Before I ever managed to hustle access to a national political convention, I always imagined that if I were only there, I’d have far greater insight into the entire process. I’d see behind the scenes, I’d see what was really going on. But somehow it took awhile for the gears and levers to align. In ’92, I couldn’t find anyone interested in credentialing me. In ’96, I had just moved across country and didn’t have the energy or the time to rush off to the conventions, even if I’d had credentials. So it wasn’t until 2000 that I finally made it in the door, thanks to the Village Voice. And to a certain extent, my expectations were fulfilled. It was fascinating to be there, to see it all firsthand.
What I do at these things is wander around, poke and prod, see what doors I can get behind and try to see what’s going on behind them. Mostly party chatter and soggy hors d’oerves, as it turns out does knowing this give me a “better” understanding of anything? Probably not. In 2000, it was new and exciting to me to be credentialed, to be inside, to be a part of the experience. This time, not so much. Here’s the thing: the conventions essentially serve as giant press releases the point is to generate coverage. But by being there, I’m mostly cut off from that coverage, so while I may be in a position to watch the show being produced, I have absolutely no idea how it’s being received. In terms of my work, I’m probably better off at home in my studio watching the end product on tv.
And to be honest, it’s exhausting and kind of demoralizing to have to constantly scramble for access to things to which I really should be invited as a matter of course, given the audience I have. It’s the problem with freelancing, and with the fact that most of my working career has been spent alone in small rooms in front of drawing tables and computer screens I haven’t ever really built up the networks you need at an event like this. If you’ve been reading the few hastily written entries I’ve managed to post this week, this may sound a little disingenous I’ve clearly had some truly odd experiences. But I’ve also been locked out of a lot of places entirely events I didn’t know about, or didn’t even know where to look to find out about, or events that I did hear about but couldn’t get in the door because I got there too late or my name wasn’t on the list or the room was full to capacity and the flack with the clipboard wasn’t impressed by the words “political cartoonist”. There were several daytime conferences I didn’t even hear about until they were over why, for instance, am I not on some sort of mailing list that would have told me about the Creative Coalition conference at which Bill O’Reilly spoke, or the Nation event in Cambridge with Joe Wilson, or the Hillary Clinton lunch on Thursday, or any number of other things? Half a million monthly readers on the blog, cartoons in Salon and the American Prospect and well over a hundred papers what does it take to get a little respect around here?
Again, of course, it’s just a situational problem. I have no organization, no structural support. So I’m left wandering around on my own, hoping to stumble across something interesting. And I do have fairly good luck with that sort of thing but as I say, I also find myself locked out more often than I’d like.
Last night, for example, I got locked out of the Fleet Center entirely.
Sometimes I’m lucky. Sometimes, less so.
See, unless you have one of the prized red credentials which give you floor access, what you have to do to get on the floor is exchange your hall credential for a floor pass at the press window. They’re called “rotating” passes, and you get them for a limited period of time usually an hour. Floor passes were hard to come by last night, but I finally managed to get one and spent about a half hour on the floor and it was hellish. Incredibly hot, incredibly crowded. More than I could deal with. More than the fire department could deal with, as it turned out. Long story short: I went down the wrong stairwell, got shunted outside and discovered I could not get back in the building at all. Not just the floor of the convention the entire Fleet Center was shut down, every entrance blocked by police and those scary paramilitary guys in the black uniforms (even the flags on their shoulder patches are black and white what’s up with that?) Since the press tents are outside the convention center, it seemed like half the press corps was locked out of the building. Apparently the number of passes distributed far surpassed the number of human bodies the Fleet Center could safely contain. Somebody told me that hasn’t happened at a political convention since 1988 and it was a Democratic convention that time too. Gotta love those strong organizational skills. (As it turned out, Robert Smigel was at the same entrance I was at, trying to get in, and entertained the crowd by reading an advance copy of Kerry’s speech in character as Triumph the Comic Insult Dog. So I actually ended up hearing the speech twice, though Kerry seemed to edit out the references to pooping on things.)
Eventually I managed to find a small tv to watch Kerry’s speech, though I missed most of the buildup. And of course I was able to talk afterwards with a lot of people who were inside the hall, and while I don’t know right now how it played at home (though Bob seems optimistic), it felt like a winner from here. Yes, there was the military posturing, but there was also a lot of real bite in there, a lot of references to things that, three years ago, nobody was discussing in public except for bloggers and left wing cartoonists.
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So was it all worth it? I lost a week, and I’m not entirely sure why. I met a lot of interesting people, and got to spend some more time with a lot of interesting people I already knew. I guess you could call that a “schmooze fest,” but for a shut-in freelancer who rarely gets the chance to do this sort of thing, a little shmoozing is not necessarily a bad thing. I had crazy levels of access at times, and was completely locked out at others essentially the two extremes of a thing like this. There are layers within layers, and no one can see them all. The wealthy and well-connected experience one convention. The bloggers experience another, sitting in seats so high in the air, and at such a steep incline, you feel that if you lean over too far forward, you will simply fall straight down. The delegates on the floor are ostensibly the reason for this entire exercise, but they are treated as extras in somebody else’s movie by most accounts, they had little chance of getting in to the many private parties going on all over town. The protesters in their cage experience an entirely different convention altogether, and I assure you the convention Michael Moore sees is his and his alone.
I am not yet sure if I will go to New York, or whether or not I will be credentialed if I go. But somehow I suspect that many of these questions will be moot if I do. The thought of twenty or thirty thousand Republicans invading New York City, exploiting the anniversary of 9/11 for political gain well, the inevitable mix of outrage and absurdity is the stuff from which satire is made.
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Personal note: I met Stephen Colbert from the Daily Show on the floor Thursday morning, and took part in one of the skits he set up. Nothing big, I’m just standing there pretending to have a conversation with someone for a second, but if it ends up on the show, then the whole week will be justified after all.
Also: big ups to the kids at Majority Report, both for having me on the show, and for helping me get into some events I would otherwise only have experienced from the wrong side of the velvet rope. And I owe Mike Liddell at the DNCC a shout out as well, for helping out with the credential process when it hit a last-minute snag.