Millions of dollars of cash, two years of preparation, and thousands of police, secret service and National Guard went into making this Convention safe for the participants and local people. Every corner was stationed with cops in full riot gear, towering metal barriers lined roads, and there was a spate of pre-emptive raids on anti-war activists, giving the impression that this was a watertight security operation.
Which is why I found it weird that I was in the Excel Center on Thursday perched on a seat for four hours listening to the warm-up acts and then John McCain’s lacklustre speech. I didn’t have any credentials to get in, and on Wednesday, when I had got in with someone else’s pass, I wasn’t even asked to go through a metal detector. I was standing next to all the major figures in the Republican Party and I’d just walked in off the street with someone else’s pass – I could have been anyone.
The media passes and those for the actual Convention centre were generic on the outside and had no pictures or names, and no one was asked to produce ID to corroborate at the entrances. This incredible fact came to light when McCain’s speech was interrupted on a number of occasions by anti-war demonstrators from the group Code Pink who said they had found passes or got them off journalists.
The media hasn’t yet picked up on how outrageously lax the security was at the Excel Center. While protestors were getting pepper sprayed and arrested, anyone could have picked up a dropped pass and gone into the Convention Center – maybe without even been put through metal detectors – and got cosy with the Republican establishment.
McCain’s speech was curious because he tried to cast himself as a reformer and has basically positioned himself against his party. After the perfunctory thanks to George W. Bush, he later said, “We were elected to change Washington, but it changed us” – talking of his own party.
Then he said this, and the Convention hall and the assembled media didn’t bat an eyelid:
“On an October morning, in the Gulf of Tonkin, I prepared for my 23rd mission over North Vietnam. I hadn't any worry I wouldn't come back safe and sound. I thought I was tougher than anyone. I was pretty independent then, too. I liked to bend a few rules and pick a few fights for the fun of it. But I did it for my own pleasure, my own pride. I didn't think there was a cause that was more important than me.”
When McCain waxes lyrical about his time in Vietnam there is never any word for the millions of Vietnamese who died under the greatest tonnage of bombs dropped since WW2, but this was a new departure - apparently, he did it for his own pleasure and fun.
The diehard around me greeted the whole speech with massive hysteria, shouting “Drill baby drill!” – the new mantra – on numerous occasions. It didn’t seem to matter what McCain said, it was all greeted with raucous shouting and applause, which put me under the impression, while I was seated, that he had given a epic speech even though I couldn’t understand what his point was. When I got out and listened to the fallout it became clear that it wasn’t being well received by the media. And in the U.S. whether a speech is viewed positively or negatively usually calcifies about five minutes into the resulting analysis on the news channels, and the narrative is then set and repeated again and again.
At the end the confetti and balloons came down for a further 30 minutes - I wondered if it would all go on forever. But sitting in the Convention hall and listening to McCain was a fitting way to end my five days in St Paul and Minneapolis. Conventions are weird, intangible and absurd things when experienced in the flesh. The whole experience helped me understand why Hunter S. Thompson insisted on being on some sort of drug when he covered them. Hallucinogens are probably the only way to make sense of it all.