Sunday, July 11, 2010

News out of the Twin Cities

This entry in my recap has a bit of a different backdrop; the Midwest. I was in the middle of the culminating moment of my reporting career when I got some of the most important news of my Fulbright application process.

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA played host to one of the most bizarre events of the 2008 Presidential campaign. And, no, it wasn’t Sarah Palin’s coming out speech as John McCain’s running mate. That took place a couple days later.
            Day 1 of the Republican National Convention got neutered because a hurricane struck the Gulf of Mexico. On the same day three years earlier, then President George W. Bush gave John McCain a birthday cake as thousands of people were drowning in New Orleans. Needless to say, the Republicans were not trying to avoid a repeat of their obliviousness. 
            It did come out that day that Palin’s daughter Bristol was pregnant.
But I could really give a damn. As far as I was considered Bristol was the town on the other side of the Burlington-Bristol Bridge.
Besides, as WBRU’s one0man reporting team in Minneapolis I already had to hop between convention and demonstration coverage. The tabloids could take care of the gossip. 
Politics and riots. Turned out to be good training for Athens.

Since most of the day’s action in the Xcel Energy Center canceled or watered down I took the opportunity to drive out to the marquee demonstration at the Statehouse in St. Paul (the other half of the Twin Cities). Protests in the United States usually don’t get that raucous but after eight years of Bush dozens if not hundreds of groups were bringing their A-Game.
Ralph Nader enthusiasts with sandwich boards begged reporters to open up the debates to their third-party challenger. Sorry, Ralph. Better luck next time. Code Pink held a gay marriage between Bush and McCain impersonators. Well that’s pretty obvious. Another group had used paper mache to make a chain gang of the Bush Administration, incarcerated for their alleged war crimes. A nice touch. My favorite was a group that had converted the song “Insane in the membrane” to “Insane in the McCain brain.” That’s going to make great nat sound on a day when there’s nothing else to report.
After an hour or so I headed back to where I parked by the Masonic Temple and pulled out a map (I’d forgotten my GPS) to try and figure how to get back to the Xcel Center without the I-35W bridge that had collapsed a year earlier and set off a frenzy about America’s infrastructure.
I rubbed my face and forehead more than a few times trying to juggle both my responsibilities and the ambiguities. This wasn’t my first time reporting solo but multi-tasking coverage and handling logistics like rental car, hotel and media passes gave me a few headaches.
To make matters worse, we had been the first outlet in Rhode Island to apply for credentials in December 2007 but somehow got forgotten and then put at the mercy of a two-bit talk radio operation for our passes. The woman in charge tried to bully me in-between hob-nobbing with GOP luminaries (and non-luminaries).
I stopped at a café with wireless and a decent turkey sandwich. It was that typical clean, chic, black and purple café set-up with a clientele ranging between high school kids in their converses and businessmen in their suits. Let’s see. Weapon of choice… Rocket ship laptop or microscopic text on iPod touch? Go with the iPod.
This gizmo had been an accident and my saving grace. Before I left for Athens earlier in 2008 I asked for a cheap or used iPod so I could stick a microphone on it for radio purposes. My grandmother went out and instead bought me the shiniest, most expensive iPod she could find, which of course wasn’t compatible with a microphone (at the time). At first I thought, what the hell am I going to do with this thing? From Athens to Budapest to Rome to Lugano to DC and now to Minnesota this little device had saved my butt on more than one occasion with impeccable wi-fi, maps and notes I could jot down without pen or paper. And, oh yeah, it played music.
She’d had the silver back engraved when she bought it.
To George. Love you.
Grandmom.
Thanks, Grandmom.
I connected to the Internet and downloaded my e-mails. My hotel room had wi-fi but it cost money, I’m cheap and I was in a rush. One e-mail was timed at 4:00am. Who the hell would send me an e-mail at 4 in the morning? Then I looked a little closer.   
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Unexpected news out of Athens
The e-mail in question had come from the MA in SEE secretariat. In it, she chose to painfully detail all the times I had tried to contact the program since July 25. At first I kicked myself for sending the e-mail so close to the start of August, when Europe, especially Greece goes on holdiay. Her admission that she had been on vacation for over a month evaporated that guilt. At that point I realized that I had spent three weeks calling before anyone told me she was on diakopes. Then she returned to work a week after the date I’d been told. Now with this e-mail literally in the palm of my hand I became all too aware that those mornings waking up early were entirely pointless.
Pride aside, this e-mail breathed new life back into my Fulbright prospects. I had all the know-how, for the most part, I just needed a program affiliation to back up my application. Other than apologizing for the delay, the correspondence didn’t say much besides that she would bring my inquiry to the attention of “the relevant people.” Fair enough.
My response was short and didn’t do justice to the relief I felt.
Better late than never.
After a snoozer of an evening at the Xcel Energy Center on Monday night, I took my time planning out my course of action for Tuesday. It was clear that preparations for this hurricane had been adequate and that political posturing could resume as planned.
As I looked for the updated schedule of the day I found at the top of my inbox an email from 5:28am. It was the University of Athens saying that I could either enroll in the Master’s program or work as an independent researcher at the department of political science and public administration. Had I not been in the middle of covering the biggest news story of my life up to that point and handling a budget of a few thousand dollars, I would have been ecstatic since everything for my Fulbright had fallen into place.

