CLEVELAND – At cocktail hour on Wednesday, I was with Derek Gee, The News’ chief photographer, when he looked at me and said, “What is real life?”
We weren’t engrossed in some deeply philosophical discussion. But spend a few days here in and around the events of the Republican National Convention and you’d be asking the same thing.
In a single day, you’ll be exposed to some of the most influential people on the planet, and you’ll also come face to face with people who are any or all of these things: passionate, attention-starved, creative, hateful, intellectual, robotic, narcissistic, courageous.
When Gee asked me the “real life” question, we were in at a “Nightly Lounge” event hosted by Politco, the Washington, D.C.-based news organization. The 21st-floor event space was sleekly decked in the colors of the American flag. A white-linen table displayed two flavors of hummus, three kinds of cheese and four varieties of bread and crackers. Fashionably dressed Republican political types drank and networked.
We were surrounded by partisanship, patriotism and aspiring power.
Only minutes earlier, however, we had been standing amidst protesters a few blocks down the road, talking with and taking pictures of a magician named Gilligan, who had a vote-for-me sign with the message “Make America Magical Again.”
Or a woman in a blue robe and padded headgear who carried a sign that read: “Stop The Madness – Never Trump.”
Or a large group of people who wore faux-brick walls over their fronts and backs, with the message “Wall Off Trump.”
Or a group of twentysomethings dressed in anarchist black, running back and forth to tease police, then laughing it off.
Are these people for real? Do they have messages in which they believe, and a change they truly intend to effect?
Or take the topic of the Politco party itself: The men in charge of keeping a Republican majority in the House and Senate were on stage, engaging in a Q&A with Politico writers.
“We’re not running for president,” said Ward Baker, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, when asked whether Trump is making his job harder. “We’re running for Senate ... We’re running local, targeted, data-driven campaigns”
Rob Simms, Baker’s counterpart on the House side, added soon after that Trump’s image doesn’t tinge other Republicans. “It’s not the House Republican brand,” he said. “It’s the Trump brand.”
But here’s the real-life question: When Baker and Simms say those things, do they mean it? Or do they want to mean it? Or when protestors deliver their Trump-Clinton-God-guns-gays-and-on message, do they mean what they say? Or do they simply want attention?
If you step into all corners of the RNC experience – from the convention to the political gatherings to the marches and the protests – Cleveland has taken on a Times Square feel. It’s big. Everyone is watching. And there’s a lot of choreography.
It even happens at the highest levels. Trump’s campaign is full of grandiose theatrics. That’s no revelation, and it was no surprise that his arrival in Cleveland on a Trump jet, and then a Trump helicopter, came complete with a musical soundtrack playing through speakers. He excels at made-for-TV events, but do they win over people in real life?
As I was walking out of Trump’s arrival event, a few reporters were interviewing a Texas delegate named Robin Walker – “like Texas Ranger,” she said, referring to the Chuck Norris TV show.
“I’ve never met Mr. Trump,” said Walker, who was wearing a red jacket and white cowboy hat for the occasion.
A former Ted Cruz supporter who’s now behind Trump, Walker came within six feet of him Wednesday. “He’s much better looking in person,” she said, adding later (and with a smile), “Donald Trump is gorgeous!”
The reporters were gobbling it up. Just like they soaked up Trump’s airborne entrance with their iPhones held to the sky, and just like reporters mill about Public Square, waiting for an argument or arrest.
In our camera-loving, social media-addicted world, an event like the RNC makes you wonder: Are people being real, or just playing to the audience on the other side of the omnipresent cameras?
It’s likely both. But the deeper message can emerge:
As Walker of Texas was wrapping up her interview with a French broadcaster, she added, “You tell the French people that Texas loves them.”
She was referred to the multiple terrorism-related tragedies France has faced, then added that Dallas – in the wake of a police massacre – is hurting.