In every direction, Jersey barriers: heavy concrete walls used for deflecting cars and, in this case, slowing down human mobs. Just shy of three feet tall and chipped uneven from having been hauled back and forth to various worksites over the years, they’re now being used to establish a perimeter, within which one might choose to legally go and protest the Republican National Convention. In contrast to the rest of the city, which has been swept clean and done up in red, white, and blue in anticipation of the cash influx this event is supposed to provide, the lot we’re in now is a dusty, hot, and muggy mess, a good twenty minutes’ march from anyone of importance. There is no shade, and we’re feeling it — but not nearly as much as the sixty cops in riot gear who just marched into the box. There are also a half dozen protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church. Their signs bear legends like: “Too Late To Pray,” “Ye are of your father the devil,” and of course “God Hates Fags.” One sign features a picture of an Anonymous / Guy Fawkes mask in crosshairs.
We are in a tucked-away industrial expanse, sweating our asses off, while a couple hundred Anarchist and Occupy protesters dance provocatively and scream at the “God Hates Fags” creeps, to no real effect. This is definitely not the tightly scripted and “on message” Republican National Convention that we expected when we flew to Tampa.
Establishing a presence
Anyone watching the news in the week leading up to the Republican National Convention has had two dire warnings drummed into them: Hurricane Isaac is headed for the city, and even if it never hits land, there’s also the bomb-throwing anarchists bound to arrive sooner or later.
The weather thing, that is sort of disconcerting. Weather is unpredictable, after all. You never know when a storm will pick up, or slow down, or change directions. The anarchists, however, are not really known for their bombings. It seems like whenever the FBI unravels an instance of domestic terrorism, the plot was initiated by the FBI or one of its sketchy informants in the first place. Still, even if you know on an intellectual level that chances of a terror attack are thin at best, hearing Soledad O’Brien repeat the warning over and over, day after day, has a negative effect on your psyche.
On the streets and in the Romneyville encampment, which provides shelter for both local homeless and protesters coming in from out of town, there is a minimum of paranoia, which only gets worse as the convention nears and police units start circling the camp on brand new $1,600 Kona mountain bikes.
We ask one of the officers what they’re doing.
“Establishing a presence,” comes the already-weary reply.
It doesn't sound like the gavel from The People's Court; it sounds like a loosely coiled 808 kick drum sample
However, if you spend all your time in the secure zone, either in the Tampa Convention Center, where the press has set up shop for the week, or the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the site of the convention itself, it’s almost understandable if you find yourself thanking the police, and their weaponry, and the order that they provide.
The Tampa Bay Times Forum is an all-purpose arena built to house close to 20,000 people for concerts as well as hockey, basketball, and arena football games. From the outside it’s a small, typical concrete stadium. Inside, it’s not much different. One can easily picture the room being set up for Celine Dion or Kid Rock or 3 Doors Down (who actually played the RNC). When anyone speaks into the mic from the main stage, the sound spreads from huge speakers before being absorbed by the Forum; there is no echo.
The RNC chairman with the unlikely name of Reince Priebus (pronounced “Rons Probeus,” “Rinse Previous,” “Arnie Prizoblewicz,” “Ringo Pryzbylewski,” and/or “Prezbo” at various points during the week, depending on how much alcohol we’ve ingested) takes the stage at 2:00 PM on Monday, August 27 and slams the well-mic'd gavel three times. The sound has a clarity and definition that can only come from the work of an expensive and knowledgeable audio engineer. It doesn't sound like the gavel from The People's Court; it sounds like a loosely coiled 808 kick drum sample.
The convention is now open for business.
Prezbo keeps his remarks brief, undistracted by the movement on the convention floor. At that very moment tropical depression Isaac is bearing down on Tampa, soon to be reclassified a hurricane, and turning through the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans. Two minutes after opening the ceremony, the chairman calls a recess. Things will start back up on Tuesday.
