Crashing the party
A UChicago undergraduate’s experience at the Republican National Convention.
In 2010 the New York Times Magazine published a story titled “The Man the White House Wakes Up To.” It was a profile of Mike Allen, longtime Washington insider and star reporter for the political newspaper and website Politico. The piece portrays Allen as an enigmatic Eagle Scout who knows everything and everyone, but about whom—especially if and when he sleeps—next to nothing is known. The only thing certain about him is that “seven days a week, he hits ‘send’ on a mass e-mail newsletter that some of America’s most influential people will read before they say a word to their spouses.” Every morning for five days, sitting in the Politico hub in Tampa just blocks from the site of the Republican National Convention, I watched Mike Allen hit send on that e-mail newsletter, helping Politico in its stated goal to “win” the morning news cycle. The Institute of Politics and UChicago Careers in Public and Social Service partnered this summer with Politico to bring interns to both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. In Tampa, the three other interns and I would beat the dawn and the baristas, arriving caffeine starved at 6 a.m. to help prepare the workspace for Allen’s 7:30 a.m. live-streamed interviews. He typically shuffled in around 6:30 a.m. with a smile and a “Thanks for being here!” in response to our groans and meek hellos, before pulling out his laptop and “driving” the news day for Washington. A young Politico reporter remarked—off the record and under condition of anonymity, of course—that he was surprised at how so little news is actually made at major party conventions. Before I could filter that sentiment through any postmodern theories, the coffee arrived. First things first. Though hard news was slim, political celebrities were plenty. Most passing through the Politico hub—Karl Rove, Mitch McConnell, Newt Gingrich, Bob McDonnell—were old hats. For others in town—Ted Cruz, George P. Bush—it felt more like a debutante ball. Politics aside, the most disagreeable comment I heard was when Jon Voight all but renounced his role in Midnight Cowboy because of its liberal undertones. Others were there for decidedly different reasons. On the first night of the convention, I somehow swung an invitation to the party of the week, thrown by lobbyist Al Cardenas and strategist Ed Gillespie. On the sidewalk outside was a group of people in formal wear and pig snouts. Evoking the satirical “Millionaires for Bush” protests, these demonstrators proclaimed their insatiable greed and discussed the practicalities of eating the poor as they sipped at empty champagne flutes. Only once, the night of vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s speech, did I make it to the actual convention. Some attendees acted as if they were at a play-off football game: the Texas delegation wore matching cowboy hats. For some it was all one big party. I saw some sitting alone in the stands, applauding furiously and nodding intently at the appropriate moments. Others joked with their friends and hardly seemed to listen at all, instead poking fun at Wolf Blitzer, broadcasting from about 30 yards away. Most strikingly, the floor of a major political convention is impossibly far from Cobb Hall and from a student body largely trained to eschew the type of pragmatic compromising and empty rhetoric that go into the construction and promotion of a party platform. But even after studying every political thinker from Socrates to Schumpeter, there are some things that can only be learned from bringing coffee to a senator who, after much evading, cajoling, and sitting on the fence, decides to come out pro-jobs, pro-America, and pro-future. Returning home, I couldn’t bring myself to watch the Democratic Convention. But I do now read Mike Allen’s morning e-mails with a new respect.