Thursday, October 28, 2004

Like a Republican

So, last Thursday my mini-disc player and I got ourselves a press pass and went to hear what Vice President Cheney and his wife (The Vice Lady? The First Lady of Vice?), who was by far the more engaging speaker, had to say to the assembled masses here in Int'l Falls.

Though Cheney wasn't slated to show up until one o'clock, the line at the Bakus Civic Auditorium stretched well around the block when I arrived at 10:30. I grimaced and took my place in line (and in the rain, as it happened). There was plenty to look at, what with the various security personnel, campaigners gathering signatures, local candidates gathering handshakes, and the rows of fire trucks, ambulances, and log trucks. Yes, log trucks, set up in perimiter around the auditorium presumably to discourage would-be car bombers from showing up without a ticket.
Having no umbrella to occupy my hands, I got out the ol' recorder and began collecting soundbites from my fellow impatients:

"What are you expecting to hear from the VP today?" I asked a young man wearing the letter jacket of the local high school.
"I dunno."
"I see. I see. Okay, well, is there anything in particular that you'd ask Mr. Cheney if you had the chance to do that today?"
"Mmm. Nah. Don't think so."

His friend of the same age was a bit more forthcoming. Asked for his comments on the day's upcoming events, he grinned proudly and pulled open his jacket to reveal a t-shirt with a picture of an elephant accompanied by the words "Hung like a Republican."

It took me fifteen minutes of this to notice the press entrance. Leaving the great unsoaped to be drizzled on, I hurried over to this entrance which was attended by an expressionless guy wearing an actual dun-colored trenchcoat, accented with Matrixy sunglasses. This so delighted me that my microphone and I asked him if he was in the habit of talking to microphones, which he wasn't. Beyond him, several fellows in commando pajamas were busily exploring the contents of a Star Tribune photographer's camera bag. Both she and I winced as they performed a drop test of her 200mm lense, but it passed with flying colors and no flying glass, and before too long it was my turn. As they inspected my cell phone, mini-disc recorder, and person, I watched another security team down the hall relieve three elderly gentleman of as many Swiss Army Knives, which were then tossed into a five-gallon bucket standing by for the purpose.

I was cleared to move on inside just as the kids in the letter jacket and elephant t-shirt made their way past me from the other line. So much for special treatment for the press.

The main benefit conferred by my press pass, it turned out, was freedom to be outside the little fence that squeezed the herd of local Republicans together like so much livestock (an unpleasant impression, but one that the piles of hay bales framing Cheney's podium onstage did nothing to dispel). As a member of the media, I realized, I was under no obligation to cheer, boo, shake a sign, or do anything else on command, and any frowning would be construed merely as concentration. What a great job!

The media space outside the crowd of local supporters was a roomier playpen by far, but the twelve journalists in Cheney's entourage moved as a tight little group, twelve intense faces peering over twelve laptops as if beholding the Sermon on the Mount and determined not to miss a word, twelve faces that I recognized from countless televised White House press briefings. In tableau against the peeling, yellowed walls of Bakus Auditorium, they seemed so ridiculously elegant. I confess I was more interested in trying to distract them with questions about their jobs than in actually tuning in to the thirty-minute jacob's ladder of soundbites that was Cheney's speech. Still, I stood with my microphone arm uncomfortably raised to a speaker for the whole thirty-one minutes and twelve seconds. Later, back at the station, I would transfer the whole business to Sound Forge and find that an entire nine minutes of that had been nothing but applause.

MSNBC's Priya David, though exhuasted, was a sweetie. "Ever heard of International Falls before showing up here?" I asked. "Not that I recall. This is . . . Michigan-no, Minnesota, right? Sorry, it's just that we started the day in Wisconsin and we'll end it Pennsylvania, and frankly the whole trip's become a blur." Be that as it may, the food on Air Force 2, she confided, is simply amazing.

And then, as swiftly as they had arrived, they rolled up their extension cords, stuffed away their PDAs, pulled down the big top and loaded up the elephants, and with them went all the excitement that had, for a magical moment, graced our little town. As they one-handed their laptops and hustled out of the aging auditorium and toward the waiting motorcade that would take them to Air Force 2, a sad jealously overtook me; the big kids were goin' on a campin' trip and I had to stay behind at home on account a' I'm little.
Sigh . . .

So, what conclusions did I reach? What did I come away thinking of Cheney? Well, I had intended to get to that, but I'm on the air in ten minutes, so once again it'll have to wait.

Methinks the radio station will be an exciting place from which to watch the election results roll in tonight, not least because I get a TV in the studio for the first time, and there'll be pizza.
"It'll be like a Superbowl party that matters!" I said to Brandy last night.
"Let's hope it's a grand ol' party," came the wry reply.
To which I say, "Hmm . . ."

God bless us, everyone. On what will the sun rise?

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