While the delegates and alternates take advantage of the unexpected day off in hotel bars and exercise rooms, the press corps is hard at work in the convention center. Wandering around Talk Show Row, one might catch Geraldo's mustache or The Herman Cain Train. As for The Verge, this is our opportunity to be brushed off for the first of many times this week by conservapundit and MSNBC contributor S. E. Cupp.
Eventually, we find The Blaze, the Glenn Beck-owned media outlet that has been called a right wing Huffington Post — except there is no “yoga and recipes on the front page,” according to editor-in-chief Scott Baker. The website operates out of New York, Dallas, “and Pittsburgh — to prove that you can do it anywhere.”
When we meet him, Baker’s podcasting from a MacBook Pro with a Blue Yeti microphone. For a couple hours that day, he’s online, answering questions and, from time to time, playing pre-selected video clips. For live coverage of the convention itself, he’ll send people to the floor to stream directly from their MacBook Air webcam.
"I used to be the news anchor who used a script and teleprompter and all that,” Baker says. In the past he has worked for a variety of outlets, and spent 13 years as a primary anchor at WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh.
“I wanted to do live, unscripted conversation programs that were still visually interesting and [visually] oriented,” he continues. “[Live streaming] technologies let me do that."
The story of The Blaze might just be the story of a new way of entering the media business (one that, at least on a basic level, has a lot of similarities to The Verge). Perhaps the lesson here is that a company like this can be profitable in a space where a traditional media operation might fail because it’s leaner, more agile, and because it can get by on prosumer and even consumer technologies like Skype.
Indie media can be profitable where traditional media might fail because it’s leaner, more agile, and can get by on consumer technologies like Skype
Meanwhile, back in Romneyville, a gentleman named Flux Rostrum is running a media operation of his own.
A former actor and former pizza delivery driver, Rostrum (real name: Gianni Lazuli) became a full-time citizen journalist after 9/11. At any large protest event you might find him with his biodiesel powered school bus, a 1995 International Bluebird with solar panels on the top, bunks for sleeping, and a workstation for streaming live video feeds from webcams placed on the bus or out in the field during different protest actions. Painted on the side of the bus are the words “Mobile Broadcast News.”
We meet up with Rostrum after a rally to protest Republican-sponsored voter suppression laws in Ybor City, the part of town that owes its existence to cigar manufacturing and immigration from Cuba, Spain, and Italy. He’s in the thick of the action the entire time, filming speakers and musicians and following a spontaneous march as it moves down the neighborhood. Atop his HD camera rig is an Android phone that he identifies as a Samsung Galaxy. Everything that is being filmed is also being captured by his phone and sent to Ustream via Verizon MiFi. A couple other livestreamers also send audio and video back to the mobile studio. All the feeds (including webcams mounted on the bus that record what happens at Romneyville — which could prove useful if the encampment should find itself subject to a police raid) are archived on Ustream. There is also a master stream, hosted by Livestream, that is controlled by an editor on the bus and contains a mix of material from all four streams and, if nothing of any consequence is happening, original Mobile Broadcast News programming. After Rostrum is done talking to us, he’ll head to the bus to capture and edit the footage into a nine minute video for YouTube.
Rostrum has been filming protests since 2001. After a couple years using L.A. as a base, he began traveling the country, looking for stories to tell. The “bus concept,” as he refers to it, allows him to always have a studio for himself and any journalists on the road who might need one — essentially, a mobile press room.
"Somebody needs to be on the ground with some resources and means to get the story out from the people's perspective."
The bus is useful in other ways, as well. In Romneyville, tarps strung between Rostrum’s vehicle and one belonging to Food Not Bombs provide a makeshift kitchen facility for feeding protesters and neighboring homeless people. And Rostrum has satellite broadband, which in the event of an emergency can put relief workers and disaster victims in touch with FEMA.
“My purpose has been at times 'to protect and serve,'” says Rostrum. “And it has been at times to be a critical eye on social justice movements. I've also been a critical eye on the status quo. What motivates me to continue doing this is really, it's just for the record. At some point I just decided that I could not sit by and not participate in trying to make things better in some way.”
