No News at the Convention, But the Canapés in Cali are Damn Good

LOS ANGELES–A young blond woman stood on the corner of Figueroa and Olympic on Monday night. It was shortly after President Clinton, at the center of a media scrum of television cameras and reporters, had finished his rousing speech to the Democratic Convention, and the pretty girl, a college student from San Diego who identified herself as Tracy, had her own little media klatsch outside the Staples Center. Dressed in beach-preppy jean shorts and a T-shirt, she repeatedly lifted up her shirt to let the cameras get a shot of her left shoulder blade. She had been wounded by a rubber bullet fired by Los Angeles police officers into a crowd of protesters who apparently did not disperse fast enough for the cops’ taste after a concert by the band Rage Against the Machine.

Under the klieg lights, with her shirt hiked up around her neck to reveal her blue designer bra (Calvin Klein), this particularly mediagenic victim told a crew from the Philadelphia Fox News affiliate that she was a social studies major who’d come to take pictures of the protests for school. “Next thing I knew, I got hit,” Tracy said. “And it hurt. It felt like a baseball bat.” When she was finished, other news crews got her to repeat her story and lift up her shirt.

The refrain out here–that there’s no news at political conventions anymore–has been repeated so often that it has taken on the veneer of fact. Why the media organizations sent 15,000 people to cover an event that has so little news is a question that we journalists have been asking ourselves endlessly, as we search the room of whatever party we happen to be attending for the guy carrying the canapé tray. So on Monday night, we were faced with another, less rhetorical question: What would the media do if news actually happened?

To be fair, a handful of reporters, editors and photographers flew into high gear to cover the confrontation. (Thank God for Tracy and her wounded shoulder.) But most turned around and queued up to get out of the Staples Center via another exit (the Olympic Boulevard exit having been closed by the LAPD because of the confrontation). The mood was subdued, but hardly somber. With 35,000 people in town to attend the convention, there had been lines everywhere since people started flowing into L.A.–to pick up credentials, to check into hotels, to get into the Staples Center. This was yet another line to wait in.

“It’s surprising,” said one man who had watched the events on Olympic. “I don’t feel people buzzing about this.”

One outraged witness of what had happened on the street stood on the sidewalk asking the delegates and journalists passing by, “Did you know they were shooting people with rubber bullets out here?” Someone responded, “I had nothing to do with it.” White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, hustling by, replied, “I heard, I heard,” and continued on his way. Another person was heard to say, “I’ll see it on the news.”

Except that many of the people responsible for “the news” were off to the party thrown by Bloomberg News honcho Michael Bloomberg at Spago in Beverly Hills, or to the Democratic National Committee’s Soul Train Late Night bash at Paramount Studios.

“Between this and the Republican Convention, everybody I’d ever want to meet is here,” said Bill Schneider, a political commentator for CNN, a few nights earlier at the official media reception held outdoors at the Los Angeles Performing Arts Center. Mr. Schneider’s party-hopping companion, Xandra Kayden, president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the League of Women Voters, agreed. “Conventions aren’t about selecting candidates anymore,” she said. “They’re about meeting people and making connections.”

Not to look a gift invite in the mouth–particularly a gift invite proffered by Mr. Bloomberg, who long ago figured out that the trail to the heart of anyone who occupies the world of New York politics is paved with free food and drink. But it seemed to Off the Record that your standard political wing-ding had been ripped out of a ballroom at the Sheraton on Sixth Avenue, flown across the country, and plunked down into a much better setting. There was Sen. Charles Schumer fulminating to a cluster of union leaders, with his wife, Iris Weinshall, standing by. Oh, and that very tall African-American man, over by the real live mermaid atop the raw bar? Wasn’t that–oh yes, New York State Assemblyman Herman (Denny) Farrell Jr., with Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker , Michael Tomasky, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Dominic Carter and Claire Brinberg of New York 1. Jeez, there was another blue-collar Congressman from Queens … hey, no, it was that guy from The West Wing . In short, Mr. Bloomberg, we love your parties. But could you please invite some people more attractive and fascinating than we are?

Slightly more engaging was the party the day before, in Malibu (better setting than Spago even!) that David Corvo, vice president of NBC News, and his wife, Michele Willens, a political writer, hosted at their home in the exclusive Malibu Colony along with Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter and his wife Emily. In the tight quarters of the deck and sun room of the beach house, television news personalities such as Brian Williams of MSNBC and Jeff Greenfield rubbed elbows with print-media folks such as Daily News and U.S. News & World Report owner Mort Zuckerman and Washington Post publisher Don Graham, Lally Weymouth, Mickey Kaus, who writes for The New Republic , Slate and his own kausfiles.com, and Newsweek writer Michael Isikoff.

