You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Return of the Ship of Fools

Cruising the Democratic convention.

United States Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

This month a peculiar event took place in New York City. Over 25,000 people from all over the country converged on a large indoor arena and remained there for the best part of four days, ill-housed, ill-fed, and often idiotically clothed. They endured conditions of the sort that drive laboratory rats into psychoses: drastic overcrowding, sudden blasts of noise, glaring lights, uncomfortably high temperatures, and (according to many informants) sexual deprivation resulting from exhaustion and round-the-clock lack of privacy.

The official explanation was that 3,331 of these unfortunate people were in Madison Square Garden to choose a presidential candidate (who, as everyone knew, already had been chosen) that another 10,000 people were there to help them choose; and that the additional 11,000 or 12,000 were on hand to record this imaginary choice and associated occurrences. But even a politically naive observer (yours truly) has to assume that more was going on.

According to some experts, the whole convention was a mistake, an anachronism. In bygone years, they said, before the invention of telephones, airplanes, and primaries, it was necessary or at least useful to bring the national and local leaders of a party together every few years to do business; mere stupidity and the difficulty of stopping any large machine once it has been set in motion have preserved the meaningless ritual of a national convention. I am not convinced by this explanation. An event of this size and silliness does not survive just by accident. There are reasons for it, though not necessarily ones those concerned would admit, even to themselves. Curiosity about these reasons led me, in spite of a long-standing dislike of politics, to spend four days this month in Madison Square Garden. Or, as the official documents called the place, MSG—possibly because, like the food additive favored by cheap Chinese restaurants, it made so many people so manic and hyperactive.

Drawing by Tim Moynihan

It was not easy to get into MSG. You had to have two official passes: one, issued by the Secret Service, identified you by name, face, and employer, and looked like a plastic credit card. The other, issued by the Democratic National Committee, resembled US currency. It was of much the same size and shape as a dollar bill, dark green on white with florid Edwardian lettering and the portrait of a dead president. But it was printed on the wrong kind of paper and had a blank backside—play money, obviously.

With these passes on a string around my neck as if I were a dog or a suitcase, I entered MSG, where I was x-rayed, and checked out by 11 different anxious officials in 11 different locations on my way down tunnels and up escalators to the press gallery. Here I could look down into a wide, glaringly lit arena. Since this was Madison Square Garden, I expected something like a prize fight or a circus. (Later on I saw elements of both—clownish figures among the crowd, noisy squabbles, some leading to violence, between supporters of different politicians.) It was clear immediately that there were two factions, each wearing the symbolic colors of its candidate. One lot wore green ribbons and waved grass-green-and-white signs to indicate their leader’s rural origins and his presumed born-again purity. The deep but vibrant blue of the opposing faction suggested that their man was sincere, trustworthy (“true blue”), and sympathetic to the common man, blue being the traditional color of work clothes. There were many more green signs than blue ones, but the blue signs were being waved more often and more vigorously.

To get down into the party I had to trade in my dog tags for another pass, good technically for 30 minutes on the floor, actually for much less. It took at least 10 minutes to get down from the press gallery and push your way through the crowd, and another 10 to push your way back. If you did not return in time, your passes were confiscated for the rest of the convention. Certain privileged journalists had permanent floor passes, while others could not get even a temporary one. Though the principle of equality of opportunity was invoked often and reverently from the podium, the convention was rigidly and visibly stratified in terms of seating arrangements and access to facilities. Basically there were three classes, as on an old-time ocean liner—which MSG in some ways resembled, since it contained a disparate assortment of people going somewhere too slowly, many of them suffering from psychic or somatic nausea.

My original assumption had been that the delegates were the important and privileged people at the convention, the first-class passengers. In previous years, maybe; but not this time. After the primaries only a few of them still had some function at MSC and some authority there. These were the successful politicians and the representatives of special interests (in the New York delegation, for instance, people like Shirley Chisholm, Mario Cuomo, and Bella Abzug). They busied themselves renewing alliances, making deals and contacts, and keeping the lesser members of their delegations contented, or at least in their seats— which meant in the steerage.  

