My imaginary focus group

Our pop-culture critic comments on the convention.

As a New Yorker, I've felt slightly strange covering the convention from in front of my television set. After all, I understand why I can't write about "Las Vegas" from Las Vegas, or "That 70s Show" from 1976; but it seems to me that my journalistic responsibilities, slim as they are, might well include getting out and actually speaking to New Yorkers about what they thought about the night's programming.

But that meant leaving the TV. So instead, resourceful as I was, I hit on an idea: I would interview people from within my own apartment! The following is a result of an experiment, which, while somewhat fictitious, might shed some light on the third night of convention coverage.

8:15: Funky music plays as George W. Bush is unanimously selected as the party's nominee, in the least surprising decision since CBS decided to create another CSI franchise. I turn up the volume, face the television to the wall, and, when my neighbors come over to complain, ask them if they think that it was coincidence that Florida was the last state to pledge their delegates before the move for unanimous approval. Their comments were not so much irrelevant as they were unprintable on a family website. Remember, New York is the land of liberals.

8:25: I've ordered pizza. When the delivery man arrives. I ask him to watch Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao's speech with me and share his reactions. He agrees, but only if I double the tip. This goes against my long-standing policy of refusing to pay sources, and we part ways amicably. It is only after he leaves that I discover that he has put anchovies on my pizza, which I detest. But picking the anchovies off does distract me from Chao's presentation of the GOP as both the party of ethnic diversity and as leaders on education, which is good, since chutzpah tends to bother my digestion.

9:00: I make a phone call.

OPERATOR: Information.

ME: Yes, do you know who these last two guys were? And why, if no one ever heard of them, they're addressing the convention in prime time?

OPERATOR: I'm sorry; I don't have that kind of information. This is directory assistance.

ME: Oh, right. Sorry.

OPERATOR: No, I'm just kidding. Bob Portman and Paul Ryan are representatives from Ohio and Wisconsin - swing states, you know. Just because you don't know who they are doesn't mean people there don't. The Republicans know their electoral math and care about reaching them, not you. It's about galvanizing turnout there.

ME: That makes sense, I guess.

OPERATOR: Would you like their phone numbers?

ME: No, thanks.

9:15: Michael Reagan introduces the Ronald Reagan tribute, which, in contrast to the Gerald Ford film of two days earlier, is elegantly produced and fairly touching, though there's a jarring moment when Arnold Schwarzenegger appears. (He's really everywhere now!) Touched by the film. I call up my local video store clerk and ask him if he has an expert opinion or, failing that, a DVD of the first season of "Da Ali G show." He reminds me that Nancy Reagan had been in the film business as well, that Michael Reagan is a radio talk show host, that, if he recalled correctly, Ron Reagan had hosted "Saturday Night Live," and that if the Reagans' friends and family couldn't assure a good tribute film, then all this talk about the nexus between entertainment and politics was as ridiculous as that Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Judi Dench when she only had seven minutes or so of screen time. He then insisted that I had to check out this new three-hour Finnish documentary, but I begged off.

10:15: I open my window and shout at the guy across the air shaft who's watching television.

ME: Hey! Guy watching television! Hey!

GUY: Whaddya want?

ME: Are you watching Zell Miller?

GUY: What?

ME: I can't see what you're watching but I can see the glow of the television. So I wanted to ask you: don't you think that Zell Miller is being more than a bit unfair? You know, the way he's flaying Kerry on national security? Listening to Miller, you'd think Kerry was practically in league with Al Qaeda GUY: Look, man, I'm watching the game.

ME: Oh, sorry.

GUY: But, you know, I wouldn't be upset with Miller; if Kerry wasn't so abysmal at making his own case about his opposition to the war, then Miller's attacks would slip off. The only reason there's real traction there is because of Kerry's terrible explanations and muddled rationales - as well as no real plan for managing the situation - has given the Republicans and their friends opportunities to turn one of their big potential weaknesses back into the strength they always thought it was going to be. Perhaps you're not angry at Zell Miller? Aren't you really angry at ...you?

ME: Well, I'm also not incredibly pleased with Miller, but, hey, thanks, television guy!

GUY: No worries.

10:45: It was getting late, so I didn't want to bother anyone else, and watched Dick Cheney's speech all by myself, marveling at how a low-key and quiet delivery can allow for the most audacious spin, misinterpretation, strategic straddling of the truth, and character assassination this side of an eliminated contestant's comments on a reality television show. But you have to give the man his due: he knows how to pick a speechwriter. Someone who managed to create prose that was both elegant and colloquial, by turns scathing and warmly approving, bringing together its own community while letting everyone else know they don't need to bother showing up. I wouldn't be half surprised if the Wyoming native had a New Yorker on staff.

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