Toward the end of the party, Mr. Zuckerman was sitting on a couch in the sun room along with Bianca Jagger (Mr. Zuckerman, who recently separated from his wife Marla Prather, had been spotted at more than one party with Ms. Jagger while in Los Angeles), when Mr. Graham walked up and started talking shop.

“How’re the presses?” Mr. Graham asked. The Daily News this year begun publishing color covers in some of its editions only after lengthy technical problems with its printing presses.

“We’re all right on the presses,” Mr. Zuckerman said. “We need another tower to do color seven days a week.”

How boring. Mr. Zuckerman tried to change the subject. Al Franken was walking around the party, dripping wet, as he was the only adult guest–several people brought their kids, including Mr. Franken–to go for a dip in the Pacific Ocean. “The basic concern,” Mr. Zuckerman said puckishly, “is whether Al Franken lost weight to wear his suit.”

Earlier, while Mr. Zuckerman was standing at the food table, Mr. Franken had tried to get the publisher to join him in the surf.

“It didn’t work,” a somewhat-dejected-looking Mr. Franken told Off the Record.

For his part, Mr. Zuckerman said, “He said to me, ‘Don’t you have your suit?’ I said, ‘Yeah, my jacket and tie are in the car'”–which explains why Mr. Zuckerman was wearing gray pleated suit trousers and wingtips with a casual denim shirt.

On Friday, word leaked out that New York Times L.A. bureau chief Todd Purdum and his wife Dee Dee Myers, former White House spokeswoman and current West Wing consultant, were having a party for the New York Times staff at their home. “It started out as a wholly New York Times private party and it’s grown out of control,” Mr. Purdum told Off the Record, which was angling for an invitation, on Friday. “It’s risking the intervention of the Los Angeles Fire Department. I’m sorry, no can do.”

By Sunday, the cast of luminaries who were expected to attend (and did)–celebrities such as Rob Reiner and lots of cast members of The West Wing and Sex and the City , Barbra Streisand, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, and former Clinton Administration officials like Paul Begala and Gene Sperling–had grown to the point that Mr. Purdum’s party no longer seemed just a “wholly New York Times private party.” There was even a rumor that the President was going to drop by. Other parties were going on, for sure; Karenna Gore Schiff was being fêted at the Hollywood Boulevard branch of the Knitting Factory, and the Blue Dog Coalition, a group for fiscally conservative Democrats, hosted a bash at the Santa Monica Pier. But in the strange social-consensus-forming process that occurred between Friday and Sunday, Mr. Purdum’s party had emerged as the hot ticket of the evening.

So we made another call to him mid-day Sunday. No doubt this was one of many he received, because Mr. Purdum screamed at the top of his lungs into his cell phone: “THIS IS MY FUCKING HOUSE AND YOU ARE NOT COMING AND YOU CAN SHOVE YOUR HEAD UP YOUR FUCKING ASS!” Then, in a normal tone of voice: “Did you understand that?” He added that there were two armed guards stationed at the door if Off the Record wanted to persist.

In fact, the party was newsworthy. With an array of political operatives–most of them out of power like Mr. Begala and Mr. Sperling, but some still in the thick of things, like Warren Christopher, former Secretary of State and chairman of Al Gore’s Vice Presidential candidate search committee–some who work for The Times worried about being in the awkward situation of having to cover their own party, especially if the President had shown up.

“I generally avoid situations with people I cover,” said one Times reporter, who added, “If I was there and Gene Sperling said something newsworthy, I would use it.”

Some of the Times folk avoided the question altogether, it seems, by munching the gourmet Mexican buffet and spending some quality time with the celebrities in attendance. Political writer R.W. (Johnny) Apple was seen chatting up Warren Beatty, and Richard Berke, who has been writing the front-page convention stories, spent a good deal of time conversing with Annette Bening. And Mr. Purdum seems to have won some celebrity friends. One Times source said that Sarah Jessica Parker, of Sex and the City , left him a voice mail at his office on Monday thanking him for the wonderful evening.

Meanwhile, Cindy Adams, the hardest-working journalist at the convention, was sitting by herself in the Century Plaza hotel lobby, feverishly scribbling in a notepad while Sen. Schumer held court several feet away. At the party for the New York delegation later that night in the hotel’s Los Angeles Ballroom, she was standing at a drink table quickly eating a plate of undercooked bow-tie pasta. “[The Republican Convention] was the most boring goddamned thing,” Ms. Adams said in between bites. “This is less boring but more exhausting. I haven’t had lunch, I haven’t had dinner.” She was looking out onto the floor where Hillary Clinton was posing for pictures with well-wishers. Around her, a snarling mosh pit of pols and journalists teemed, among them Mrs. Clinton’s campaign manager Howard Wolfson, Public Advocate and Mayoral hopeful Mark Green, CBS Channel 2 political commentator Gabe Pressman and New York Post editor Xana Antunes. Said Ms. Adams somewhat wearily: “And I have to get back in there.”