Features

Charlotte, DNC

Daniel Evans’ experience of the convention.

   

The upcoming presidential debate marks the next big event in this year’s US-election season and promises another direct confrontation between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. In this week’s feature, Quench-contributor Daniel Evans recalls a much less confrontational experience at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Charlotte, North Carolina, is not the most renowned of cities. With only one direct flight to the UK, most Brits are probably unaware of its existence. Yet despite this city’s low profile it played host to one of the biggest dates in the political calendar this summer. I was fortunate enough to witness this momentous event whilst working for the foreign press team for the week.

I spent the majority of my time in the Time Warner Cable Arena, customarily home to the Charlotte Bobcats basketball team, where my role was to identify the foreign press with a suite within the TWCA, ensuring they had individuals as senior as possible within the Obama administration to interview. This special focus on foreign press does not primarily spring from the wish to inform the world about the event, it is about voters. Overseas voters, to be precice. If you were to take all the Americans eligible to vote living abroad they would make up the 15th biggest state of the U.S. with twice as many people as are living in Wales. You kind of get the idea.

Our work started on Sunday, where we mapped out exactly were all the foreign broadcasters were in the arena to ensure we got our surrogates airtime; far from easy task when approximately 15,000 journalists had descended upon the city for the conference! To problematize this further, the small arena meant not everyone had an individual broadcast suite; thus discovering everyone’s affiliation and who would be sharing broadcasting space was imperative. This simple-sounding task was far from straightforward; the Monday before the Convention was Labour Day (a national holiday), so on top of extra security and roads already closed for the convention, they were also closed for the labour day parade route. The more people struggled to reach the arena, the more we struggled to find them!  Fortunately by Monday afternoon we had discovered Sky UK and Arabia, BBC, Voice of America, ITV, Channel 4 and a couple of Italian and French channels and were keen to get them on air.

The convention properly started on Tuesday; the same day that our Prime Minister decided to reshuffle his cabinet. As a result, both ITV and Channel 4 (two of the biggest networks across Europe as well as the UK) pulled their DNC coverage. A disappointing blow, but it did make our job much easier.

The communication team had unfortunately provided us with only one surrogate: Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior policy advisor on foreign affairs, specializing in terrorism. As she was fairly senior in Obama’s administration we managed to fill the entire hour we had her, which was a good start to the week. However, she never showed, which sat very unhappily with the networks, particularly ‘Voice of America’, who were not shy informing us of our unprofessionalism.

This criticism turned out to be in my favour, as it gave me time to witness the preparation for the opening night. The detail gone into to ensure everything is perfect on TV was incredible. For example, for one entire day a man walked from backstage to the speaker’s podium, made some sweeping hand movements and then walked back. This was simply to time how long it took for the speakers to walk to and from the podium to calculate ad breaks, and to see how their gestures would appear on TV (using people who broadly represented the size and height).

The lights in the arena then grew incredibly bright before dulling down again; this again was a test, as when the speakers are on stage they only want the public to be seen when they are cheering. The rest of the time the lights are dimmed and you can only see the speaker.

This is far more than the detail that goes into UK party conferences. You would also never see average citizens who have fallen victim to the previous administration’s policies on stage to add to the drama. On the first night this was a woman called Stacey Lihn, the mother of a young girl that has a serious heart defect and has had and still requires many lifesaving surgeries. Obamacare, a derogatory term in republican circles, is the only way that she can continue to have those operations. Before its introduction, health insurance companies were allowed to put a lifetime cap on medical care; Stacey’s daughter is dangerously close to her lifetime cap. However Obamacare abolished lifetime caps, meaning she could have as many operations as she required. As the Republicans have publicly stated that they would repeal the Obamacare act, this is essentially is a death sentence.

The Maryland Governor, Martin O’malley, was another fantastic speaker who the crowd warmed to. During his speech, A3 sized cards were passed out some with ‘Forward’ written on them and others with ‘Not Back’. During his speech he would continuously say: ‘Obama wants us to move forward not back’, with the entire crowd shouted along with him, holding up signs.

