Eight months away from the Republican National Convention, party officials already know that President George W. Bush’s head will be 21 feet and six inches off the floor of Madison Square Garden.
The President’s head, portrayed by a small yellow helium balloon, was greeted with great joy by television producers and technicians, who took their sitings from the skyboxes during a “media walk-through” of the convention site staged by Republican officials Dec. 16.
The day was a demonstration of the precision of Mr. Bush’s Republican machine: Convention planners know where the President’s head will be, where the cameras that photograph that head will be, and where the bathrooms will be when a crowd of Republicans and reporters numbering about 50,000 comes to town next Aug. 30 to Sept. 2 for the first Republican National Convention held in New York in the history of the United States.
The Bush bunch is one well-organized team. And that was the thrust of a preview of the 2004 Republican convention that will dominate New York City next summer: a mountain of technical details for a convention that will launch the final stage of the President’s drive for re-election next year.
The New York event struck a sharp contrast to the vague preview that Democrats offered reporters in Boston, the site of their 2004 convention, two weeks earlier.
“This blows Boston out of the water,” said Peter Barnes, the Washington bureau chief for Hearst-Argyle Television. “If the Republicans are this organized for their convention, imagine the campaign.”
Here’s what the Republicans have: incumbency, money and a setting that will inevitably remind Americans of the President’s performance in the same city the week after Sept. 11, 2001. And in the shadow contest between each party’s convention planners, the G.O.P. is using those advantages to full effect, slotting the pieces of their gala into place as the Democrats do the usual Democratic struggle, searching for a nominee, a message and a plan.
At the Dec. 16 walk-through, the Presidential balloon hung six feet above an imaginary circular stage and another six feet above a plum curtain, which represented a platform that the Republicans plan to install almost 10 feet over the Garden’s floor. The raised stage will give the Garden an intimate feel, and the platform’s underside will house the technical support for a slowly rotating round stage at the center of the hall.
The Republicans’ convention planners-a Missisippian, Bill Harris; a Tennessean, Mike Miller; and a Georgian, Chuck Fuqua-opened the presentation in front of the convention’s logo: an elephant lurking behind Lady Liberty’s left shoulder, a little like the late Jerry Zipkin used to walk behind Nancy Reagan. They laid out the party’s plan in their genial drawls to several hundred reporters, photographers and television technicians who form the advance guard of an expected media army of more than 16,000.
The Republicans’ relentlessly logistical presentation served as a rebuke to the Democrats’ walk-though Dec. 4, which doubled as a political rally. “All indications are that the Republicans have gone to New York to exploit a terrible moment in our country,” Rod O’Connor, chief executive officer of the Democratic National Convention Committee, told reporters.
But journalists left Boston shaking their heads over the sorry state of the city’s preparations.
“They were not ready to even have a walk-through,” said Time News Service’s Susanna Schrobsdorff.
Where the Democrats were maddeningly vague, the Republicans offered detailed answers about cost and space, down to pricing and floor space in the Garden’s three classes of skybox: The most expensive will go for $39,700. The only hint that this was a political convention-not a dog show or a crafts fair-came in the form of three trim young men in suits in the back wearing “Bush-Cheney ’04” name tags.
The leading plan for the convention hall would put the stage, for the first time, in the round, not in front of the usual convention backdrop. Sites for cameras, television reporters and photographers would ring the stage, and news organizations willing to shell out the money could rent skyboxes in the upper deck. The new layout gives planners a way to use all of the Garden’s nearly 20,000 seats-a traditional backdrop blocks the seats behind it-but could face resistance from television networks and photographers, who would have to scramble for a straight-on view of the speakers.
“Since the President is a different kind of Republican, it makes sense that he is nominated by a different kind of convention,” said Mr. Harris, the Mississippian political operative who chairs the Republican National Committee’s Committee on Arrangements, which formally runs the convention. He promised to “redefine” a political ritual that has decayed from a vibrant party conclave into a coronation ceremony over the years, and which has been met with declining attention from the press and the public.
The Republicans certainly grasp the importance of catering to the media at the formal launch of President Bush’s re-election campaign, just two months before the general election.
“A convention really is a four-day presentation to the media,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s liaison to the convention planners, Kevin Sheekey.
To accommodate the press, Mayor Bloomberg offered the James A. Farley Post Office across Eighth Avenue from the Garden, and promised to link it with a 17.5-foot-high bridge over the six-lane avenue.
The vast post office-it has more floor space than the Garden itself-compares favorably to Boston’s indefinite arrangements for the media, as New York officials have been glad to note.
“We thought we had to have all the pieces in place before some convention agreed to come,” Mr. Sheekey observed. “In Boston, there was never even a plan for where to put the media.”
At their own walk-through two weeks earlier, Democratic convention officials suggested several possible sites for reporters, according to The Boston Globe , each grimmer than the next: a nearby (but not neighboring) building on Causeway Street; train platforms at North Station; or the massive parking garage under the Fleet Center.
The executive director of Boston 2004, Julie Burns, told The Observer that the decision of where to lodge the media will be made by Democratic National Committee officials in Washington. She promised to let reporters know about their quarters “as soon as possible.”
The dismal basement garage could be the most convenient choice, as it’s within the convention’s security perimeter. But turning the angled concrete ramps into modern office space would cost some $10 million, and would involve installing plumbing, toilets and air filters, the Boston Herald reported.
And money isn’t all that easy to come by in Boston. The Federal Elections Commission maintains that contributions to political conventions are gestures of civic pride, not down payments on future Presidents; in classic influence-purchasing style, the incumbent has the edge. While New York’s host committee has already tallied commitments for a promised $65 million, Boston’s is reportedly struggling toward its goal of $49.5 million. Ms. Burns insisted that “we’re on track,” but Boston Mayor Thomas Menino told The Globe in November that “We’re struggling to piece it together.” He insisted, however, that “we’re going to make it happen …. Fund-raising’s going well, but we’re not like New York, where they have all these billionaires.”
Reporters who attended both the Boston and New York walk-throughs were nearly unanimous that-aside from free Dunkin’ Donuts-Boston’s presentation had little going for it. But that hasn’t stopped Bostonians from seeing darker forces behind a string of critical stories in the press.
“Bloomberg doesn’t have a lot of ways that he can be useful to the Bush White House and to Karl Rove,” said one Boston partisan close to the convention planning. “One of the things that his political operation can do is to help chew up the Democrats and attack the Democrats’ convention.” For all their organizational skills, Bostonians note, New York’s plan isn’t without its challenges.
“Considering that the New York host committee is spending several million dollars to build a bridge across a major street to have the media walk over it, I’d say that they have their problems too,” Ms. Burns said.
At the Garden walk-through, the Republican convention’s chief of operations, Mike Miller, acknowledged that reporters will have to face security screenings-and potential lines-between the post office and the Garden. What’s more, New York is expected to be the site of far more intense protests than Boston. Organizers have already sought a permit to march up Eighth Avenue to a rally in Central Park on Aug. 29, the day before the convention begins.
“It’s going to be the largest, liveliest march in decades,” a spokesman for the organizers, Bill Dobbs, told the Associated Press. “This march will draw many people who are unhappy with Bush’s empire.”
On Dec. 16, however, Mayor Bloomberg seemed unconcerned. “We’ll let them say what they want to say,” he said. “It is going to be a great convention.”