He continues. “Somebody needs to be on the ground with some resources and means to get the story out from the people's perspective. And that's why we embed in Camp Romneyville. We didn't fly down and stay in a hotel, we're here with the people. And that's the only way to tell the people's story.”
The martial law aesthetic
Making your way to the RNC security zone, you get a glimpse into the trend of militarizing the nation's law enforcement. Police are dressed not in standard blue uniforms, but in Desert Fox-inspired khaki. There are plenty of assault rifles and less-lethal (but more than painful) weapons. A BearCat armored vehicle with LRAD sound cannon circles the streets conspicuously, waiting for a riot to erupt. This sort of thing really became prevalent when President George W. Bush declared war on terror in 2001, although the most dramatic examples of the new, militarized police have not been fights against terrorists, but against Occupy protesters.
What we're seeing in Tampa is “five policemen for every protester, and it acts completely contrary to what the U.S. is trying to espouse,” says Sam Rosenfeld, an Ivy League educated former British Army infantry officer and chairman of the risk management firm Densus Group. He describes the police response to protesters as “professional, but over the top.” Whether or not it’s strictly true, it’s only natural to draw the conclusion that law enforcement is trying to curb dissent through intimidation. (Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor says the police-to-protester ratio is two-to-one; 4,000 cops showed up, 2,000 protesters were on hand. In these cases, estimates always vary, but Rosenfeld’s seems closer to the truth.)
Growing weary of the martial law aesthetic, we don our event passes, stroll past the mounted police units, a Florida National Guard unit just back from Afghanistan, the barricades and the checkpoints, and enter the secure zone. Once inside, we make a beeline to Trolley's American Cafe for perfectly passable Cuban sandwiches.
And there we wait out a rain storm, surrounded by delegates and Secret Service and at least two posters of Obama holding a United States Constitution, the document half-consumed in flames. For the first time in a long time, we feel relaxed. And why shouldn't we? The cops and guns are pointing away from us, for once.
The lull in the action continues at Channelside Bay Plaza, an outside mall that offers a pre-fab shopping experience including a number of pubs with some sort of Tiki vibe, souvenir shops, and, for one week only, MSNBC's outdoor stage and studio. Chris Matthews asks his assembled crowd if they think Sarah Palin should have been asked to speak at the RNC. It responds with a loud, unified "no!"
In the same complex an IMAX theater hosts something called the Troublemaker Festival. With talks by right-leaning thinkers such as Dinesh D’Souza and Christine O’Donnell, and movies including 2016: Obama’s America, it seems like a gift from heaven for internet trolls and people with a sick sense of humor.
Unfortunately, the Conservapalooza of our dreams is a massive fail. In the theater, the woman behind the ticket counter shrugs and lets us in for free. A stack of Christine O’Donnell hardback books sit on a folding table, and a bunch of teenagers who look like extras from a Larry Clark film stand off to one corner, preparing for some kind of fashion show.
We settle into theater eight with a half dozen others to watch 2016 on the big screen. This is not an unknown film. At press time it's earned close to $20 million at the box office — almost unheard of for a documentary — and it's being touted as a conservative alternative to Michael Moore's films. That's a fair enough assessment.
D'Souza's argument is essentially that Barack Obama was influenced by his Kenyan father to be un-American, inclined toward socialism, and "anti-colonialist," which doesn’t make much sense (as Mark Warren pointed out in Esquire last week: “Has there ever been an American president who wasn't ‘anti-colonial?’”)
D’Souza’s movie is deeply flawed but it’s not totally batshit insane; it’s at least rooted in reality. The film is in many ways more about the filmmaker — about his life, about his immigration from India to the U.S., and about the similarities between his life and Obama's — than about Obama himself. The White House wouldn’t talk with D'Souza for the film, so he traveled to various locations to meet people in the president’s past and conduct more or less honest interviews with them.
