Girding for the conventions

The major party political conventions are now just a few weeks away, and for the first time in my memory (and perhaps ever), they’re going to be held back-to-back. I’m going again — I’ve been to every major political convention since 1992 — and I am approaching them with an uneasy combination of mild excitement and icy dread.

Personal highlights of an increasingly long history of attending these suckers:

I was covering Bill Clinton for the Little Rock paper, so this was a special time. I remember being sandwiched on the convention floor during Al Gore’s acceptance speech as vice president at the Dem convention, and I remember having to share a tiny New York hotel room (with a broken air conditioner) with two other colleagues. And then I hopped on a bus and rode from New York to St. Louis with Clinton and his staff, watching him assume a rock-star status that I never really saw coming. That bus trip, which is now the stuff of political legend, may turn out to be the highlight of my entire journalism career.

The Republican convention wasn’t so memorable. It was at the Astrodome, and the first George Bush was in the process of getting beat, and the Arkansas delegation was housed somewhere in New Mexico (or so it seemed).

I remember an embarrassing night with the state delegation at a fine, upscale Mexican restaurant. A really talented mariachi band strolled up to the table and asked for a request. “La Cucaracha!” shouted a delegation member, who was rewarded with a thousand-mile stare from the band members.

At least the mole′ sauce was good.

1996: This was my first stint as an editor at a convention. I quickly learned that editing stories isn’t nearly as much fun as covering them at these events. I went into the convention hall a grand total of one time at the Dem convention in Chicago and once at the GOP convention in San Diego; the rest of the time was spent working in big rat’s mazes of work spaces in adjacent buildings. This was a trend that continues to this day.

The 1996 GOP convention remains my all-time favorite. It was in San Diego, which meant that events got wrapped up early (conventions basically are run on East Coast time) and everyone had time to go to a nice dinner most nights. The spectacular Saturday-before-the-convention media party, held in a public park near the ocean, still sets the high mark for such events. The Brian Setzer Orchestra was the entertainment, and he was followed by the single most spectacular fireworks display I’ve ever seen.

We head straight from the high to the low. The GOP convention in Philadelphia was an exercise in misery that made me hate my then-employer for months to come. It almost cost me my job after I got in a screaming match with the president of news for CNN (he crushed me like a grape). I had to commute in every day from Delaware. I worked in a trailer with white walls and glaring lights. My shortest work day was 15 hours (plus more than an hour to and from the convention site). I once had to go out to the mini-van I rented for my staff so I could take a one-hour nap in the afternoon. The pressure was brutal and there was absolutely no payoff.

The Dem convention in L.A. was better, again benefitting from the time change, although the “break party” for the CNN crew after the convention ended was another exercise in humiliation. The company news president warmly congratulated everyone for their work — except for the dot-com crew, which he did not mention even in passing. He was fired two weeks later because of low ratings, but I like to think of the act as karmic justice.

I’d tell you what my staff and I did right after that party, but it remains kind of blurry. I do know that it (peripherally) involved Jumbo’s Clown Room.

2004: More grief: My father died during the Democratic convention in Boston. I left after two days, getting home in time to be there when he passed.

The GOP session, a month later in New York, was mostly enjoyable (although it turned into a real grind by the end). I skipped the media party the first night, went to the Rodeo Bar and listened to a good roots rock/alt-whatever band until the early morning hours.

And now it’s 2008. You never know how these things are going to work out, but Denver is almost always nice, and St. Paul is a prettier town than most people realize. Getting through two straight weeks of this noise is a new challenge, and I’m still not sure who’s going to do my Real Job during this time, but I’ve decided just to think about the calm blue ocean and grind my way through another convention season.


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