On Monday morning in Tampa, I stepped out of a bathroom stall and into a large bald fellow in a blue suit. I didn't even have time to wash my hands before saying good morning to the most important Republican of our time, and my personal hero, Mr. Karl Rove. "Morning," I said. "Morning," he said. It's morning in America, again. And then walking out of the bathroom, I saw a grown, suit-clad man trying to mount a five-foot tall red, white and blue raffle-prize elephant. "Get a picture!" the guy yelled to no one.
The Marriott Waterside Hotel was Fort Romney RNC. The Marriott family are Mormon, are big Romney donors, and are responsible for Mitt's first name, so this location next to The Tampa Bay Times Forum was a blessing.
The entire city was cast under cobalt hurricaney sky, rain storms blowing along through wet 90-degree air. Downtown Tampa was fenced off with checkpoints at major intersection, with all the businesses closed, and between the security lockdown and the dark of day, it felt like a cliche end-of-the-world film.
Then there were all these cops riding shitty bikes around. Up the street from the Marriott, a hundred or so Occupy people faced off with these cops, their bikes handily creating a wall. Behind them were several lines of gleaming port-o-johns. Anarchists were arguing with cops over some rights. "We want bathrooms! We want water! These are our streets!" they chanted. Occupy won the standoff, and were pleased. "We told that cop what's up. Now we get water and shitters," a young man in a Chili Peppers t-shirt, who gave his name as Thor, told me.
I investigated the bathrooms. They had a fine and clean aroma. Same can't be said of the anarcho-brosef who charged up to me a few minutes later, looked down at my press credentials, and said, "The media lies, man."
Tampa was occupied in more of a West Bank or Green Zone sense than in a Zuccotti Park way. The protests were much tamer than what we saw in New York 2004, when a million people marched against Bush and more than 1800 were arrested. In 2008, St. Paul erupted on day one with a running riot, a cop-dodging battle that lasted hours, involving tear gas and rubber bullets, with windows broken and cars flipped and smashed, with hundreds detained, journalists included. In Tampa there was one arrest: a guy had refused to take off his black bandana. Doesn't seem like it was worth the $50 million in tax dollars spent on security for that guy.
With the Convention canceled Monday, at least there were parties to attend. Most looked bad, and were bad, but not the Zen party hosted by the Log Cabin Republicans. The old-school gay Republican group had an afternoon event at Oystercatchers, a beautiful seafood restaurant on the water. Well-groomed men flirted and politicked over excellent food. This year's gay GOP all seemed to like Romney, who'd been a reasonably fair supporter of gay rights over the years. But no one I spoke to privately was happy that the party was moving even further to the right.
Only the Washington Post could possibly make a Republican Convention nerdier than it already is. They hosted a trivia happy hour at a corny theme BBQ restaurant. At least it came with free drinks. Political reporter Chris Cilliza asked obscure questions—who was House leader in 1983, and what is the next Resident Evil movie going to be called? Chuck Todd came in and hugged a bunch of pretty young NBC girls. He's not the best-looking dude but he is the Ryan Gosling of political reporters. The Post's party drove us across the street to the Tampa Aquarium for the booze lobby's party.
The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States is the largest liquor lobby in America and their party is always a Convention highlight. They hired mermaids to swim with sharks in the aquarium.
They made ice-sculpted Patron bottles. It was awesome. Mist machines made the cave-like aquarium extra-trippy and all the shuffling, wasted blue blazer-clad men stumbling past a tank where a 1000-pound grouper lurked immobile was surreal.
On Day Two, I hit Fort Romney Tuesday. The Marriott lobby is like a Greek take on a Florida Jewish retiree condo, with 40-foot ceilings, oversized columns, cheesy mirrors, gaudy lighting and furniture, with giant windows looking at giant boats docked out back.
The room's dimensions did Chris Christie no favors. I confronted the sweaty Oompa Loompa from New Jersey.
"You bummed about losing the Nets to a rapper?" I shouted. No answer.
An hour later, I found him again. "You bummed about the Nets?"
A skinny kid in a poorly fitted suit, some Christie handler, yelled back at me: "That's a stupid question."
"I'm playing insider baseball, asshole!" I said. We yelled comforting vulgarities at each other for another few minutes before he ran back to his boss.
Then there was Matt Romney standing alone in the lobby! (*Squee!*) Of the boyband that is the five Romney brothers, Matt's the sexy mature one to Tagg's cute one. I stiff-armed a New York Times reporter to get at him.
"Sox fan, Matt?"
"Yes, I am."
"Whatchya think of the trade, guy?"
Thoughtful pause. "I'm still not sure. It was bold but I'm gonna miss A Gonz." (Adrián González was traded along with several other Boston Red Sox starters to the L.A. Dodgers last week.) "He's my man."
Matt's dad had just arrived at the airport and the motorcade was en route. In a cab about five miles from the Marriott the convoy zipped past—police motorcycles, black SUVS, cop cars—about thirty vehicles in a totally POTUS-style motorcade.
Each state's delegates stay at different hotels, maybe around three delegations per hotel, probably spread across twenty in all. All logistics are organized by the Republican National Committee based on, what else, politics. Romney's home state of Massachusetts got to stay at the Marriott. Florida and South Carolina, who pissed off the RNC by moving their primaries up, were exiled 30 miles away in a suburb.
The Nevada delegation were staying at the DoubleTree, a mid-range spot which I figured indicated the swing state was important, but not that important, to the RNC. They lined up for a bus to the convention, snaking through the lobby. I observed the presence of a statistically anomalous amount of breast implants.
