John Edwards talks about two Americas. During DNC week, the dividing line goes more like this: those on The List and those not on The List. With the rainbow of credentials, gilded invitations, velvet ropes, VIP booths and competing celebrity-driven events going on this week, the most important commodity is access, and access defines station.
Badge envy is the most basic. At 9 a.m., when the daily credentialing ritual begins, the third floor of the Westin Copley Place becomes like a bazaar in Karachi, a darkened scene of bartering frenzy fueled by jealousy and resentment. Everyone tries to upgrade credentials, or trade them, or prevent someone else from doing the same. I met a staff writer from the Christian Science Monitor at the media party Saturday night, and when I ran into her again Sunday with a hall pass around my neck, the first thing she said, after the flash of personal recognition, was: “Where the hell did you get that?”
“I have my ways,” I said, knowing that, somewhere out there, the guy running the mojo meter just pushed my rating up a notch.
Stephen Elliott, a novelist who is writing a nonfiction book about the campaign, said the same when we met at the Fleet Center. “That’s better than mine!” he complained. “Just when you think you’ve made it, they bite you in the ass.”
“There’s seven rooms in this world,” I said to Stephen. “You’re in the first room. You should be in the second room, but it looks like you’re still in the first.”
“Where are you?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess I’m in the second.”
“Dude, you’re not in the second room!”
“Well, who has the right credential?”
Credential power is governed by the document’s color. Forget purple — “It’s toilet paper,” as Stephen said. Light green isn’t much better, gaining access only to nosebleed seats at Level Seven and above. Dark green is moving in the right direction, unless it says Honored Guest, because that means you’re honored only enough to get to sit in the same place as the light greens. The dark-green credential marked PRESS is the one that enables entry into the media bleachers on either side of the stage, and from there, down to the convention hall floor. But that’s temporary — unless you have the all-powerful, permanent red FLOOR credential.
Then there’s the branching tree of add-on-access echelons, articulated by the hospitality tags for free food and the whole panoply of glowing VIP amulets available only to machers, famous people, or fund-raisers for the DNC. And those with the full juice can be identified from afar by their multitude of superfluous badges, dangling like breastplates from handsome, top-stitched Marc Jacobs lanyards.
Outside the convention hall, the access arena is even more Hobbesian. Notions about the very locations of the best parties are traded like rumors in a prison. And once you get there, it’s wise to have initiated two, or preferably three, different avenues of communication with the organizers or their friends or their PR firm, because chances are one of those RSVPs, mentions, requests or favors never made it onto the clipboard in the hands of the doorkeepers.
Such had been the case at the Rock the Vote party, but I happened to be in the company of a well-connected television executive who, you know, made a few calls. But the executive, who prefers to remain anonymous and so shall be called Herman, pointed out that, as successful as he’s been, even he still doesn’t always get on The List. I asked him if he’s in the seventh room. “The thing is,” he said, “When you think you’ve opened that last door, they’ve always built one more door to go through.”
On Tuesday night, the most important list to have your name on was at the door of the GQ party at the Federalist restaurant. The buildup for this event gathered incredible momentum during the day. Everyone would be there including, we heard, San Francisco’s Mayor Gavin Newsom. Why that was so exciting I’m not sure, other than it was clear that it would be a triumph to get in. And so everyone spent Tuesday putting significant energy into getting their name on that list. Herman was on it by default. Stephen made his way on at the last minute. My friend Kay was on the “original list,” and by a circuitous chain of relationships and events, she spent much of the day trying to get Stephen Colbert from The Daily Show in. That he was having trouble only made it even stranger that I had been set for the GQ party for days.
Success or failure with The List often turns out to be arbitrary. Sometimes a glitch opens and you get warped up to the next room, or sent back to the beginning. I breezed in, but Stephen had to work the door for half an hour to convince them he should be inside. ZZ Packer, who had done no prep work at all, just started saying “The New Yorker,” and they waved her along. By the time Kay arrived there were so many people, the fire marshals were not letting anyone in. And I’m still not sure if Stephen Colbert ever made it.
