I GOT TO Kansas City on a Monday, after driving 26 hours straight from Cambridge. It was a blazing prairie day; the streets baked, and the heat compounded my fatigue. The Republican National Convention had started that morning, and the town was swarming with conventioneers. My friend and I parked our car, and drifted uptown to the Radisson Muehlbach Hotel, where President Ford was due to arrive at any minute. We couldn't see anything for the milling Ford Youth and police lines, so my friend suggested we get a beer in the bar of the hotel across the street and watch the Ford motorcade from the bar window, which was above street level. I agreed; at least we would be cool.
Inside, the bar was done up Mafia-surreal: big horse-shoe-shaped counter, color t.v. competing with the jukebox in the corner, indoor-outdoor carpet on the floor. A beer cost $2.25. Men in lime-green leisure suits and white patent leather loafers whose porcine faces bulged behind drugstore sunglasses, nodded at us and cackled in a far booth. We took our beers to the cool, shaded back of the bar.
Just then a small girl, probably ten or less, darted into the bar. She composed herself, then marched up calmly to the first table and began in a flat monotone, How many delicious candy bars will you buy made so fine (they melt in your mouth) especially for the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church of Wichita Kansas girls' track team. She droned on for about a minute, looking expectant. She repeated the litany three or four times, but nobody was buying.
We were watching the madness, the contrived madness of the Ford Youth outside across the thin air-conditioned glass membrane. But it seemed the true madness was inside. Ford disappeared into the Muehlbach, Harry Truman's old hotel, and the onlookers began to disperse. My friend and I left the bar. The little girl was still delivering her spiel.
Outside in the lobby Rabbi Baruch Korff, head of the Nixon defense fund, was completing an interview. We got his autograph.
IN CONVENTION, Richard Reeves, one of American journalism's best political reproters, captures accurately the crazed freneticism, the Skinner-box-mouse-on-dexedrine atmosphere that prevails at political nominating conventions. Convention is a diary; a journal of the madness, as Reeves runs through Monday to Thursday of not the Republican Convention but the Democratic through Monday to Thursday of not the Republican Convention but the Democratic coronation in New York. Reeves, who recently quit the staff of New York magazine in the wake of the Murdoch coup and who is also a former New York Times reporter, did an astounding amount of legwork for the book. By his own account, he and his team of nine researchers interviewed over 500 people--and quit counting two months before the convention started.
Reeves also invited selected delegates and other conventioneers to keep diaries, and the material selected from these forms the thread of continuity through what is basically a stream of anecdotes. Thus the diarists are stuck with stupid appellatives--Clare Smith, a 17 year old high school student from Ohio, becomes The Youngest Delegate; Fritz Efaw, an ex-MIT student now living abroad, becomes The Draft Dodger Delegate; Dick Celeste, Ohio's lieutenant-governor on the way up, becomes The Young Pol. And friends, one may be assured that after over 200 pages and the deaths of a lot of trees, they lead as boring a life as even you and I.
The book is a tangle of anecdotes. Some are funny, some are interesting, but there's not nearly enough material here for even a magazine feature, let alone a full book. Reeves follows Clare Smith on her search for Hunter Thompson and recounts her ambiguous romantic entanglement with a young aide. But the insights a 17-year-old Ohioan brings to a national political convention are, well, the insights of a 17-year-old Ohioan. We follow her as she visits the Statue of Liberty; we follow her as she visits bars for the first time. Most banal of all, we read an imaginary conversation with her mother after she dances with a city councilman from Cleveland for a news program beamed back home:
"Clare, what were you doing in a bar in New York?"
"Why were you dancing?"
"Music was playing."
"Why were you dancing with a councilman?"
"He asked me to dance."
"Why was he black?"
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