ULTIMATELY, here's what it all came down to. A large woman wearing a straw hat topped by an enormous plaster-of-paris donkey and garnished with green and red plastic chili peppers was telling Bush jokes - most of them unprintable in a family newspaper - to a rail-thin man wearing a plastic wedge of cheese on his head. The two laughed helplessly as they stood on the floor of the Omni arena where this week's Democratic National Convention was held.
A thousand other conversations proceeded simultaneously, while the voice of the speaker on the podium boomed over the public-address system. The straw-hatted woman and the cheese-headed man were not listening to the speaker. But neither was anyone else.
Which was beside the point. This may have been a convention staged for television - where the expected red, white, and blue podium color scheme was discarded for salmon, eggshell, and azure, where TV lights were raised at every applause line so the networks could pan the crowd, where appearances by singer Dionne Warwick and storyteller Garrison Keillor and movie star Ally Sheedy lent some Oscar-night sparkle to an otherwise prosaic event.
This convention was really a four-day circus for the amusement of those who came to watch and/or participate in it. The actual ``work'' of the convention did not concern speechifying, or writing a party platform that few will ever read, or nominating a presidential candidate that no one doubted would be nominated - though hundreds of individuals did labor at an exhausting pace to ensure that the official events came off smoothly. The actual work of the convention occurred poolside at the downtown hotels where most convention participants were staying, or at the multitudinous receptions and parties that got under way after the close of each night's convention session.
``It's networking, seeing people in a different context than you would otherwise see them,'' said one senior staff aide to the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives, as he lounged by the downtown Marriott's pool and slathered himself with suntan oil. ``They really could get these things over with in a day or two - but that wouldn't be nearly as much fun.''
Much of the fun of the convention came from the behind-the-scenes incidents hidden, often intentionally, from television viewers.
Jesse Jackson's speech Tuesday night offered several such moments of suspense. A few minutes into his address, the TelePrompTer broke, leaving the Rev. Mr. Jackson to read from a printed copy.
The only indication TV viewers - and, indeed, most people in the hall - might have had that something was amiss was that he stumbled on the word and, as the TelePrompTer flickered out, repeated a line.
Jackson ended up departing extensively from his written text, throwing in snippets from earlier appearances. That led some reporters to label the speech ``Jesse's greatest hits.''