Take Gustav. It seems ironic that a hurricane once battered the Republican administration, and a hurricane now provides it with an opportunity to get things right. Republicans in Minneapolis, initially dismayed and facing a quandary over that fine line between compassion and convention, rallied the first night of their week, confident their leaders had found the right tone. Web addresses that flashed hugely upon a red background screen from center stage seemed oddly impersonal. It seemed classically Republican for the First Lady and Mrs. McCain to make their appeal for contributions dressed in pure white and in regal gold.
Had this been the Democrats in Denver, I'm sure they would have simply begun passing around an offering basket or plain hat.
I began my "political life" in 1984, covering both the Reagan convention in Dallas and the Mondale gathering in San Francisco. During my 36-year career in journalism, mostly from Washington, D.C., I covered at least 12 conventions and flew thousands of miles chasing candidates. I've photographed seven presidents.
Returning now for Boise Weekly after time away has offered the chance to step back a bit, observe again, remember ... Were things the same? In many ways, yes. Had newspeak in the form of "spin" prevailed? I think so. Consider this: On a reddish orange electronic ribbon coursing around the Xcel Center, the words "peace," "prosperity" and "reform" appear. How ironic that none of these immediately come to mind with the Bush team. It is as if saying so makes it so. Or, in Ministry of Truth terms, "war is peace."
Was the political scene hampered or helped by post-9/11 security responses? In Denver, arrests of armed, homegrown terrorists made news. But along the 16th Street pedestrian mall, visitors were treated to anti-capitalist marchers with police in close pursuit while ABBA's "Dancing Queen" blared from a restaurant loudspeaker. In Denver, squads of black-helmeted police clearly conveyed that violence would not be tolerated. In Minneapolis, an anti-war march of possibly 50,000 was anticipated. There the police presence seemed at first less obvious until military units in riot gear began to appear.
Overheard among photographers: The 1972 convention in Miami was worse.
So, in many ways, very little has changed. The convention remains a chamber of resonance for delegates, a chance to see and be seen, a place to feel a part of something bigger than one's self.
But for both parties, center stage remains the focal point, rising above the floor where state delegates, willingly orchestrated by party operatives in cheering and sign-holding duties, sit tighter than airline coach seats, surrounded by the perpetual motion of roving cameramen and writers, photographers, alternates and guests.
Away from the public arena of the floor, in places like the lobby of the Brown Palace in Denver, or the Mill Ruins in Minneapolis, the connected gather. It's an unlikely place, one would think, given the symbolism of the ruins, to hold an opening party, but hey, maybe the meaning of that could be spun, too.
At the Brown Palace, Ted Turner is spotted chatting; Ohio Rep. John Boehner's warehouse bash is, arguably, the best. Caucuses are held, and breakfasts aboard trains, meetings and conversations seem to trump hurricanes.
Little seems to have changed. Perhaps that is the nature of the conservative political animal within Americans. We care about New Orleans and yet need to live our lives wherever we are.
So much seems bedrock similar, as if the cliches of political conventions were, ironically, the tacit rules by which the electoral experience is organized. Of the two, I sense the greater change—certainly reflecting diversity—was on the floor in Denver. Yet even in Minneapolis where only 36 delegates were black, one sensed change. Despite fears for the safety of New Orleans and even the convention's outcome, when the call to order came, a woman leaped to her feet, hands outstretched, and applauded. She was from Alaska and knew something was stirring for her state. The history of our oddly comic, exhausting, sometimes hypocritical, yet oddly sincere American electoral way was set again to be challenged.
I confess, I think this was a democratically raucous year for conventions.