Then again, 2016 is blindingly boring (sorry Dinesh!) — in fact, one of us falls into a deep sleep about eight minutes into it and snores so loudly that a nearby audience member gets out of her chair and moves about 30 rows back. But for some, this film is an prime example of partisan filmmaking, or even an expression of something that they’ve long known but could never quite articulate.
Furthermore, the proliferation of quick, easy, and cheap DIY media has created a new mass market: the insiders who've already passed through the ring of guns and thus "proven" their ideological bent. It's inside the convention that the Republican Party talks to itself, and in the virtually empty IMAX theater, the Republican Party's id projects its fever dreams upon the screen.
What was once the province of typed and dittoed newsletters can now be put on the big screen by any angry auteur with a computer and a theory
We discover Joel Gilbert, director of Dreams From My Real Father, loitering in the lobby. He agrees to an interview and lays a few DVDs on us to watch at our leisure. Gilbert assures us that his film is a true example of investigative journalism, one that the mainstream liberal media is out of its collective goddamn mind for not writing about.
Dreams ties Obama to Frank Marshall Davis, a journalist, poet, and labor movement activist (i.e. “Communist” / ”Marxist” in Gilbert's film) who died in 1987. Obama has written that Davis was close to him and his family, so that's not new or in dispute (in fact, Davis' ties to Obama are broached in 2016 as well as Obama's 1995 book, Dreams From My Father).
That understanding — that Obama and Davis were close — provides enough fodder to imply, if one chooses, that Obama has “Communist” leanings going back to his childhood. But Gilbert takes that a step further. He says Davis wasn't just an influence. He says Davis is actually Obama's father.
There's no documentation to prove any of this, no DNA analysis to tie Davis to Obama. No one who knows Obama makes the claim. There is a jumble of facts, all of them in dispute: Gilbert kinda thinks that Obama resembles Davis. Both were 6 foot 2 inches. They both developed "age spots" as they grew into middle age. Then — and this is really the pièce de résistance — he points out that Davis was known to take naked photos of women, and that he (Gilbert) found nude pics of a woman who sort of looks like Obama's mother, pictures that might've been taken by Davis.
Tom Bissell once described The Room — the famously terrible, post-camp drama by Tommy Wiseau — as the movie "an alien who has never seen a movie might make after having had movies thoroughly explained to him."
Dreams could be similarly described if the same alien made a documentary.
The film is based in non-reality. It contains no interviews. It's narrated by a voice actor supposed to sound like President Obama. There are no location shots, no set pieces; it's just Gilbert’s narration. This film — and the other films of Troublemaker Fest — represent a kind of True Believer Information Service: what was once the province of typed and dittoed newsletters can now be put on the big screen by any angry auteur with a computer and a theory.
If one can pull a broader meaning out of Dreams, it might be that the establishment has no room for people like Gilbert, so it has excluded him from the conversation altogether. Which makes us ask: who else is being driven out of the conversation?
Gilbert's tools for encouraging dissent and action are film and internet, to be sure. But they’re also extreme boldness and the ability to market his work exceedingly well to an angry audience. With a documentary that's been consistently in Amazon's bestselling movie list in recent months, he is more effective than most of the dissenting voices we’ve heard this week.
Then again, there have always been crazies among us. (John Wilkes Booth, anyone?) Perhaps it it really is as simple as the fact that the internet has given all of us, including the unhinged and illogical, an equal footing with which to spread our message.
A cultural incubator
Occupy campsites have a certain languid vibe that naturally develops when you gather a couple hundred people and zero alarm clocks. Discovering an unpermitted march or other type of protest action (two ways that a group with no money and little influence can attempt to make its voice heard) often requires the timeworn activist technique of "hurry up and wait."
We hear that there is an action planned. It's an unpermitted march — meaning no one asked the Tampa police for permission, because why would they? — from Romneyville to the "free speech zone," with its Jersey barriers and stifling heat. These protesters wave signs: “$$ OUT OF POLITICS” and “VAGINA: CAN’T SAY IT? DON’T LEGISLATE IT” and “DEMAND URGENT ACTION: STOP THE MAN MADE CLIMATE CATASTROPHE.” They chant and speechify through bullhorns.
