’s pass, and I could attend the convention as a guest of the Florida delegation. Someone would call me within a few minutes with more information. Sure enough, minutes later, another call came in, and I was given additional cell numbers of people already in Tampa, as well as an address in Palm Harbor (where the Florida delegation was being housed) where I could pick up my materials and credentials.

Thinking I would watch the convention on television, I hadn’t even packed a jacket or a tie. All I had were Hawaiian shirts, polo shirts, faded jeans and some cargo shorts purchased at a dive shop in Key West in 2010. That evening, shortly after my girlfriend arrived home from work, we sprang into action—driving to the nearest mall and walking directly to the men’s department at J.C. Penney. I bought the only off-the-rack jacket in the store that fit, along with two ties, a dress shirt, and one pair of black pants. That night I quickly repacked, charged my laptop and cell phone, and—being the textbook Obsessive Compulsive Disorder hard case that I am—fussed with the contents of my backpack for over an hour, checking the mechanical pencils, pencil lead, ball point pens, gel pens, writing pads, toothbrush, tiny tube of toothpaste, extra AA batteries, and assorted camera and computer gizmos until midnight.

The next morning I drove from Orange Park (near Jacksonville) to Tampa, using my cell phone to alert friends along the way, including Kevin, whose house would be ready by the time I arrived.

For those who haven’t visited, the greater Tampa metropolitan area is an immense, multi-county suburban sprawl, covering vast areas west, east, and north of the bay and connected by causeways, multi-lane freeways and U.S. highways all seemingly in continuous stages of repair and improvement. The wider metro area includes enormous, densely populated cities and towns, including St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Tarpon Springs, Dunedin, and Pinellas Park—all of it an endless patchwork quilt of shopping centers, apartment complexes, strip centers, mid-rise office buildings and the thousands of homes. This comes as no challenge for me—normally I avoid all of this gridlock by just driving directly to Kevin’s house and leaving the car parked there for the remainder of my occasional weekend visits.

But on this visit I would face a few challenges. Back in 2010 the Republican-controlled legislature had decided—against the advice of many political insiders and over the objection of state Democrats—to once again move Florida’s primary date forward on the calendar to a more prominent spot. And for their sins of hubris, the Republican National Committee imposed a few punishments the Sunshine State GOP, one of which was the stipulation that the Florida delegation must be housed and billeted in the facilities farthest from the convention center in Tampa. So my first day there involved an interminable drive—to and from—the sprawling Innisbrook Resort & Golf Club north of Palm Harbor. There, amongst a winding landscape dominated by golf carts, tour buses and Lincoln Navigators, I found my contact person who led me through the byzantine corridors of a cavernous hotel to the command center—a large room filled with folding tables, boxes, laptops, cell phone chargers and people sipping Mountain Dew while looking at their handheld devices. I met the chairman of the delegation, and a few others. I was sized up and judged to be a reasonable sort, and, a few minutes later, and I had the proper credentials and documents.

Back at Kevin’s house, I loaded my supplies and laptop into my backpack and—that afternoon at about 4:00—he ferried me north through Tampa toward downtown. This quickly turned into a predictable challenge, as traffic became ever-more gridlocked along our path. Kevin is a savvy, quick-thinking driver—familiar with the side streets and back street grid of Tampa, and we wound our way deftly through the dense traffic. Still, we found ourselves hemmed-in, and eventually more-or-less trapped in a kind of temporary cul-de-sac where a normally busy Bayshore Boulevard Publix grocery store sat, now isolated, amongst orange barricades, traffic cones and steel fences. Security concerns had been raised to nearly comic levels, and downtown Tampa had become a warren of steel fencing, razor wire, New Jersey barriers and yellow tape. The Tampa Bay Times Forum and the Convention Center sit at the south apex of an elaborate convergence of rivers, bays and waterways, meaning that aside from the bridges, the only way to approach the RNC by car or foot was from the north. Since nearly all of the bridges were closed for security reasons—save for one—we were stuck, only a few hundred yards away from my destination.

Trapped on the southwest side of these waterways, we set out on foot, zigging and zagging, walking alongside steel fences that stood, in some cases, eight to ten feet in height. At the corner of West Brorein Street and Parker Street, we rounded the Tampa Tribune’s newspaper facilities, and just north of that, the studios of WFLA TV, an NBC affiliate. It was here that Kevin cut me loose, as it were, directing me to follow the other pedestrians across the Kennedy Blvd Bridge into the heart of downtown. Once across the river, I followed my nose, the heels of those who appeared to know where they were going, and anyone who was wearing the plastic RNC credential card around their neck. Though on a normal day the Forum and the convention center can be approached from a variety of directions, months of careful security planning had essentially turned the downtown grid into a giant Pac Man game, with only one way to walk in—a gauntlet of sorts arranged near the intersection of Ashley Street and E. Whiting Street—through which every convention-bound pedestrian was required to pass.

