A Worm in the Garden
A COUPLE OF THINGS need to be said about the college press at last week's Democratic Convention. One point is obvious; the Democratic National Committee did not want us there. My first realization of our second-class stature came when I picked up my credentials at the Statler Hilton, across the street from the Garden. I was told beforehand by mimeographed letter that I was to be part of the "special press" gallery, but given no further inkling to the particulars of my status. But while I was stepping out of the elevator I spotted a magic-markered poster tacked on the wall: "weeklies, college press, foreign broadcasters, this way." O.K., so I was lumped with the weeklies, but foreign broadcasters? An image of the Zoo Plane filled with technicians and foreign newsmen, described in Boys on the Bus, shot through my mind. Trouble.
But, no matter, they still gave me credentials. When I walked out of the room with my pinkcolored "news" tag dangling from my neck, I felt smug. But my confidence was jolted when I got back in the elevator. I was surrounded by a group of newsmen with orange tags, and New York Times picture i.d.'s. A caste system was developing. It wasn't until I was standing in an endless line with the rest of the "special" press for my pass to the floor in the $6.50 bleacher section--where no self-respecting Knicks fan would tread for free--that I realized they wanted the college press to cover the event from the television.
They stacked us up behind the podium, with only some close-circuit apparatus as a window to the festivities. The tube was poorly placed; one well-situated fat man could wipe out 200 newspapers' visibility of the events on the floor. A pink tag, you see, only guaranteed you a ticket to wait in line for a pass to get on the floor. There were only 25 passes for all of us. A pass allowed you 20 minutes on the floor. As soon as your time was up you got back in line and waited for an hour or an hour and a half until your turn came again. Once you had your shot you consigned yourself to the bleachers and passed time with the monitor and reporters from WBUR and the Chelsea Clinton news before you could reach the floor for a second time. Once given the baton you'd try to run past the crowds, but it took five minutes to get to the floor. There was a great temptation not to return the pass. But two things, the rumor that Washington columnist Barbara Howar had been evicted from the convention for staying out an hour-and-a-half on her floor pass, and the DNC staffers' sheer meanness when they greeted you if you returned even a few minutes late, were strong deterrents. Those with orange passes had a much sweeter deal. They had far more passes to rotate among themselves, and could get to the floor much easier.
The pink pass did allow us to circle a "news-perimeter" above the level in the Garden where the alternates sat. Simply to get into the convention you would first be checked by about 20 different security people including several cops outside the Garden, DNC people and ushers at all seven levels of escalators, and the secret service and more DNC flunkies inside the hall. The guards at the alternate level were instructed to look out for pink newsmen descending. Few, even reporters with friends among the patronage-holders, could maneuver past the perimeter wall. While waiting you could drum up some interesting slice-of-life stories by roaming the balconies. But after a while the value of those "mood of Democratic America as seen through the loge section of Madison Square Garden" pieces starts to wane. Of course, there is some truth to the argument that policy-making is conducted strictly in the dingy rooms in the adjacent Statler. But the policy makers have never been known to let reporters into their private sessions. A reporter's life and death at a convention revolves around his ability to get to the floor.
Because of the restrictions many of the reporters from the special section took to doing some T.V. reporting. Maybe that's alright. After all, for 361 days of the year T.V. people get most of their stories through newspapers. For four days newspapermen can surrender their primacy. It's really their event. And they are well-prepared. Five minutes with NBC's John Hart convinced me of that. I once saw Hart mutter to someone on the floor that he wished he knew more about the party's defense plank. But two minutes later he was stumping Admiral Zumwalt, the party spokesman on defense, with some tough questions about the party's stand.
Unless you were on the floor it was impossible to tell how real the sentiment for unity was. Only through mingling with delegations could you tell that the snowballing unity wasn't something that Carter's efficiency experts decided to manufacture. Nevertheless, ten seconds of every minute on the floor was spent gazing at the clock above the NBC booth. And it is difficult to tell Pennsylvania's governor that you must excuse yourself because you have Cinderella status.
That wasn't the end of the humiliation. The most embarassing moment for me came when I tried to make an appointment with Elizabeth Holtzman, a representative from New York and a Harvard overseer. I called her office from a pay phone in the Statler. An appointments secretary asked me for a number where she could reach me. I hung up and broke for the convention floor. I made my way past the guards to a row of phones under the Milwaukee Journal banner. I called back and left the Journal's number. There were a few harried moments and then a light on the side of the phone began to blink. Only a few neighboring reporters were there to laugh as I answered "Harvard Crimson."
Perhaps my gripes with the special press credentials are a little unjustified. Many of my cohorts, from the woman who claimed to be representing the Daily Princetonian even though she went to Stanford, to a scraggly reporter named Jerry Rubin, claiming to represent the counter-cultural Detroit Sun, seemed to be sporting bogus accreditations. I can see how a restrictive pass system may seem reasonable to those giving out the credentials. The DNC can risk offending some college reporters who have two months to cool off before they file. Regardless of the satisfaction derived from getting in, however, it will be a long time before I forget hearing that nominating roll call filter up seven levels to the balcony where I was waiting 25 deep to get a 20-minute pass.