At the FSZ they’ll meet the Westboro Baptist Church, in Tampa demonstrating against the Republican party, homosexuals, anarchists, Anonymous, and the United States itself. The Westboro people wave their ugly signs and sing badly-mangled pop songs with verses rewritten to declaim sodomy and promise future hellfire. They sing and chant and generally provide an excuse for some pissed off activists (many of whom consider themselves anarchists, and many who don't) to counter-demonstrate.
Through the grapevine, we hear the march is scheduled for 10 AM. By 9 it becomes obvious that no one knows what the hell is going on. By five after 10, everyone has their own theory of what might happen if the march takes off, which doesn't seem likely. After another 20 minutes, people seem to forget about any planned march, so we go to the adjacent Army-Navy market to price out Soviet officers’ hats and old hand grenades with the cores drilled out. Later, we give up on the march altogether and ride our rented bikes to The Metro Restaurant and Lounge for lunch.
Then, while we sit discussing our game plan: a drum beat sounds, barely audible over the roar of the cafe’s air conditioner. Running outside, we find hundreds of our closest friends marching down the middle of Franklin Ave., as squads of bike cops in ride alongside.
You could say that journalists and protesters have similar motivations. At the heart of protest is a need to communicate and a need to express dissent toward the powerful. Yes, straight journalism — meaning the journalism you read on the front page of the New York Times and the Washington Post — is supposed to be unbiased and stripped of opinionated dissent. But straight journalism should also speak truth to power and question systems of control. While politicians, delegates, and operatives have their own reasons for attending political conventions such as the RNC, journalists and activists see conventions as a type of cultural incubator: You put 4,411 delegates and alternate delegates from across the U.S. alongside any number of production personnel and maybe 15,000 credentialed media, upwards of 4,000 law enforcement officers, one $273,000 Lenco BearCat armored SWAT truck, maybe 2,000 protesters and (if the media are to be believed) an unprecedented number of strippers into a petri dish. Then you see what happens.
For activists, the possibility is that they might experience a new, better way of life, or they might make connections, or win converts, or at least be heard above the noise of the spectacle. Besides, camping is better than having a day job (even if it’s much more difficult).
"You wait for these precious, honest, unscripted moments."
For journalists, the chaos might provide "revelatory moments, where people say what they really mean, when they're really showing who they are," as Scott Baker of The Blaze put it. "You get all these important people in a room, and you wait for things to happen. You wait for these precious, honest, unscripted moments."
That’s what we’re looking for as we depart The Metro and join the throng of adrenaline-charged activists marching towards the Free Speech Zone, where they will confront the Westboro Baptist Church. On TV, Westboro seems to have a power disproportionate to its size. The congregation, and its leader Fred Phelps, have been terrorizing the funerals of AIDS victims and battlefield casualties for years, earning the well-deserved ire of just about everyone who has ever seen their antics, live or on television. Today, the church is protesting — well, we’re not sure what, to be honest — in the Tampa Free Speech Zone. The group from Romneyville arrives to counter-protest, marching for upwards of an hour in 95 degree heat, flanked on all sides by law enforcement. Leading the march are the anarchists, black-clad and masked. They set the pace of the line, which stretches back almost the entire block. The closer we get to the FSZ, the louder and more energized everyone becomes. Once we reach our destination, the Westboro Baptist Church is seen for what it really is — small and pathetic. They are at the mercy of the mob.
It’s a heavy scene, with three sides converging — armored cops, anarchist punks, and a racist, anti-gay church group — and no one to root for.
Later, Sam Rosenfeld says law enforcement made some classic mistakes during the convention, and only got away with them because of the weather. As many as 17 busloads of protesters decided to skip the RNC because of Hurricane Isaac — no one wanted to risk tenting out in a hurricane. Police, Rosenfeld says, were far too quick to escalate to full riot gear; armored officers were deployed for no reason (raising tensions and increasing the chance of violence); and less-lethal weapons were fairly high profile throughout the event, giving the impression that police were looking for a fight.
