Staging and upstaging at the Dallas convention
Dallas — As the Republican National Convention neared an end, one of the local papers here was thick with extra pages - but they weren't filled with political news. The heftiness of the paper was due to a special section previewing the 1984 football season.
As one reporter prepared to leave Dallas after attending a national political convention for the first time, the rest of the world was beginning to crowd back onto center stage.
And stage is as good a word as any to associate with this event, for party conventions provide a state-of-the-art reading on political theater. Indeed, the Republican show was planned with amazing detail, and executed with near-precision.
A man in a blue sport shirt and light-colored slacks, standing high above the convention floor, knew exactly when to yank the cords that released nets containing thousands of colored balloons after President Reagan was renominated Wednesday night. And he yanked them one by one, without hurry, helping to prolong the well-planned atmospherics that nurture the already high-level enthusiasm of the delegates.
''Almost on cue, they (the delegates) will cheer and get enthusiastic,'' says Thomas Dean, a delegate from Painesville, Ohio. ''They know they're being watched by the public and they want to make a good impression.''
''The TV people are everywhere,'' he adds.
After her speech Wednesday night, Nancy Reagan stood on the podium waving to a giant overhead screen showing President Reagan, wearing an open-necked shirt, watching the proceedings from his hotel room here. She waved at the image; he waved back, to the delight of the crowd. Then he waved at the TV camera crew in his room, but from the auditorium he appeared to be waving at delegates on one side of the convention floor, the side where delegate Dean was sitting.
Mr. Dean jumped up and, along with hundreds of other delegates, waved back at the image of Mr. Reagan. ''I felt kind of silly waving at the thing,'' Dean said , a few seconds after he sat down. ''It's well-organized confusion,'' which he appeared to be enjoying.
Why do political parties hold such conventions, especially when there is no contest? Wouldn't a national presidential primary eliminate the need for conventions? observers wonder.
First-time convention delegate Jacquelyn Durrell of Connecticut offers this response: The excitement generated at the convention ''works the troops up'' and gets party loyalists ready to battle the other party.
She also noted something else: the deliberate isolation of the convention from demonstrations outside the hall. ''They steered us right by it,'' she said. A chain-link fence around the convention complex kept protesters and others without credentials at bay. And the approved demonstration site near the convention was out of the path of most delegates. A ''tent city'' set up by demonstrators was about a mile from the convention center.
Nevertheless, after consecutive days of temperatures above 100 degrees, Steve Fisher was still at the protest site, sharing his message with anyone who would listen. He stood shirtless, half leaning on his upright guitar case, and condemned US military ventures in Central America and Grenada. He spent about $ 450 to fly here from California, he said. Craig Young of Dallas, who was standing beside him that evening, said he would like to see a bilateral nuclear weapons freeze.
ACORN, a large protest group of community activists for the poor, had left a few days earlier. Another group of self-proclaimed anarchists spray-painted some downtown buildings during a protest march. About 100 were arrested at midweek.
The nation's impression of the convention depends largely on television coverage, and there's less of it these days. The networks switched from full to highlight coverage, meaning viewers didn't have to sit in front of the TV set all day to find out what was happening. But, says election analyst Richard Scammon, viewers miss much of the decisionmaking because it takes place off the convention floor. For example, the only real dissension took place during the public hearings of the platform committee, which received abbreviated coverage.
On the jammed convention floor, TV camera crews seemed to be polite and unobtrusive, although their task was not easy. Some crew members lugged 30 to 50 pounds of equipment around on their backs, each person attached by a umbilical power cord to another crew member's equipment.
But television is the only access candidates have to the public. For Karla Steinhilbeer, a college junior, TV is a key to her support of President Reagan. ''You see him on television and he comes across as genuine,'' she says, waiting on the convention floor with several hundred other young volunteers to cheer on cue at the President's nomination.
Most delegates interviewed had worked hard in their party and were thrilled to be here. ''I'm very excited at the age of 52 to be a part of the political process,'' says Patricia Yeates, of Aurora, Ill. ''I love seeing all the celebrities. Normally we only see them on TV.''
Teen-ager Sean McManus was glad to be here, too. A volunteer sign painter, making some of the signs delegates held up during the convention, he showed off one of his favorites: ''Ronny beats Monny any day. Yea.''
One of the convention week highlights had nothing to do with politics, however, even though it was in the neighborhood at a local sports arena. Something featured in the newspaper's special football section? No, it was tenor Luciano Pavarotti singing to a sellout crowd, and in his own way upstaging the main show in town.