Dispatches

This Year, All Politics Is Charitable

The floor of the Republican Convention

As I deplaned in Minneapolis yesterday afternoon, I half-expected some elephant-pin-wearing John Candy lookalike at the bottom of the jetway to hold up his hand and declare, “Sorry, folks! Convention’s off. Moose outside shoulda told ya.”

But the 2008 Republican National Convention is going on—sort of.

The business of the convention will be conducted because, well, there’s no way around it. Rules have to be adopted, the platform agreed upon, nominees nominated. That’s why, even though the glitzy portion of Monday’s opening was canceled—no inspirational videos, no marquee speakers—there was a two-hour session where some work actually gets done.

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And so it will go all week, no matter what Gustav brings. In the bowels of the Xcel Center, there are teams of party officials and volunteers who have been working for the better part of a year to make sure that, come Bush or high water, the GOP will officially nominate a candidate for president.

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Working out of a space that normally serves as the locker room for the Minnesota Wild hockey team, this group—made up, I’d guess, of people who were their high-school class parliamentarians and pleasure-readers of Robert’s Rules of Order—keeps the proceedings on track. For inspiration, they’ve covered the walls of their work space not just with the obligatory giant photos of John McCain in action, but also with blown-up images of conventions past: a confetti-covered Ronald Reagan at the Joe Louis Arena in 1980, Bush 41 speaking to a packed Superdome in New Orleans in 1988.

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And even though the stage above them was pretty quiet this afternoon—no one knew then who was going to speak, or when, so most of the run-throughs were postponed—they bustled around making sure that what has to happen actually does.

While much of it is the charmless mechanics of a big organization doing its business, there are some rather nice vestiges of a simpler (albeit less media-friendly) time in politics.  My favorite is the requirement that, after a presidential candidate’s name has been placed in nomination and voted upon, a delegation of 10 people actually goes to the candidate and informs him that he is the Republican nominee for president.

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So, wherever John McCain is later this week, and whatever he’s doing, he’ll stop and greet a committee likely to be made up of family, friends, and supporters who give him the good news.  Then, he just has to accept (the big speech and balloon drop are optional), and the general election battle will have been joined.

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Now, even though this is enough to satisfy the minions under the stage, most of the 45,000 people who have flooded into the Twin Cities this week are expecting a little more.  Specifically, parties.

Convention week is normally all about seeing and being seen, and the convention floor is too much of a madhouse to allow for quality schmoozing. Accordingly, the extracurricular events are crucial.

Pre-Gustav, tonight’s lineup was pretty strong. There was the Convention USA Kick-Off Party, featuring not just the Beach Boys but—wait for it—KC and the Sunshine Band.  And if you’re too much of a hipster for that nostalgia trip—or, maybe, just don’t want to see Phil Gramm lip-syncing to “Keep It Comin’ Love”—you could hit the Hispanic Leadership Fund Fiesta, featuring John McCain’s new BFF, Daddy Yankee.

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Either way, everyone was planning on trying to get into National Review’s Mardi Gras celebration featuring special guest Bobby Jindal and then finishing the night at Lindsey Graham’s cookies ‘n’ milk get-together.

But now, no one’s sure. The parties haven’t been canceled (though the National Review did send out a note specifying that the theme has been dropped out of respect for the folks of the Gulf Coast). The mood, however, is appropriately sober.

Talk this morning was less about how to score extra tickets and more about what can be done to help hurricane evacuees. Phone banks to raise relief money were organized overnight. Today it was staffed by McCain friends and family; in less than two hours, they raised more than $1 million for hurricane relief. From childhood friends to more recent pals like Rudy Giuliani and Joe Lieberman, everyone with any time to spare is on the phone trying to help.

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And with fairly remarkable speed, the McCain campaign has found sponsors and organized an event to put together and pack up about 80,000 “comfort kits” (Target, headquartered here, is donating the supplies: toothbrushes, toothpaste, body soap, deodorant, lotion, and razors), which will then be shipped out to affected areas. It’s not what anyone came here expecting to do, but no one seems to be complaining, or even lamenting.  Instead, there’s a prevailing sense of concern and a real willingness to pitch in and help.

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Watching guys in seersucker and girls in pearls start to mobilize, I am struck by the realization that organizations actually do wind up reflecting their leaders, that style does filter down. Just as John McCain is about to officially take over the Republican Party, the playbook—at least for convention week—is getting tossed, and people are engaging in one of those causes greater than their own self-interest that he always talks about.

At this point, it’s unclear what the rest of the week will bring. But as one of McCain’s old service buddies observed this afternoon as he walked through the already-bustling lobby of the hotel where the campaign is headquartered, to be part of this outfit, you gotta be flexible.

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