“The most worrying for me,” according to Rosenfeld, “was the complete failure to maintain separation between the Westboro Baptist Church protesters and the counter-protesters. Separation wasn't achieved until the situation was already getting confrontational and potentially violent.”
Raging inside the machine
"Why is all this going on, what's the point of this?"
Bobby Finger is outside any political niche or anything anyone could call a mainstream media presence. He's not a journalist; he's an advertising copywriter. He has no intention of being a journalist. He isn't interested in devoting any effort to activism or even attending a protest — now or anytime in the future.
But he took a week off because Tumblr — taking its Storyboard curation project to its most prominent level yet by bringing microbloggers to the RNC and DNC — sent him off to Tampa to cover the convention however he felt appropriate (or inappropriate, for that matter). He doesn't care about control methods or tearing down the system. He just wants to hang out and make some smart observations and hilarious GIFs. But what he's observed — and what he's shared with us — is something we're all thinking about.
"Not much of any substance seems to be happening here," he says. Politicians are "here and they're speaking to people who are already completely in line with them. So I don't really understand the purpose of a lot of these things so I'm watching as this fascinated observer, like, ‘Why is all this going on, what's the point of this?’"
Finger’s question is a good one. And his presence, alongside Tumblr’s two other microbloggers, Meg Lanker-Simons and Jayel Aheram, is different than, say, Facebook’s strategy for the RNC. Instead of embracing enthusiastic but non-famous users, it hired a former Rudy Giuliani campaign staffer who worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee before joining the company to help conservative politicians look more likable in social media. She tells us, with a straight face, that her RNC goal is "to build a convention without walls" — aping, verbatim, the GOP's press flackery during an actual, supposedly unscripted conversation with fellow human beings.
Twitter's approach is no less steeped in establishment politics. It’s curating interesting tweets using the #GOP2012 hashtag, as well as working with establishment outlets such as Fox News and CNN to encourage discussion about speeches and goings-on at the conventions. Further, Twitter has taken over $100,000 from the Romney campaign to promote #RomneyRyan2012 during Romney’s speech — and chances are it will do the same with #ObamaBiden2012 during the president’s speech Thursday.
The Twitter offensive, for what it’s worth, is omnipresent in the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Two large strips ring ‘round the stands, displaying carefully curated tweets that include the hashtags #RomneyRyan2012 and #GOP2012. Shortly before 7:00 PM, we settle into Level 6, Section 325, and try to take it all in.
Tonight The Verge is raging inside the machine.
We soon learn that there are few sounds more unnerving than that of G.E. Smith and the RNC house band riffing on the final chorus of "Takin' It to the Streets" for what feels like an eternity.
In the nosebleed seats.
To our left, in the "guests" section, the most enthusiastic Republican non-delegates are chair dancing and raising their hands in the manner of lapsed pentecostals. Immediately in front of us and to our right, our fellow special press pass recipients stare at laptops, typing feverishly. This is the only group in the vicinity that fails to leave their seats for standing ovations.
One of the chair dancers is a bottle blonde in her mid-40s with a tight black dress and an accent from the great state of Georgia. Before the event, we overheard her saying that "tonight the demonstrations will probably be massive. On Wednesday, when I left the security zone, there were large groups of people in their twenties. I was really uncomfortable." This is the only person inside the secure zone that we hear mention protesters the entire week. The outrageous security (or, perhaps more accurately, the outrageous weather) seems to have had its effect.
Speaker of the House John Boehner opens the proceedings, walking off the stage to the Black Eyed Peas hit "I Got A Feeling." The crowd is appropriately psyched, even if it is tough to tell from the tip-top of the enormodome.
Every night of the convention has had its own slogan, although "We Built It" has been a constant refrain all week. Tonight is no exception.
