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No Smoking in This Filled Room

PUBLISHED: August 28, 2008

Nothing is left to chance in this era of political conventions. Back in the day, party conventions were unpredictable. The presidential nomination was still up in the air when delegates arrived in the host city and it frequently took many rounds of voting in the convention hall to settle on the party’s standard bearer. Fist fights occasionally broke out on the floor between upset delegates supporting different candidates. Party leaders in the infamous “smoke filled rooms” tried to control events, but a fantastic or dramatic speech could catapult an underdog to the nomination.

There aren’t many surprises at conventions anymore. Not only do the parties settle on their candidates months in advance, but these days every detail is orchestrated for the television audience. On Tuesday—“Hillary’s night”—I had access to the media room in the Pepsi Center. Hours before the headliners took the stage, transcripts of all the speeches were printed and made available to members of the press. This practice allows reporters to file stories or write up their commentary before a speech is actually delivered. Minute by minute schedules are also provided. Every speech delivered here in Denver—with the partial exception of the Clintons’—has been thoroughly vetted, and in many cases completely written, by the Obama campaign.

The audience is also managed. Everything that takes place in the hall is carefully orchestrated to convey the right image to the American public. The audience’s enthusiasm and cheering is monitored by party operatives stationed in each section. Homemade signs are not allowed to be brought into the hall—too much risk of going “off message.” Rather, official signs are passed out by convention planners wearing reflective yellow vests and the audience is coached on how and when to display their enthusiasm.

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Complaining about the ironies of airport security has long been a national pastime. Security inside the hall at the Democratic National Convention includes similarly bizarre rules. I had a Floor credential for last night’s session. It’s a great ticket—only a Delegate Floor pass, because it comes with an actual seat, is better. My Floor credential was one of several hundred that allow access to the areas around the delegates’ seats, but are standing room only. The only problem with such a ticket is that security prohibits standing. Any non-delegate on the floor is urged to “keep moving.” Frequently the polite security personnel urged us to not lose hope and that despite the crowded conditions we could still reach our destination, as though we all had a specific place we were headed to on the other end of the floor. This was not the case. Okay, at 3:00—when the convention opens each day to a nearly empty hall so obscure county commissioners can make one minute speeches—maybe nobody is paying any attention to what’s happening on stage. But for the last two hours each night when the headliners are giving their speeches, everyone just wants a clear line of sight to watch the proceedings. Hardly anyone was actually trying to get anywhere. Thus, to comply with the security directive in the least direct manner possible, everyone on the convention floor slowly shuffles back and forth doing endless laps. Of course, this doesn’t actually lessen congestion, it merely creates slow-moving congestion.


Gregg's picture
Gregg · 13 years ago
I’ve become ambivalent about the scripted nature of modern conventions. I too wish that the parties presented themselves as more dynamic and diverse coalitions rather than the standard partisan fare. However, there is something comforting in knowing that the conventions is scripted. People claim to long for spontaneity, but feel disappointed when they don’t get a good show with a hollywood ending (where the hero wins in the end and the music piped in at the end while they roll the credits). It also allows reporters of the major newspapers to file their stories prior to actually witnessing the speeches, assured that they know exactly what the keynotes speaker will say. The ability to see the future is an underappreciated power. Regardless of your inability to see into the future, I appreciate VQR’s campaign coverage. Covering what you’ve actually seen is a lost art.

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