Dispatches

5 a.m. and All Is Well

Five a.m. is an ugly hour, but it is the unofficial whistle blow during this convention week. Staffers all over the city are up and on conference calls or hustling out to do morning-media appearances that are all the more painful because Minnesota’s on Central time. You’d think the excitement would be enough to carry people through, but remember—most of the folks working here have spent the last year or even two on the campaign trail and are looking ahead to a 60-day sprint to the finish during which things like sleep, regular meals, and clean clothes will be unaffordable luxuries. Still, somehow, they do it, driven at least in part by the realization that everyone who works for John McCain comes to soon after signing up: No matter what you’re enduring or sacrificing, the boss has you beat.

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Embarrassing admission: I learned this lesson a little late. When I first met McCain, interviewing for a job on his nascent presidential campaign in 1999, I was on crutches after having knee surgery. He very kindly asked me what happened and how I was doing, and I—not quite aware of the extent of the injuries he suffered in Vietnam, which included a leg injury that makes it seem as if Joe Theismann got off easy—proceeded to ramble on about how painful my rehab was, blah, blah, humiliating blah. McCain just smiled and listened, sympathetic as could be. It wasn’t until I finished reading The Nightingale’s Song later that week that I realized what I’d done. Suffice to say, I got off the crutches—and the self-pity trip—very quickly thereafter.

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So it’s at least understandable that, even though the morning convention briefing call for senior McCain aides is set for 5 a.m., everyone takes it in the office—showered, suited up, and ready for the day. And why I only grumbled to my wife on the phone (quietly) when I had to get up at that same hour today to tag along with one of the campaign’s major surrogates as he started up.

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By 5:45 a.m., we were Oscar-Mike (convention speak for “on the move”), headed to the Xcel Center for a round of appearances on the early shows. Transportation around here is not easy—Minneapolis and St. Paul are twins along the same lines as Dallas and Fort Worth, so a trip from the campaign headquarters on one side of the river to the convention hall on the other takes at least half an hour.

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Complicating matters is the fact that to get anywhere close to the Xcel Center, you have to be driven in a secure “blacktop”—that is, a vehicle cleared to travel inside the perimeter, set up by the Secret Service. But the blacktops aren’t just cruising around the city like the dozens of other (hybrid!) vehicles that are part of the convention motor pool; instead, you have to take a motor-pool car to a staging area, change into a secure vehicle (very James Bond), and then go through an insanely but understandably tight set of security checks to get to the hall.

Obviously, people do just take cabs or walk over. But with the rumors about protesters dousing delegates with urine and otherwise behaving in a way that predisposes me to hate their cause (if they actually have one), chances aren’t being taken with VIPs.

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Anyway, at this early hour, the ride is uneventful—anarchists, apparently, like to sleep late—and we arrive at the Xcel Center just before 6:30 a.m. The place is a maze. I’ve now been there three times, and I still have no idea where anything is. Fortunately, there is an army of volunteers, presumably pulled from the ranks of the Explorers Society, who guide us up ramps, through back hallways, into service elevators, and eventually out onto the convention floor.

The view from the (empty) floor
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There’s a bit of a buzz—reporters trading gossip, interns fetching coffee, event organizers getting ready for what will really be the first full day of the RNC. The delegates, though, are still tucked in their beds, probably dreaming about the caucus breakfasts that await them, so the hall feels like your second-grade classroom did the time you went back after school to see your teacher: empty, cold, waiting. (At left, a look.)

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The morning shows are fun. Politics is a relatively small business, especially at the top, so guests and hosts mingle easily. And even though the competition for “gets” is pretty fierce (one famous face with her own show chased us into the car), there is something relaxing about everyone being in one place, privy to more or less the same information at the same time.

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The rush lasts an hour or two—by the time most people are up and out for the day, things here slow down. From breakfast through dinner, there are dozens of official events, but the pace is reasonable. Politicians do the meet-and-greet circuit with delegates and interest groups, journalists troll for new story angles, and staffers prepare for the big show at night.

Tonight’s program features three of the most popular speakers of the week: President Bush, Fred Thompson, and Joe Lieberman. It was only formalized a few hours ago, but with significant resources having already been dedicated to Gustav relief (see yesterday’s post), and the worst seemingly over, things are starting to ramp up.

The view from the podium
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Accordingly, speech prep is in full swing as aides scurry around editing drafts, coordinating themes, and trying to convince their principals to skip that one last reception for a final dry run. If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be on the other side of the podium, at least the morning of your speech for that final practice session, this (at left) is what it looks like.

Right now, shortly before the prime-time session, the party-ticket hustle has been replaced by the convention pass beg-a-thon. As the action shifts from the Minneapolis hotel district across the river to the Xcel Center in St. Paul, the fact that there are many more people in town than there are seats in the hall is becoming readily apparent. The going rate is probably something like four Robert Earle Keen concert tickets for a green pass (which just gets you in the hall). For a white all-access pass (which allows you on the floor), you probably need to score someone an invite to the much-hyped Google-Vanity Fair party on Thursday and give up some prized swag—maybe one of the first McCain-Palin polo shirts, which only the advance guys seem to have, or even the coveted “MC ‘00-’08—OLD SCHOOL” pin.

For those who haven’t traded away their invites, there are a number of post-session parties. But with another 5 a.m. call looming, a lot of them are talking about just dropping by one or two. …

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