President Obama handed the Romney camp a gold-plated soundbite perfect for manipulation when he used the words "you didn't build that" in a campaign speech in mid-July. Let's leave aside the fact that, taken in context, the comment isn't at all what it has become for Romney campaign commercials. Obama's assertion that individual ingenuity and hard work is enabled in part by a civil society that provides things like road and schools and fire departments has been branded a Freudian slip, an accidental ideological reveal by the socialist-in-chief. A Wall Street Journal opinion piece from the time calls this comment a "burst of ideological candor … subordinating to government the individual enterprise and risk-taking that underlies prosperity."
This has long been a fringe right-wing idea: that the president is somehow a secret Frantz Fanon, and that his plan to take over the country in some scary, unconstitutional, radical way will only become apparent once he is reelected. Of course, by then it will be too late.
Paul Ryan spoke to this fear when he decried "the supervision and sanctimony of the central planners," recasting the government as Politboro and Obama as a basketball-playing Nikita Khrushchev. This is how the Romney / Paul team will play it for the next 60-odd days: courting the craziest of the fringe — the Dreams From My Real Father niche, if only in code words.
What Ryan said before that, however, encapsulated middle class dread as well as anything ever said in a convention speech, summarizing life under Obama as "a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us."
Of course, if he were being honest he would have implicated the corporations in this scenario — the very corporations that a Romney administration would champion.
In the meantime, the last night of the convention is turning into a real tear-jerker, with people who knew Mitt Romney as a real, live human telling heartwarming tales from his past. Even still, in the first act the largest round of applause follows a soundbite of Ronald Reagan intoning "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
But at least Eastwood, in his blustering, cranky masculinity, seems like a real and (literally) unscripted figure
All this is overshadowed by Clint Eastwood's non-surprise "surprise" appearance. This is not the well-coiffed Dirty Harry Callahan from the film that Pauline Kael called a "right-wing fantasy" and "a kind of hard hat The Fountainhead." It’s not even the gruff, scripted man’s man who declared “half-time for America” during the Super Bowl, ruffling conservative feathers in the process.
As Eastwood rhetorically jousts with an imaginary Obama in an empty chair, the audience reaction seems mixed. A few of his jokes do land, prompting huge applause from the convention floor, but in the nosebleeds there are mostly odd stares, and even a couple hecklers shouting out things like "turn up the mic!" and "what is he talking about?"
But at least Eastwood, in his blustering, cranky masculinity, seems like a real and (literally) unscripted figure, a man with things on his mind, however poorly he communicates them to the throng. He seems impassioned about... well, something. In contrast, Romney appears to be exactly what his detractors claim: an awkwardly stage-managed figure, the kind whose handlers must have long grown tired of hearing the word 'humanize.' He closes the convention with a breezy recitation of conservative homilies.
If you pay any attention to the RNC as it unfolds on television, you see that messages from politicians and corporate media are almost always indistinguishable, almost always feeding off each other, showing moving pictures of our "national dialogue" shrunk to a series of talking points, most of them scripted.
At the very least Clint Eastwood bucked that trend. And bucked it hard.
But regardless of political affiliation, Flux Rostrum, The Blaze, Joel Gilbert, the Tumblr bloggers, and many others take it every day to a place Dirty Harry might've taken it if he were a media activist or an independent journalist instead of a fake renegade San Francisco cop.
For all the noise generated by the major media outlets and the Republican establishment, it is those on the fringe that offer many of the RNC's real messages. And while getting those messages out means finding an audience and establishing a voice and, in most cases, working incredibly hard — with often minimal rewards — it's important work. And it's important to see how that work compares with the products of an establishment political party's infomercial convention. Because, man, those conventions are painful to watch. Endless. Boring. Almost always content-free. And if all anyone's paying attention to is the national dialogue we see on television, that sounds like trouble.
Disclosure: Joseph L. Flatley contributed $3 to the Romney campaign hoping to win a trip to meet the candidate. (Fingers crossed!)
Billy Disney and Pablo Korona contributed to this report