Surviving the Democratic Convention


[Entertainment Today, Sept. 1, 2000]

After living through the Democratic National Convention at the Staples Arena and hearing too much about the final episode of CBS-TV’s Survivor, I have come up with a plan to get Americans more involved in the political process.

It’s a reality show called Political Survivor. Nine people with no press credentials have to get into a convention in a strange city with hordes of police and demonstrators attempting to halt them.

Ah, hell, it will never work. It could only run in sweeps every four years.

Let us leave behind the manufactured wilderness of the network TV island that is Survivor for a convention which prepared for 50,000 protesters and never alleviated its police presence despite the no-shows.

I will admit that having the oh-so-appropriately-named Rage Against the Machine playing in a fenced-in concrete bowl right outside Staples is not the best in civic planning. MacArthur Park or Pershing Square would have been better choices. And the Black Bloc do not, uh, strike me as coherent political demonstrators. But come on: fourteen minutes to disperse a crowd of 8000 through a narrow gate and firing rubber bullets and pepper spray because of a couple dozen anrachists who want to smash the state and hate still living with their parents?

I’ve always felt policing is not just deployment, it is psychology. When Los Angeles spends nearly as much time psychologically training officers as paramilitarily doing so, we will all be better off.

Once inside Staples or the Media Center, you are struck by the conglomeration of delegates, press, VIPs and celebs. One can see anyone from Cokie Roberts to Jello Biafra to The Rock and some female wrestler named Chyna who looks like a transsexual who has still not made a decision.

It was Arash Markazi, though, who really impressed me. An Iranian-American journalist for the Web, he told me that those in his profession in Iran, when they are too critical of the government, are arrested and shot. No trial. No lawyer. Many journalists there have their families live at a secret location, so that the government will not be able to execute them as well. Arash can never go home.

I met Arash on Day One, when Bill Clinton held the Arena in thrall with what has to be one of the most powerful speeches of his career. Regardless of your politics, his oratory is remarkable, sometimes bringing his voice to a mesmerizing, amplified hush. A commanding performance, though he notably was circumspect in praising Al Gore. This may well have been a distancing strategy, considering the President’s detractors.

Other impressions:

The video of Clinton walking through a hallway toward the stage, with titles describing his accomplishments, shot looking up, brilliantly manipulative.

Tipper Gore dancing like a drunken Boris Yeltsin to “Turn the Beat Around.”

A touching video tribute to Jimmy Carter, in attendance, who, when asked what he’d like his legacy to be, simply stated, “Peace and human rights would be preferable.”

After the surreal yet beautifiul cascades of balloons and confetti, viewed from the Upper Concourse, I descended to the human river overflowing the banks of the lobby downstairs, trying to get out, limited by closed exits.

I looked to my left and there was Peter Jennings.

“Gosh, Peter,” I smiled, “I thought for sure they would provide you guys with a helicopter to get out of here.”

“Not even for the Vice President,” our finest news anchor smiled.

I told him when I was a boy, I once watched him reporting from Beirut during their civil war. While he was filing his story, a rocket exploded into the building behind him. He never turned or stopped, just continued filing.

Jennings’s eyes widened with memory. “My goodness,” he exclaimed. Then, self-effacingly, he admitted, “I was frightened out of my mind.”

“But you didn’t show it,” I complimented him. “And that’s what mattered.”

Outside, as I took my first gulp of tepid L.A. night air, I thought about fear, about showing it when appropriate. And when you fear for your country, you should show it by demonstrating. Demonstrating and voting. Oh, yes, and writing.

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