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Money Built That: The RNC Podium

Romney’s true sentiments about this year’s Republican Party platform—which one member of the drafting committee gleefully called “the most conservative platform in modern history”—are, like most things about the man, a bit hard to parse. But in any case, there’s another platform Romney will be standing on at the convention that he’d probably rather people focus on: the one below his feet. We’re talking wooden planks here, not ideological ones. 

The convention’s pièce de résistance is a Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired podium that cost $2.5-million to build. “It’s not like anything you’ve seen at a convention before,” co-designer Eddie Knasiak told the New York Times.

From an architectural standpoint, the podium is quite simple. Low to the ground, the stage is composed of ten wooden risers stacked in pyramid formation; a square section juts out a bit off-center. With its clean lines, asymmetrical proportions, and warm mahogany and cherry tones, the dais recalls the aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts movement. The design is intended to have a homey, unpretentious feel that convention planners call the “sense of ‘America’s living room.’” The idea, of course, is to show a more intimate side of Romney: the approachable, kindly neighbor, the Mitt who’ll invite you into his bungalow for some cocoa and a chat by the fire. (Unlike his real-life bungalow, the convention set will not have a car elevator.) 

It wouldn’t be a Republican gathering without a disorienting note of apocalyptic menace, so behind the stage, flashy LED screens overlap one another, like an over-cluttered wall full of frames. And instead of the cuckoo clock you might expect in a wholesome American living room, there will be a clock showing the national debt ominously ticking upwards in real time. 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the podium, though, is the way the RNC is promoting it. Clearly, the directors of the political drama at the convention are proud of their work on the set. So proud, in fact, that the RNC has released an obsessively detailed list of design specs for the stage. 

Some highlights of the fact sheet include:
—“Set pieces are not made from disposable material like normal rock concerts – this set has all the highest quality material…”
—“There are almost NINE MILLION total pixels in the screens and the arena ribbons.” (All-caps in the exuberant original.)
—“A custom-built gigabit fiber optic system is used to distribute data from the control panel to the individual lights using 14.79 miles of cabling and approximately 25,662 pounds of lights – the approximate weight of a U.S. Navy jet-powered drone.” 

Reading the fact sheet is akin to the experience of listening to a 16-year-old boy rattle off the features of his new car stereo. But given the RNC’s emphasis on man-hours, craftsmanship, and technological innovation, their message rings clear: You see that podium? We built that podium, and it’s really impressive. In that way, the set piece is an elaborate jab at Obama for his “you didn’t build that” gaffe. (Not ones for subtlety, the RNC decided to underscore the podium’s heavyhanded symbolism by making the official theme for the second day of events “We Built It.”) 

Maybe if Romney and his staffers had themselves built the stage by hand, their point would resonate more strongly. Alas, as the podium fact sheet makes clear, the labor was outsourced: “Approximately 318 production staff and crew built the podium—totaling more than 30,000 man-hours, 20,000 man-hours from the local production crew alone.” The stage builders hailed from 22 different states, and, it notes, some of them labored 16 hours a day to bring that podium into existence. Nothing proves your entrepreneurial spirit, I suppose, like overworking a team of blue-collar employees.

Of course, a political convention is nothing if not spectacle, and it’s hard to blame the planners for their lack of nuance. “The challenge,” reads one of the bullet points on the fact sheet, “was making a large-scale set that was also warm and inviting.” The same could be said for the Romney-Ryan campaign operation as a whole. But to get people to listen to Romney the Republicans will need more than “1.36 MILLION watts of amplifier power”—they’ll need a message. The theme of the next day of the convention is “We Can Change It.” Let’s hope they can explain how.