Along the outer edges of this tightly cordoned intersection surged small groups of protesters—noisy, colorful, at times energetic, despite the oppressive heat and humidity. Everyone entering the convention had to squeeze along an ever-tightening funnel of police, homeland security and national guardsmen, where, in the shadow of two high-rise towers—we passed through a narrow steel gate, wide enough for only one or two people at a time. I had arrived...but not quite.

Unknown to me from my ground level view, I still had several long city blocks to walk. Hundreds filed out along this long, fenced-in corridor, while still more, like me, filed quietly inward and toward the south. The security presence was continuous, even within the steel fences and walls, and national guardsmen and reservists, alongside police and private security, alongside sheriff department personnel loaned to Tampa from places as far away as Pensacola and Miami, stood or sat in their camouflage, their canvas uniforms, their Kevlar vests and in some cases body armor, while sheets of sweat shimmered on their faces and necks.

Tents had been set up here and there, and inside, on folding chairs, sat more security, along with rescue workers, paramedics and triage personnel sitting amongst cases of bottled water. This was a comfort, since the heat seemed to crush us from above even as it radiated up from the pavement. Women in profoundly unsensible shoes cobbled along this endless warren until, from time to time, they would give up the fight and stop to remove their heels. Men stopped long enough to remove jackets and toss them over their shoulders. Then, a few blocks later, almost as an afterthought, visitors and delegates had the option to turn left, toward the Forum, or right, toward the Convention Center—all through an elaborate, carpeted tent-like tunnel which was not only fully air conditioned, but also contained hundreds of flat screen TV monitors, Corinthian columns, and even houseplants. Inside this dreamlike tent, it felt as if you were on the most luxurious camping trip you could devise. Along this sheltered corridor, side hallways would appear, including one which opened into the “CNN Grill,” a restaurant that also doubles as an informal TV studio, and a place to create the illusion of spontaneity as analysts sit around with their beers discussing electoral strategy.

A little further along the canvas and plastic corridor, and there was a glass doorway leading to a tarmac surrounded by low, metal pedestrian barricades. Outside were monstrous tour buses, as large as my 1600 square foot house, coming and going at regular intervals, dropping off delegates and alternates, along with enormous vans, RVs, charter buses and massive satellite trucks for CNN, Fox News, NBC, C-Span and ABC News.

Still, I had more walking, even as the arena finally drew closer. And the last step was more security. Housed inside a vast white vinyl tent, all pedestrians—and anyone disembarking from any of the buses or vans—were subject to a full battery of screening; IDs were requested, and all bags, totes, backpacks and purses were searched and/or subjected to x-ray machines. This was Homeland Security at its most comprehensive and thorough. I was asked to open all the flaps and pockets on my backpack, produce the camera, power it up, and even show that the camera card contained actual images. Likewise, I had to show them my laptop, also powered-up. My bag rolled slowly through the scanners, and my keys, wallet, ball point pen, cell phone and pocket change travelled—airport style—inside a little plastic tray. I passed through a walk-through metal detector, and then, for good measure, another officer used a hand held wand to inspect my entire body. Finally, after a quick double check of my credentials and my ID, and 45 minutes after I began my journey on foot near the Publix parking lot, I was welcomed to the Republican National Convention.

I felt like I needed a shower, clean clothes and a nap. Instead I chose to hurry along into the arena to get the full effect of being at a major political convention, and to get to the air conditioning.

GOP convention planners had taken the precaution of preparing for literally every contingency, and they were also scrupulous—as was the city of Tampa—to ensure that all staff and volunteers were helpful and exceedingly friendly. From the first few seconds inside the arena I was welcomed, and there were easy-to-spot ushers and proctors and guides at every turn and along every hallway. Faced already with the severity of heat and humidity, volunteers were standing by in various areas offering bottled water as visitors and delegates entered the Forum. Modern conventions are essentially self-contained cities, and inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum one could—if one was persistent—locate almost anything of necessity. There were kiosks and shops set up for anything imaginable—from cell phones to laptops to computer tech support, from Facebook to Twitter to Microsoft, from Verizon to AT&T to Hewlett Packard.

