Crush and cacophony at the Omni

AN evening on the floor of the Omni arena during the week of the Democratic National Convention offers new insights into the word ``cramped.'' The place normally seats 17,000. But more than 7,000 seats were torn out to make way for a monstrous podium (said to be the largest in the history of American political conventions), another gargantuan platform where phalanxes of photographers practice their art, and rows of glassed-in boxes from which the television networks can monitor the spectacle.

And a spectacle it is. Within the space remaining are jammed 5,373 delegates, hundreds of security guards, thousands of Dukakis and Jackson campaign workers who have managed to get a pass onto the main floor, a gaggle of movie stars who always seem to show up at these sorts of things, and a number of the 13,500 journalists who have swarmed into Atlanta for the big event.

An evening on the floor of the Omni during the Democratic National Convention also offers new insights into the word ``cacophony.''

It's not the ``official'' donkey noisemakers, the bullhorns, the competing chants (``Duke, Duke, Duke'' vs. ``Jesse, Jesse, Jesse'') that get to you. It's not even the band, needlessly amplified, perched high atop the podium. It strikes up a tune between each address; at one point Monday night, it played for three ear-splitting minutes while officials frantically searched for a missing speaker.

It's the incessant chatter that dulls the senses and makes everyone talk even louder. The sum of thousands of conversations, taken together, drowns out all but that which emanates from a most piercing public-address system.

To cut through the indifference, a speech has to be a real attention-getter. Texas state Treasurer Ann Richards managed that Monday night with her keynote address. Her first zinger - ``After listening to George Bush all these years, I thought you needed to hear what a real Texas accent sounded like'' - caught conventioners by surprise, and quieted all but the most intent chatterers.

Most important of all, an evening on the floor of the Omni during the week of the Democratic National Convention offers new insights into the state of the Democratic Party.

``This is a quiet convention,'' boomed Democratic speech writer Kevin Sullivan over the din. And, indeed, there were a number of delegates - perhaps a third - who seemed rather contemplative, rising to cheer now and then but, for the most part, they were sitting back and watching events unfold. Many of them clutched red signs emblazoned with white letters proclaiming the name of their candidate: ``Jesse!'' The exclamation point seemed to be in stark contrast to their mood.

``I'm disappointed,'' said Raymond Griffin Jr. about Michael Dukakis's selection of Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate. Mr. Griffin is 21 years old, black, and about to enter his senior year at the University of California, Riverside, where he is studying business administration. He is also intensely committed to Jesse Jackson, and to the causes he espouses.

Griffin was pacing the floor of the convention, holding aloft a sign that reads ``Rosa Parks, this one's for you.'' Ms. Parks is the black woman who was ordered from sitting in a whites-only section of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala. The year was 1954, and it was an episode that triggered the modern civil rights movement.

When a passer-by jokingly inquires whether his arms are getting tired, Griffin responds with dead earnestness. ``Rosa Parks's legs never tired,'' he says. ``It's a pretty small sacrifice.''

On further questioning, Griffin vows that he ``will do anything to advance the Jackson agenda.'' Even if that includes following his call to support the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket in November? In the background, Paul Kirk, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is proclaiming the new ``unity'' of the Democratic Party. His voice shouts over the public address system, though few seem to be paying much heed to his speech.

Griffin swallows visibly. He says that a lot of Jackson supporters are refusing to register to vote now; after all, Jackson appears to have been rejected by the very political system he had asked them to join.

``Still,'' Griffin says slowly, ``we will do what Jesse asks us to do.''

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