The Hidden Optics of the RNC and DNC: A Cleveland and Philly Survivor's Story

What You Saw on TV Isn't Exactly What Went Down

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Credit: Photos by Getty Images. Composition by Advertising Age

Editor's note: Ad Age Media Guy Simon Dumenco reported from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia for If you missed his daily dispatches, you can find them at Here, Simon offers some final thoughts about the twin circuses. --Ken Wheaton


At both conventions, I played a little game in my head: I'd see some person in an attention-getting getup on the street or in the arena, and I'd think to myself, "How long before the camera crews descend on them?" If this had been a drinking game, I would have been three sheets to the wind by noon every day. Lady in red, white and blue dress and matching hat and shoes in Cleveland; Bernie protester in Philly with a piece of tape, on which she'd written "Silenced," slapped over her mouth; tall Abe Lincoln-looking dude with a beard and a black suit and top hat at the Quicken Loans Arena, aka the Q -- all of them were at the ready and eager to feed the media machine, to serve as the essential sideshow for TV crews from around the world.


On Monday of last week, various conservative bloggers made an issue of the seeming lack of American flags, from their view at least, at the DNC. In fact, there were plenty of American flags being waved among the delegates and the audience at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, and the Stars and Stripes were repeatedly used as a graphic motif on the big screen.

And you know all those American flags on flagpoles lined up behind Donald Trump during his speech at the Q in Cleveland the previous week? A lot of people don't seem to realize those weren't real flags -- they were virtual flags on a row of screens that were suddenly switched on for Trump's speech (when the flags were switched off, there were, gasp, no flags on the stage!).

Still, Tuesday morning at the DNC, convention workers could be seen hauling actual, honest-to-God, nonvirtual flags on flagpoles onstage. What's the word for a delayed ostentatious show of patriotism? Latetriotism?


A mini controversy at the RNC was also red, white and blue related. On the first day of the convention, some members of the press noticed signs for "white elevators," which unfortunately called to mind that time, not so long ago, when public facilities were often segregated by race. In fact, the RNC's white elevators were (cluelessly) labeled that way to distinguish them from the red elevators and blue elevators.

After a brief Twitter storm, some of the "white elevator" signs were supposedly taking down, but not all of them (I was still seeing "white elevator" signs on the last day of the convention).

Honestly, it was a difficult choice for me between riding a white elevator and what I came to think of as the fried escalator, one apparently downwind from a powerful kitchen vent. After every ride on that escalator, I'd keep on sniffing my shirt, convinced that I smelled like the $10 nachos on sale at the Republican Roadhouse (as some of the arena concessions were temporarily rebranded during the RNC).


One big difference between the Q and the Wells Fargo Center: In the former, there were lots of empty seats, particularly during the first three days of the RNC; the latter felt packed beyond capacity every day. Of course, plenty of prominent Republicans and their entourages announced they were staying home this year (i.e., boycotting the RNC because of Trump) and the RNC was held in a Democratic town.

Still, the difference in turnout in these two arenas with similar capacity was stark.

Watching coverage of both events after the fact, I was struck by how much difference there was between TV reality and reality reality; since network cameras tended to shoot from the packed convention floors, both venues looked full. And at the Q, the often sparsely populated upper-ring sections were kept dimly lit to avoid drawing attention to empty seats.


Another difference between Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena and Philly's Wells Fargo Center is that the Q's luxury suites are midlevel, tucked in among sections of regular arena seats, whereas the Wells Fargo Center's luxury suites are skyboxes that hug the ceiling of the arena. At both venues, I made a point of wandering around and sitting in various areas other than the designated press seating, so I'd be among actual conventiongoers rather than fellow journos.

At the Q one night, I found myself sitting directly in front of a couple of the power broker suites, which I realized when I heard a commotion and saw, 10 or so seats away from me, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan leaning out of his suite and extending his hand over a glass partition to shake hands with starstruck folks in my seating section. And then later, when I left my seat to go get an overpriced bottle of water, I glanced in the suite right next to Rep. Ryan's. Maybe six feet away from me was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; we were separated by only a glass wall.

He was in a front-row seat of his suite, and he was unaware that I was gawking at him. He wasn't talking to anyone, he had his arms crossed and was glowering (he's no fan of Donald Trump). And he had a slight sheen to his skin -- almost as if he was a wax figure and I'd stumbled across some sort of surreal natural history museum. Exhibit A: Despondent Republican.

Both conventions were, of course, devoted to TV-ready political stagecraft and epic, arena-worthy displays of patriotism and unity. Spending eight days over two weeks watching the making of the spectacle, rather than just the spectacle itself, was a frequently unsettling experience. In some ways, I felt like a bit player in a set of ridiculous, over-the-top reality-TV dramas.

So getting to see Sad Mitch -- experiencing a small, unguarded moment amid the circus? For that I am strangely and enduringly grateful.

Simon Dumenco, aka Media Guy, is an Ad Age editor-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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