The delegates crowded together in the bottom of the arena, where the noise and confusion were greatest. The sound equipment at MSG made the proceedings audible first to the TV and radio crews, second to reporters, and third to those spectators whose wealth or political connections had gained them seats in the balcony. Down on the floor most of the speeches were unintelligible. Many delegates couldn’t see the speaker on the podium, either because the people in front of them were standing up or because roaming TV crews were in the way. Some members of the South Carolina and Michigan delegations, who were behind the TV tower, saw nothing for four days.

The job of delegate to a national convention is supposed to be a reward for loyal service to the local party, usually as an unpaid volunteer—months and years of making phone calls, tacking up posters, stuffing envelopes, and driving reluctant voters to the polls. The reward is not a material one: most delegates had to pay their own way to New York and their own hotel bills, which averaged $75 a night. They got some free food, usually at breakfast; breakfasts are popular with politicians, who know that they are by far the cheapest form of public hospitality, even better than a cocktail party. All you need is an urn of weak coffee and some sticky buns, which most of your guests won’t want anyhow, as it is now 9:30 and they already have eaten. 

As time passed the morale of the ordinary delegates declined rapidly. At the start many of them, especially the ones who were at their first convention, were starry-eyed, declaring to journalists that New York was a wonderful city and this the most exciting event of their lives. The crowds, the high prices, the noise, the long lines, the heat {highs were in the 90s) were all part of the excitement. The failure on Monday night to open the convention—in effect, to set aside the decisions of the primaries and give the delegates back some of their power—changed the tone of these interviews. Some delegates began telling reporters that they had been overcharged in restaurants and cursed out by taxi-drivers for 10 percent tips, that there was garbage in the halls of their hotel, that the cardboard hamburgers were overpriced and the coffee tasted like dishwater. Unlike the delegates to the Republican convention, they couldn’t buy beer. They had begun to realize that they were paying up to $100 a day to travel steerage, and had nothing to say about where the boat was going. Others, too naive to know what had hit them or too cynical to have expected anything more, settled down to enjoy or endure the party. There wasn’t much else they could do, even though it was not a very good party, and the game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey had gone on too long and was rigged in advance.

The real first-class passengers, of course, were the candidates and their entourages, who did not have to wear tags or stand in line for hamburgers, but were smiled on by everyone, driven about in limousines, and fed $100-a-pIate banquets. Another privileged group was composed of the prosperous-looking persons who intermittently occupied the balcony seats: retired politicians, large contributors, important press executives, and their friends and families. Even they were stratified, however, according to signs at the entrance, into “honored guests” and plain or non-honored “guests,” who had to sit in the upper rows.

The journalists in tourist class were having a fairly good time. They could see and hear the speeches, and nobody was scolding them to stay in their seats and pay attention; they could roam about talking to friends and read their free magazines. When they got hungry there were free pastrami sandwiches in the press bar, where they could watch TV sets tuned to the three major networks and drink beer. And, of course, they were not spending their own money; they were on expense accounts. The best-known commentators and columnists were invited to elegant parties, at which politicians sought them out to praise their latest efforts and make prepared casual comments in the hope that they would be relayed to a larger public.

All this was just the outward sign of what has happened to the media—of its new political power. The podium at MSG was at balcony height; the speakers seldom or never looked down at the delegates below, and when they glanced from side to side it was not to address the “honored guests,” but to read the next line on the teleprompters. Mainly, however, they spoke to the TV cameras mounted on a tower directly in front of them in the middle of the arena. This structure-tall, narrow, black, and snaked about with the cables of light and sound equipment—was symbolically as well as physically the center of the convention. What counts today is how a candidate appears in the press and on television; the people who have to be convinced are journalists, not local political leaders or grassroots party hacks.

