The Itinerant Conventioneer

An intrepid Monitor reporter traverses the political landscape daily and surfaces to file these dispatches.

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FORGET THE 39,000 gaga Democrats who have descended here in T-shirts, red-and-white straw hats, and skirts that look like used bunting.

This city looks more like it is holding its first "Men in Black" convention.

Besides cops on horseback, bike seat, and rooftop, men in dark suits and dark sunglasses lurk behind every ficus and fern, in hotel lobbies and along wide boulevards. With hands held ceremoniously (a) in a kind of prayer-like mudra, or (b) with index fingers camped behind each ear, these ubiquitous G-men are poised to leap if passersby so much as reach for a pen too fast or jingle their pocket change in the wrong key.

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I STEPPED CLOSER to gently inquire of one ("Security is being beefed up because of protest threats, huh?") and was instantly surrounded by a gaggle of whinnying quarter horses in full riot gear, eager to lick my dripping yogurt cone.

"This place is far more prepared than Philadelphia for both delegates and trouble," says John Innes, a TV producer for Conus Communications, who arrived a week ago from the Republican National Convention. "It's clear to me they got advance word of what went wrong there and how to prepare."

I guess. A normal civilian can't get anywhere near Staples Center, where the Democratic convention officially opens today. Adjacent blocks and streets are cordoned off with concrete barriers, and a 15-foot chain link fence rings the arena's perimeter with a quarter mile of no-man's land acting as protective buffer.

So far, the big stick ploy appears to be keeping the peace. Joy reigns in nearby hotel lobbies such as the Biltmore, where a barber shop quartet provides an easy-music backdrop to buy political pins ("Read My Lips - NO new Texans").

THE SHOW OF STREET FORCE is also protecting the First Amendment rights of reporters to grouse about America's dwindling democracy.

Inside the ice-cold giant arena, I watched CBS veteran Phil Jones as he tried to find the best place for his on-camera standups while he beefed that conventions are "not fun anymore because they are totally scripted. I yearn for the good ol' days when delegates gathered in smoke-filled rooms and there was tension in the air." That tension ended with Ford-Reagan in 1976, he says.

If tension is gone, humor is all around.

I asked a security guard if he had witnessed any Letterman moments in the Democrats' preparations. "The Democrats ARE a Letterman moment," he replied.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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