After a few minutes of water and a bathroom break, I circled the main concourse simply to have a look around. But when it was apparent after 20 minutes of sightseeing that visitor and guest seating would in fact be limited in some areas, I decided to find a seat and stake out a claim. This proved a wise step, even at a time when there were still rumors of empty seats due to the weather (the storm had already veered far to the west out in the Gulf).

My seat gave me a better-than-expected view of the events inside the arena. Being a press hound almost as much as I am a political animal, I was pleased that my seat gave me unusually close, eye-level views of most of the major TV network operations. Directly to my right, and just a few feet lower than my level, was the sky booth studio for CBS News. Inside, with his back to me, sat Scott Pelly, already strapped and wired into his anchor chair. To the left of CBS, at the same level and easily seen from my seat, was the operations center for CNN. Around the entire back wall of the arena, following that same semi-circle, were the iconic logos of the other news organization, ubiquitous at political conventions since the 1950s—ABC News, NBC News, Reuters, and others. Fox News also had a sky studio, but it was located at a slightly higher level in the hall, either an indication of favor with the GOP convention planners, or perhaps, conversely, disfavor, since it appeared to me to present a more awkward window view of the activities on the floor below.

Conventions are scripted events these days, and their preplanning and careful choreography has been increasing over the last 20 years or more. Gone are the days of spontaneity, uncertainty or surprise, particularly when it comes to the outcome of a nomination. The last major political convention to offer any real drama was in 1976, when President Gerald Ford and challenger Ronald Reagan battled for the nomination right up to the doors of their convention in Kansas City. After that, our notions of drama have been slowly fading.

In 1980 there was a brief but pointless rules challenge aimed—rather as a Hail Mary pass—at forcing, or “releasing,” some committed delegates belonging to President Jimmy Carter so that they might be able to vote their conscience, which was to say for challenger Ted Kennedy. There were also several hours of drama surrounding Ronald Reagan’s selection of a running mate at his convention in 1980 when word spread, after a brief interview between Gerald Ford and CBS’s Dan Rather that the former President would be agreeable to a partnership with Reagan on the ticket But when Ford kept upping the ante, overstating his role in one interview or the next, Reagan finally blanched and called George H.W. Bush instead, ending what had already become known among the TV anchors and reporters as a “co-presidency.”

By the mid-1980s what we learned to accept as drama was merely the content and caliber of the top tier speakers. Headline acts may still bring uncertainty to the media—either through what they say, or don’t say, in some cases. Gary Hart’s widely watched keynote speech in 1984 put him on the fast track to 1988 and essentially established him as the de facto front-runner. By comparison, nominee Walter Mondale presented what sounded like a patchwork of stump speeches. The wild cards for Democrats in the 1980s were Jessie Jackson and Mario Cuomo, each a powerful orator, and each with what every reporter assumed was an agenda for forging their own path toward the Presidency. Still, there was little in the way of drama to emerge, especially in 1988 when Democrats nominated Michael Dukakis. But even then, wandering off script or disrupting the timing can have consequences which pass for drama amongst reporters. Such was the case in 1988 in Atlanta when then-governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas—a rising star in the party—gave a speech so long that it went over budget on time by some 20 minutes, prompting a round of concern in the anchor booths by Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings that Clinton might singlehandedly wreck Michael Dukakis’ ability to speak in prime time.

Then, there are the mechanical failures, such as the long held superstition about balloons. According to convention legend, if there is a malfunction with the confetti or the balloons, the nominee is certain to lose. Such was the case with Jimmy Carter in 1980, and again with John Kerry in 2004. This, too, can easily pass for drama when there is little else to debate or discuss.

There was a sense, however, at the GOP convention in Tampa, that not only had they thought of everything—but that there were multiple back-up plans as well. Redundancy was aplenty. There were even two debt clocks, as if one were not enough to convey the great American penchant for spending money we don’t have. CNN had its own back-up studio in a smaller booth near its main operations center. And there were multiple Tele Prompters; in addition to the traditional pair of glass panels to either side of the podium, there was a massive flat screen monitor located at the back of the arena—at eye level with the person speaking—upon which scrolled, with painstaking accuracy, every word and pause of every speech, every song, every remark and every prayer. Quite literally, every word of this convention was scripted. Save, of course, for one brief and memorably surreal improvisational stage bit by Clint Eastwood—and enough said on that point for now.

[This article is Part One of a two part journal from the GOP Convention]