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August 27, 2004

From a Small Circular Stage in a Sea of Thousands

Today's announcement had ideas in it. Bush will speak from a theatre in the round, addressing the nation by standing among citizens. It's a switch to a more vertical image of authority. CNN announced a similar move. They will speak from a diner. MSNBC will come to us from Herald Square. Why?

The art and design of political conventions are advancing before our eyes. The old forms are breaking up. The stage is literally coming apart. New ideas are emerging in how to “carry” the convention to the rest of the nation— and how to get people to watch.

The latest news confirms it. Once they built a stage for the convention. And on that stage a raised platform, a dias, with a microphone. This was an idea about authority, and clear sight lines. But some ideas are changing.

“President Bush will give his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention next week from a small circular stage in a sea of thousands of delegates and other guests,” wrote Michael Slackman in the New York Times today. (Aug. 27)

In a sea of thousands is a leader who can step up just a little and yet be heard.

“He is not just trapped by a stage,” Mr. McKinnon said. “He doesn’t have the usual comforts of a stage behind him. To me that says strength, that he is willing to stand out there alone.” (That’s Mark McKinnon, Bush’s chief media adviser.)

The advisers are thinking different thoughts these days, and the Republicans have bolder ones. “Only yesterday did campaign aides disclose their plans,” wrote Slackman, “which include a reconfiguration of the convention hall the night the president is in town.”

Old rules: the candidate enters the hall to climb the stage from which others have been cheering him. He joins a theatre in progress over four nights, as the culminating act.

New rules: the candidate “acts” by stepping out from behind the podium, forsaking the protections of the stage, planting himself among his supporters and speaking to the nation from there— a space newly claimed. (Flashback is to the President with the bullhorn at the Trade Center, surrounded by rescue workers.)

Symbolically, Bush is more at risk that way. Without protections. The President’s appearence in the hall is still the culminating event , but it’s a more orginal action. From Wednesday to Thursday night, the Garden will have an entirely new set built: a theater in the round for Bush.

The best the Democrats could manage in Boston was Kerry the backslapper enters from the rear of the Fleet and works forward to the podium. (Flashback is to Clinton happy and confident at the State of the Union.) But Bush won’t be taking the podium Thursday night. Instead, podium space re-arranges itself around his intentions. And so he’s not just speaking to us. He’s coming closer to do it.

Down from the stage and into the crowd was a move the Democrats considered. They almost built a round stage for the Fleet Center, but decided in the end it was too difficult. And too big a leap.

“We wanted the president to be closer to people and surrounded by people,” Mark McKinnon said. “It sort of reflected his strength and character as the man in the arena.” You can see where the Democrats were going. The RNC actually got there.

Four days prior to the announcement of Bush’s leap into the crowd, CNN announced its own stylized move in this direction: Down from the sky box and into… the local diner. From an Aug. 23 press release:

CNN will take over the Tick Tock Diner, located one block from Madison Square Garden on the corner of 34th Street and 8th Avenue, for the week of the Republican National Convention in New York, beginning Monday, Aug. 30.

Outfitted with burgers, shakes, television monitors and wireless access, the CNN Convention Diner will provide an alternative location for delegates, newsmakers and members of the media to watch CNN broadcasts and mingle with CNN anchors.

Bush’s shift from the podium to the floor was a bid “to bring a special intimacy to the carefully scripted atmosphere of a political convention,” the Times said. CNN is going for a similar effect— convention-goers mingling with the anchors. The Diner’s flashback is to a campaign (and journalism) set piece: the small town cafe in New Hampshire or Iowa, where the regulars gather for eggs and coffee.

“As candidates campaign around the county and visit small towns, the diner experience has become a mainstay of national politics,” said Princell Hair, executive vice president and general manager of CNN/U.S.

“Crossfire” will be broadcast from the Diner, and correspondents will do stand up reports from there. Like Bush on Thursday night, CNN at its Tick Tock Diner speaks differently to the nation— not ex-cathedra, but surrounded by people. The device also plays on the cliche about New York, and every big city— that it really is a small town.

MSNBC, for its part, annouced this week that its convention headquarters will be outdoors— in “historic Herald Square Park.” (Press release, Aug. 25th)

Blocks from Madison Square Garden, Herald Square Park is one of the most famous pedestrian crossroads in New York City, providing convention participants as well as the general public the opportunity to participate in MSNBC’s coverage, just as they did at the Democratic National Convention at Boston’s Faneuil Hall.

Yes, the opportunity to participate. A political campaign is supposed to be about that. Mingle with our anchors. Join in our coverage. And watch a leader emerge from a sea of supporters Thursday night.

Dramatistically, the convention is changing. It’s coming down from the sky box, out from the dias. No more from the mountaintop, some at the top are saying. No more from above. We should be talking with you, not at you. That’s our message this year. We think it fits. We think it works.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links.

From the New York Observer back on Dec. 22, 2003:

“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.

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 27, 2004 8:14 PM