The next speaker of note was the keynote speech by Julian Castro, Mayor of San Antonio. He spoke about originating from a working class family of immigrants, but with parents whose hard work enabled his university tuition. The headline the following day was: “my grandmother held a broom so I could hold this mic”. He then turned his attention to Mitt Romney, again utilising the crowd exceptionally.  He started by saying that ‘Obama wants US veterans to be given more help when they return from warzones through Obamas GI bill’, but Mitt Romney said no. He then pointed out that ‘Obama wants to ensure a better education for everyone irrelevant of their financial position’ but Mitt Romney said no. By this stage every member of the crowd was screaming ‘ Mitt Romney said no’.  It was amazing to see a crowd so riled up by a political speech; it simply doesn’t happen in this country anymore.

Last but far from least was the First Lady Michelle Obama: loved by the American people and as popular as many big playing politicians. Her presence contrasted wildly to the UK political order, where our leaders wives play a very minor role in the political sphere.  Essentially, her purpose was simply to cast an image of Obama as ‘one of the people.’ It was aimed really at creating an emotional link between President and electorate rather than a real politically charged speech.

The second day of the convention saw Rachel Kleinfeld as a surrogate. Fortunately, she turned up on this occasion and we were able to repair some of the damage caused the previous day!  There were two speeches of note on the second night. The first was by a woman called Sandra Fluke who started a movement called ‘Sluts Vote.’ This originated in February of this year, when Fluke was stopped by republican congressmen from testifying in front of congress in favour of health insurance covering birth control for women. They labelled her a slut, refused to listen to her and this led to the rise of the ‘Sluts Vote’ movement. Her message was essentially that a vote for the republicans is a vote against gender equality.

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The President walked out on stage and shook Clinton’s hand. This was too much for some people. They lost all self control, jumping around and screaming. 

Could I picture us Brits going crazy like this over David Cameron? 

I think not.

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The best was saved until last, when Bill Clinton walked onto the stage, received by screams and applause. Using his fantastic public speaking skills, he immediately targeted the Romney campaign. Clinton states that through using simple arithmetic, the republican stance on taxes simply doesn’t make sense. As he finished his speech the President himself walked out on stage and shook his hand and waved to the crowd. This was too much for some people. They lost all self-control, jumping around and screaming. As a Brit, this was surreal. Could I picture us going crazy over David Cameron? I think not.

Afterwards, I met some of Clinton’s speechwriters and discovered that at least 10 minutes of his speech was ad lib and was not pre-written. For a convention so obsessed with perfection this must have been infuriating. The evening was not complete: it was followed by the roll call, which involved the head delegate of every state standing up and announcing that their state was voting for Obama as their candidate in the election. Naturally, screams and applauding ensued.

The final day arrived, with the convention due to move from the Time Warner Arena into the American football stadium. However, concerns of massive thunderstorms, combined with so much electrical equipment meant that the convention stayed in the Arena. Naturally this attracted the Republican press, who claimed it had been moved through fear that no one would turn up, leaving a damagingly large amount of empty seats.

This last day was definitely not a bad one; we watched the performers warm up. James Taylor, Mary J Blige, Marc Anthony and the Foo Fighters. The first speaker of note was Eva Longoria, telling the audience that giving a tax break to the rich is wrong and that high earners like her do not need it. Scarlet Johansson followed, who conveyed roughly the same message.  Then came John Kerry, who, to put it bluntly, played the ‘Obama killed Bin Laden card.’ The sound bite that seemed most resonating for me, was: “why don’t you ask Osama Bin Laden if he is better off than 4 years ago?” Vice President Joe Biden took stage next, principally emphasising that the President is as passionate as ever and was willing to make the hard decisions necessary to save America.

I cannot describe how much the people love Obama; his reception was spectacular. He started by explaining why people are better off than four years ago, including the GI Bill that gives aid to veterans if they want to attend University and how Obamacare quite simply is saving lives by making health care more affordable and ensuring that no one becomes bankrupt through illness. He was also completely open to working in co-operation with Republicans when it comes to policy making However, for the past two years the Republicans party has simply stated that its policy should be hindering the President at every turning as opposed to helping at all. Considering the US political system is completely dependent on co-operation between parties, it is almost impossible to get anything done in the current situation.

This was a fantastic end to a convention, which will undoubtedly contribute to the election; an election, which I believe, is pivotal to the future of American politics.

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