On the Ground
Minneapolis started to boil that Tuesday night. Eight years of angst had been stymied by storm watch. I walked through a buzzing crowd to the back entrance of the Xcel Center, a hockey arena where the fights usually take place on the ice. But on this day there were reports of clashes breaking out across this usually serene Midwestern capital. There I found a line of black armored riot police with wooden batons. They looked like a cross between Darth Vader and a Ninja Turtle. I imagined how I would ask in a friendly but authoritative voice if I could pass through. Instead I limply held up my press pass and timidly asked if I could go. Even though I was wearing a suit, I realized I was even younger than most of the potential rioters and looked pretty green for a 21 year-old, even in a suit.
A towering officer who looked like the Norse god Thor snarled and looked down at my press pass. Then cracking an equally timid smile he said, “Oh ya shor ya can” with a quick nod of his head. Got to love that Midwestern hospitality.
I strode on to Radio Row with my laptop on my back and my microphone in my holster. There in-between talk radio booths from around the country I would interview the likes of Mike Huckabee (in a crowd) and Christie Whitman (one-on-one). Whitman had been governor of New Jersey when I was a kid and I made sure to mention I was from Burlington County.
 Up the elevator and over to the press box I had a dead-center view of the action, next to a guy from CNN Radio. We swapped war stories. Well, he swapped war stories. We had a good time making fun of the goings on of the delegates below us and the talk radio orgy happening behind us. September 2 was the first of three long nights.
On the Floor
Another day, another e-mail from the Master’s program. This one was like a Hollywood ransom note with “R” instead of are and “U” instead of u.
September 3 was the day that Sarah Palin made her big debut. From where I sat, she was a speck on the black stage but her head floated about 40 feet long on the jumbotron in front of my face. A steady din came from every corner in the press deck as voices whispered to listeners in untold corners of America that Palin was “introducing” herself to the American people.
Palin needed no introduction to the delegates. They ate every word she had to offer. From the story of her family to her executive experience including that “being a mayor of a small town is kind of like being a community organizer except that you have actual responsibilities.” The barb at Obama made my eyes bug out of my head. She would abdicate those “actual responsibilities” as governor less than a year later. Some might say
I'm revealing my bias there. Well, I am if that bias is against hypocrisy.
I stayed in the Xcel Center until about 2am putting together audio reports for the morning newscasts, long after most of the reporters had quit for the night and went out to patronize local watering holes. Me? I just got behind the wheel of my car and drove the half-hour outside of town to my room at the Red Roof Inn.
After dragging myself out of bed and before checking out of my hotel I found my “formal” invitation to the MA in SEE program waiting in my inbox.
That last night of the convention the gatekeeper to my media pass would give away my seat in the press box to her Budweiser-guzzling nephew. And I would just happen not to be able to find her in the crowd of talk radio revelers to give her back the floor pass. Oops.
I spent the evening talking to the small but jubilant RI delegation as red, white and blue balloons popped all around us. I returned to the depopulated press box where a fellow reporter snapped a shot of me above the convention floor, empty save for the confetti.
That night Republicans were convinced that with McCain, the war hero, and Palin, the reform governor mother, that they had Obama on the run. The Convention bounce brought McCain-Palin into a near dead-heat with Obama-Biden on September 15, according to Real Clear Politics.
The next day everything changed.

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