But then you have to figure out what to do in such a party. Chatting with Anderson Cooper would be boring, and striking up a conversation with John McLaughlin would be intimidating. I knew enough people to have a good time, but there was still the feeling of being at the wrong end of the totem pole. I was in, but not quite. There’s always one more door.
Bob Hattoy is kicking around in the back of the ballroom where the 500-plus-member California delegation is slurping coffee in a desperate attempt to wake up (there were parties last night, and there’s this time difference, and, well, don’t ask). Hattoy is an accomplished kick-arounder — a longtime AIDS, enviro and gay-rights activist, and one of the party’s foremost wags. Now he approaches me with an idea for a California political button: “I’m a Nancy Boy, Not a Girlie Man.” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is addressing the caucus as Hattoy is schmoozing with me, and I’m not sure if he means the button as a statement of support for Pelosi, as a charmingly quaint gay usage, or both. Well, probably both.
More than a Feeling
So I was outside the Fleet Center casually talking to this guy I’d never met, when he leans over and says in a confidential tone, “Man, there’s some serious titty around here . . . if you know to find it.”
That’s really the story I wanted to relate.
Except that the encounter reminds me that my traveling companion Steve Elliott and I, while casing the joint on Friday, wandered past the Hooters on the way to the Haymarket Station.
The one time I’d ever come close to dining at Hooters was in Phoenix, with my grandparents. We were trying to think of a place for lunch, and they both suddenly said: “How about Hooters?”
“No!” I said, for obvious reasons. (You too, Grandma?) By way of explanation, my grandpa offered, “They make an excellent club sandwich, Joshy.”
The downtown Boston Hooters has its windows plastered with children’s menus — “Honey, I shrunk the menu” — on which there is no club sandwich.
Not only are most journalists covering the presidential campaigns anxious, grudging careerists, one among their number is also a petty thief! It’s true: Someone stole my phone charger from the pressroom at the Fleet Center.
On the campaign trail, people left computers, bags and cameras unattended all the time. We were a tight group, despite the anxious careerism. Now it’s a free-for-all. When I went to retrieve the charger — a handy model that worked in both an outlet and a car — the journalists who had re-settled the area feigned ignorance. It wasn’t in the outlet, but maybe, I thought, someone took it out to plug in their computer or camera. “So perhaps it’s just lying around the area,” I said. Everyone shifted around to look for it, except one guy, seated in a lotus position but wearing a suit with a laptop in hand, who would neither budge nor acknowledge the search. Finally I said, “Listen, pal, I gotta find this thing. I don’t think anyone would steal it.” As he scooted up onto one side of ass to reveal a bunch of Ethernet cables but no charger, the guy said, “Oh, I do think someone would steal it.”
“So it’s come to this,” said my friend Stephen Elliott. “It was probably that guy. He was wearing a suit? Oh, yeah, he’s the thief.”
There is more L.A. mayoral politics going on in this gathering of the California delegation than anywhere in Los Angeles right now. The mayoral talk in the room centers on Antonio Villaraigosa; numerous delegates volunteer that Villariagosa has called them in the past two weeks to ask for their support. Villaraigosa’s somewhat late entry has caused a problem for Howard Welinsky, long a leading figure in Jewish Democratic organizations. In 2001, Welinsky was one of Villaraigosa’s leading backers, but earlier this year, when it looked as if Villaraigosa wasn’t running, Welinsky backed Bob Hertzberg, a longtime friend. That didn’t mean that Welinsky said no to Villaraigosa when the councilman called him a couple weeks ago. “I’ve endorsed them both,” Welinsky said. “Antonio connects with me politically, and Hertzberg is very good at putting together good organizations, and when I disagree with him, he calls me and explains his position right up front. I love them both.”
As the breakfast ended, former LAPD Chief Bernie Parks stood in the lobby, mentioning to L.A. political maven Kerman Maddox and me that just after he’d arrived from the coast, he’d attended a Gladys Knight concert last night that ran pretty late, and that when his clock went off this morning, he’d said, “Oh, no. Already?” Be it noted that at his groggiest, Bernie Parks looks composed, immaculate and commanding.