Kenny Bent, a Ron Paul delegate, did not have fake breasts. He was also not rich, nor was he going to vote for Romney. He has whirly hair, bundled in a ponytail, poor dental hygiene and he hates Mitt Romney. "I'm not voting for him," he said. "There's no difference between Mitt and Obama." This was a common saying among a set of delegates, mainly the Ron Paul and Tea Party folks. "Not since 1976 has the Republican Party been so divided," Mr. Bent said.
The GOP's rifts are largely economic. Actual members of Ron Paul's Liberty Movement and the Tea Party are drawn from the middle class and are actually concerned with growing inequality. The Republican party establishment skews towards rich folk and runs on corporate cash. It's often a class thing. Also, rifts aside, this year's GOP might be the dumbest political party in postwar American history. Many of their core policies don't even make sense. And then, Paul supporters are isolationists. When pressed about what to do about, say, NATO, the little treaty thingy we help fund that protects Western Europe from evildoers, there is no good answer. "Let the Europeans police their backyard," Mr. Bent said. Last time we tried that, it went very poorly. But there is common ground. Tea Partiers and Paul Ryan-style deficit hawks are somehow fiscal conservatives who want to cut government spending but not defense spending, which approaches a trillion dollars a year of the $3.6 trillion budget.
So when Nevada walked onto the floor of the Convention, things felt unusually tense for what's usually a flag-waving conservative love fest. The Paul delegates were booing and yelling and chanting. But dissent was even found in Mitt's home state delegation of Massachusetts. One 29-year-old delegate said the same things as Nevada's Bent: the GOP and Dems both were controlled by corporations and the rich and he wouldn't vote for Mitt.
But yes: mostly there were happy Republicans. Obviously, the only delegation to have a uniform were the Texans: a Lone Star flag shirt and a cowboy hat. Kansas dressed the most baffling and creatively, with everyone representing their state's various sports teams. One man was attired as a University of Kansas Jayhawk stuffed animal.
It's always fun to be at a government event at which a majority of attendees say the biggest threat to nation is government. It's even funnier that they say this at the Forum's Official Romney-Ryan store, with hundreds of products, buying government propaganda.
David Carr wrote in the Times on Monday that the RNC needs a dose of reality TV. But the Convention is much more interesting than any reality TV show (except "Love and Hip Hop"). The 15,000 journalists covering the Convention, however, are mostly boring nerds. The media center sprawled hundreds of thousands of square feet. Every few feet you could see another square J-schooler. The vast majority were white people dressed in boring D.C. style, covering boring white D.C. politicos. Uninteresting people make a scripted event like this even less interesting.
Some of the best journalists weren't even on site. Christopher Morris, one of the most talented photographers alive, was shooting a fashion feature with a model dressed as a Southern Belle in front of cops in riot gear—police state chic. And some British reporters spent the days sleeping so they can cover the entire night.
There were virtually no American journalists at the opening of New York nightclub 1-OAK's pop-up in a 20,000-square-foot tent next to the RNC. Americans would love to have seen washed-up rockers Sugar Ray and crazy cat Juliette Lewis singing for Camp Freddy, a hard rock cover band made up of dudes who were like in Billy Idol's band. Drummer Matt Sorum, of The Cult and GNR, laughed when asked about the crowd. "I just hope more people show up. These people don't seem too rock 'n' roll," he said. But by 1 a.m., the funniest concert in America was taking place. A band of aging hair metal dudes playing cover songs to D.C. nerds is a recipe for awesome times, and the crowd was dancing and singing along.
Wednesday was all about Paul Ryan. No one was talking about anything but Paul Ryan, his speech, his abs, his piercing eyes, his bizarre politics…. But after Ryan's speech, came the the private party John Boehner's been doing since 1996. He rents out a big space for four nights, decorates it (this time like a pirate ship meets a carnival, complete with a boat stage and moving carousel bar, and someone picks up the tab.
This year he had the Soul Survivors play a short set that included Rihanna covers, with some white guy doing the Pitbull verses.
There were a thousand young Republicans, the men all dressed the exact same. Susan Glickman, an energy consultant, was confused. "Every guy here is gay," she said. How do you know? "I asked every woman here and they all agreed. Look around," she said.
The night before the nominee's speech is usually a long one. On Thursday morning Tampa looked evacuated. People were resting and recovering for Mitt's big speech.
By late afternoon, the pomp of the closing night was ramping up. Men wore their best suits with some form patriotic flair, often a flag of some kind. Women wore a rainbow of dresses, but red was the most prominent. Bleach-blond hair the most likely accessory.
The program began at 7 p.m. and a whole lot of weird people spoke and I don't remember any of them except Clint Eastwood who sounded like he was gonna die on stage and spoke to an empty stool. By the time Marco Rubio was introducing Romney, the floor was excited that a person who had something at stake was about to give a consequential speech.
Romney received a warmer welcome than McCain four years ago. He then lit up a speech that outdid any expectations. Over thirty minutes, Mitt hit all the right notes—family, hard work, experience. He also picked a fight with Putin, weirdly, but I give him credit because Putin's a judo champ. Mitt was smart to appeal directly to let down Obamans. And he mostly stayed away from social issues.
There were more parties after. But nothing could close a week that began with Ron Paul people chanting about returning to the gold standard better than global capitalism's finest specimens getting a return on their donations to Mitt Romney in the form of a soft-rock hotel ballroom mixer.
Many of the big donors, the muscle behind the GOP, attended a Victory Party at, of course, the Marriott. Don Felder from the Eagles played. A few hundred rich white people drank cocktails with names like Obama Blues and Red State Rout. The mood was confident. A TV weatherman, Tim Kelley, assured me Mitt was gonna win. "Just the money in this room is enough to outspend Obama," he said. "All that matters is TV commercials. And we have much more money for that than they do."
Ray LeMoine lives in Darien, Southampton and Palm Beach.