The idea that our political future might be determined by journalists is not at first unpleasant. After all, most journalists are smarter than politicians and more liberal. They also have better senses of humor, and know how to make even the boring aspects of a campaign lively. In 1976, for instance, a gifted jokester traveling with the Ford entourage noticed a man dressed in a life-size chicken costume at a California shopping center. Inspired, he rented the same costume and began wearing it to Ford’s press conferences. The Secret Service made no objection, as long as the chicken wore the correct tags around his neck and followed standard journalistic procedure, raising his wing when he wished to ask a question. Ford, who at the best of times had some difficulty in self-expression, was put off his stride by the appearance of a large white fowl among the other reporters. The chicken and his pals were thus able to obtain a tape recording of the president stumbling in mid-speech and crying out, “the chicken, the chicken.” This tape was played frequently, for both the Ford press party and the enjoyment of reporters attached to other candidates.

It might seem like a good thing that the business of politics should be visible on television, that every American who owns a TV should be able to see the Democratic convention or any other current event “as it really is.” Unfortunately this is impossible, since when you watch the news you do not see the TV crews themselves—the cameras, lights, sound equipment, and staffs of the national and local networks, the radio interviewers and their technicians, the newspaper and magazine and wire service reporters and photographers, all of them shoving and jostling for a good angle or an exclusive comment.

This crowd of invisible people is present even at very minor, marginally newsworthy events. On the last day of the convention, for instance, there was a celebration of the 45th anniversary of the Social Security program in a small room at the Sheraton Hotel. The space had been cleared of furniture and divided down the center by a red velvet rope. On the ceremonial side of this rope were a dozen formally dressed elderly first-class passengers and a two-by-four-foot cake iced to resemble a Western Union telegram trimmed with red, white, and blue sugar bunting and roses. On our side were two dozen tourist-class journalists, most of them in jeans and t-shirts. The people on the other side of the rope, a foot or less away, neither saw nor heard us. And we, though focusing our cameras and microphones on them, made no attempt to communicate. For 35 minutes we stood like two lots of madmen.

But when at last the star of the occasion, Rosalynn Carter, entered the stateroom, everyone sprang to life. The politicians began to smile and to speak with theatrical clarity and animation; the journalists turned on their lights and pointed their microphones at the Western Union cake. Mrs. Carter—a pretty, slight, middle-aged woman in a rather dowdy pink suit and a perfect windblown hairdo, each golden-brown tendril sprayed in place—greeted the elderly persons, who included former senator, now representative Claude Pepper (red-sponge face, self-congratulatory benevolent manner) and Consumer Affairs Adviser Esther Petersen (Nordic saga braids, shrewd expression). As they exchanged speeches I realized that no one in the room was crazy after all; I was simply watching the filming of a TV production.

What was going on at the Democratic convention was even more peculiar than I had thought. It was not a shipboard party, but a media production. MSG was a film studio, the journalists its crew (badly overmanned, but that is traditional in the movie business), and the delegates were the overworked extras, forced to repeat the crowd scene over and over again. That was why so many of them wore ridiculous hats and jumped up and down so hard when the cameras swung their way; they hoped to get chosen for a bit part, or at least to be recognized by their friends back home. As for the stars of the production and the supporting cast, they were of course the politicians and their families. Together all these people were making a film about an ocean voyage (Sink the Titanic?) which they hoped would get high ratings, attract rich sponsors, and lead to a sequel in 1984.

When politicians become actors, it is only natural for actors to become politicians, and those of us who are not Republicans should stop being surprised at the prospect of a film-star president, even it if is reasonable for us to dread it. Jimmy Carter, who was elected four years ago partly because he looked better on the small screen than his opponent, also wants us to dread this prospect. His acceptance speech warned the audience against a “fantasy world . . . a make-believe world of good guys and bad guys.” Though he didn’t mention the movies, or any specific former Hollywood good guy, his meaning was clear.

Unfortunately, to anyone in the MSG film studio. Carter did not come across as a moral crusader against make-believe, but merely as a featured actor in one of those films that pretend to criticize the film industry. He was caught in his own metaphor, as sometimes happens in real life as well as in films. It may have been hard to get into MSG, just as it is hard to get into the movies, but it can be a lot harder, perhaps in the long run impossible, to get out.