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August 30, 2004

RNC Drops the Battleship-Style Stage; Goes Lighter, More Flexible

And after the big march went by--saying what it came to say--I went to look at what the Republicans did to transform the Garden, a space I know well. They went for a smaller, more flexible stage, a cleaner look, a far more modest setting, almost classical. (Okay, faux classical.) Plus a magic carpet: red. There's a certain confidence in Bush reflected in this design.

Madison Square Garden, Aug. 29: Credentials and work space had to be secured, so I missed most of the march. But I did see something that instantly moved me as it passed by on Seventh Avenue: four or five people balancing a big globe, with the continents and oceans of the earth painted on. There was imagination in that. It was a sign without specific message. There’s the globe, it said. And we all live on it!

Sometimes politics is about getting your people to turn out. You simply parade as many as you can, speaking freely and against Bush, past a hypothetical midpoint on 7th Avenue, which is Madison Square Garden’s front door— and the Republican Party’s home for the week.

After the march, I went to look at what the Republicans had done with the Garden. How the planners handled the space might, I thought, contain signals about the Party and even W., as the President is playfully called on some of the message boards in the arena.

My last post was about the decision to create a separate stage for Bush—a theatre in the round—on the convention’s final night, and what that particular move “said” politically.

To me it was interesting that Bush would abandon the podium from which he was to be praised, and give his speech surrounded by delegates— not by all the convention apparatus. It was an attempt, I thought, to recall his most iconic moment, with the bullhorn among the workers at ground zero on September 14, 2001.

When you enter the arena this week and take in the space the Republicans have built, you notice something. The proportions are not the familar ones from when you attend a game or concert at Madison Square Garden. This is because the Republicans changed them. They brought the floor of the arena up almost fifteen feet, creating a shelf on top of the bastketball court and enclosing it from above.

Then they buried the bureaucracy, waiting areas and some of the equipment needed for running the stage. The “back stage” area moved underneath, to the new basement. Burying the bureacracy—a satisfying motion in itself—also reduced the footprint of the stage.

“When Mr. Bush accepted the party’s nomination in Philadelphia in 2000, he stepped up to a typical battleship-style stage, with multiple video screens and a sweep of stairs leading up to a lectern,” wrote Michael Slackman in the New York Times. “But the Bush campaign team has had four years to think about their next convention, and from the beginning it signaled a desire to do something different.”

Last month, the stage at the Fleet Center was the old battleship-style. It meant to impress you with its size and the vistas it claimed, with three separate stations from which speakers could address the crowd and cameras. Commander Kerry was the only one allowed to speak from the center lecturn. It was big because it had room for many dozens of people (Democrats!) working “backstage,” but of course out in public. They were visible in the darkened wings answering phones, and enaging in other forms of electronic busyness.

That style had long since devolved into a visual cliche. We could say it was part of television’s fascination with itself. This year, the Republicans have gone toward small and flexible, like the military is supposed to become under Bush.

The stage is simpler, with just a single microphone. It stands alone, with zero bureaucracy attached. It is a more modest setting for speakers than the Fleet Center’s podium— significantly so. The look goes toward spare, vaguely classical. On the other hand it is more intimate, less grandiose.

This reflects the confidence that conventions planners have in their man’s comfort with himself, one of Bush’s clearer advantages.

Raising the floor had another advantage. It allowed for installation of a thick, and remarkably soft, bright red carpet— I mean red state red, the same red as this site and that one. Thus the floor of the arena seems luxurious and new, even a bit bouncy. And that’s what delegates will tred over. I would say it’s a very optimistic floor and the Fleet Center floor was not.

Here the network sky boxes are further away, higher up. In fact they are becoming outmoded. What you find in the Garden are many more camera positions and miniature broadcast points, as the networks try to fan out around the arena. CNN has the biggest presence in the sky overhead, followed by NBC and MSNBC combined, and Fox’s two spaces. ABC and CBS are distinctly smaller operations. Al Jazeera has a skybox. Bush will also be speaking to them.

But I think the point of today’s events was: a whole lot of people have spoken to Bush, and to the country, by walking past the Garden in a mood of angry determination. They started the convention a day early, and now the GOP has four days to do its own thing.

When I took PressThink to Boston and interviewed the CEO of the convention, Rod O’Connor, he said something that still intrigues me about the event as political theatre:

“On Thursday night when John Kerry stands up there and gives his speech, you know that’s our Super Bowl, that’s it, that’s what this whole thing is about. And it’s my job to make sure we get to that point, the air is clear and everything’s focused on him that night.”

That phrase, “the air is clear” shows that communication is sometimes achieved in what you take away: distractions, for example. The Republicans have this approach in 2004. They are paring away to improve Bush’s chances of coming through clearly. The stage is getting more modest, that the man will loom large.

No matter how clear the air is then, what the President says from the Garden Thursday will be a reply to what 200,000 demonstrators said to the Garden on Sunday afternoon. Now it’s a conversation, much more than it would have been without the march. And maybe that, Jeff Jarvis, is why you have demonstrations.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…

I plan to interview the CEO of the Republican Convention, William D. Harris, and find out more. Upates when I have them.

Do see Jeff Jarvis, Demonstrations are so last century.

Demonstrations aren’t the way to get your message across anymore. Because now, you can own your own newspaper.

Yes, you know I’m going to say that you can get your message across on a blog. But, of course, that goes only so far.

You can also make a movie like F9/11 and get your message across — and make a helluva lot of money as a bonus! F9/11 has not much more intellectual content than a demonstration full of hand-scrawled signs — but it’s more effective.

And as media continues to blow apart, you will have more and more ways to get your message across.

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 30, 2004 1:54 AM