Monday, Aug. 26, 1996
Nobody's quoting Marshall McLuhan this weekend in Chicago, so somebody, somewhere, got over the Sixties. I think McLuhan said TV was a cool medium--either that, or he said it was a hot medium--but watching the run-up to the Democratic Convention from the other end of the TV tube is, in fact, cooler than being there in person. Not climactically--Southern California is boiling--but in sheer lack of ambient buzz, the narcotic that keeps news and political junkies going to party conventions long after they've entered their dinosaur-after-the-asteroid-impact phase.
So nobody is whispering recently coined snidenesses into my ear as I watch Friday's Aretha Franklin concert at Grant Park, the opening salvo in Chicago's bid to add niceness to the city's famous list of superlatives (tallest building, biggest McDonald's). I get to enjoy the show, as well as the rest of this week's festivities, thanks to my access to a satellite dish: not one of those pizza-pan-sized things that offers you bigger, better cable, but the kind the pros use, affording a view of every unedited satellite feed--network, cable, and local--flowing from the convention city, and from the drawn-out Clinton whistle-stop approach to Chicago. No credentials needed, but no media guide, either. If you read the high-flown prose that accompanied the dawn of the electronic media, this is the function they were supposed to perform, the dream of a window on the world; instead, television most often takes us nowhere more interesting than to the most calculating part of some Hollywood executive's brain. But me, I'm--to borrow a Republican usage--I'm Living the Dream.
So I watch Aretha without being buffeted by crowds, and I notice that her dress, her gown, her garment, looks a lot like the podium at the United Center--white wedding-cake design being the common motif. The Queen of Soul is in great voice, but TV betrays her; the camera, apparently, adds about 150 pounds.
Midday Saturday, I'm looking in at final preps at the convention hall. Red, white, and blue balloons have been packed into long transparent sausage casings, and these colorful caterpillars are being lofted into the ceiling, for the drops to come. Actually, only a few of the balloon packs are sent skyward. The rest sit in the hall, filling rows of seats. Aha. The Democrats do have a surprise up their sleeve: They will seat the balloons, and drop the delegates. You read it here first. Watching the feeds does enable me to violate one of my mother's few laws: You can't, she used to say, be with one tuchis at two chassenehs, a Yiddishism that reinforced basic physics. But I can, because here are the Gores, Al and Tipper, and what the media seem determined to describe as the Good Mayor Daley, speaking to a youth rally before a telegenic fountain. Daley's syntax, as becomes obvious in his weekend-long rounds of the networks, brands him as his father's son, and makes his oft-stated commitment to education a bit more poignant than the normal boilerplate. Already, there is evidence of more spontaneity than San Diego allowed: One sign at the youth rally, unduplicated elsewhere, demands: "More Gore." Where's the V-chip when we need it?
Saturday early evening, the networks have started emanating newscasts from the hall. Brian Williams, NBC's Brokaw-in-waiting, announces to his crew that history is being made 50 feet away, as Bob Schieffer anchors CBS' SaturdayEveningNews for the last time. Williams will, he says, pay a courtesy visit after his broadcasting chores are done. So respectful. In the meantime, he regales his boothmates with stories about what he claims is Schieffer's legendary cheapness. "Even if I missed the same shuttle back to D.C., he'd hang around National Airport waiting for me to fly in so he could get me to give him a ride home, you know, pretend that he just happened to be at the airport." Schieffer gets a less backhanded tribute from his staff; they've arranged, after his goodnight, for President Clinton to call him. Here is the Clinton so wickedly parodied in PrimaryColors, chatty to the edge of logorrhea, briefed to a fare-thee-well (did he really know, firsthand, that Schieffer will continue to host FacetheNation and be the network's front-line congressional correspondent?), and it works. The phone call over, Schieffer beams like a teen-age girl who's just met the drummer in Def Leppard: "Wasn't that great?" And, just that bit less convincingly chatty, here's Al Gore in the MTV trailer, taping his chat with Tabitha Soren, doing his imitation of, well, young wood.
Bob Dole stages a guerrilla action Sunday, holding a rally on the outskirts of Clinton's convention city. It's nominally the occasion for Dole to spell out his bid to escalate the War on Drugs, but seeing him in the brilliant suburban sunshine as he does the post-speech meet-and-greet, I can't watch anything but his hair. It's the least-commented-on part of the Dole persona--this is the day the New York Times runs an endless rumination on Hillary's hair--but the ex-senator's hair color is, to be kind, interesting. Having seen enough flashback footage of Dole when he was steely gray, I know that this flaccid brown is a recent change so unnatural that it would embarrass even Dan Rather. Hair color, in fact, is a key to the strategies of both major-party presidential candidates, each derided for trying hard to appear to be what he's not. Clinton, the perpetual boomer, lets himself go gray, if he doesn't help the process along, while Dole, the septuagenarian, makes that telltale stab at appearing youthful.
Being in feed land also allows me to monitor Clinton's train ride, a journey that brands him as the Last Amtrak Customer. The cameras and mikes are set up long before he arrives at each stop, so I'm with the crowd in Ashland, Ky., as a local DJ warns them that "for 15 minutes after the president leaves the stage, you have to stay exactly where you are." I'm encouraged by thoughts of the security I don't have to experience. Then, he advises them as the train chugs into view, "Get crazy. The whole national media is on this train."
I get to see Clinton's CNN interview in its raw form, but our leader is notoriously smoother than Florentine mango sorbet, and he's spinning extra hard during the off-air moments. During a commercial break, he motions to his staff off camera and says to Wolf Blitzer, "They're mad at me. I've got all these canned answers I'm supposed to give to conceal what I really feel, but ... ," and he ends with a lovable shrug and grin. That's our Bill, a victim of his own extra-strong feelings. If only he would stay where he is 15 minutes after he leaves.
Back in the convention hall, it's mid-Sunday afternoon before the majority of the balloon packs start to ascend. They've spent more time in their seats than the delegates will.
The train ride has taken Clinton to Kentucky, and thence to Chillicothe, Ohio. It's early evening in Chillicothe, and while the president pats himself and his allies on the back, insects descend on the rally. Video resolution isn't good enough to accurately name the species. The guesses around my dining room table range from gnats through mosquitoes to moths, with the consensus favoring the latter, because as Clinton retreats to the train, his suit jacket has sprouted a colony of the things. Watching his day reinforces what everyone who actually covers a presidential campaign feels in his gut: This poor schmuck, having to endure this small-town rhetoric, having to make this same speech over and over again. What a great country, that so punishes those who would wield power over us.