The Party's Party Planner

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This just in: The Lieberman announcement is a smokescreen — a Democratic strategy to add zip to its convention at Los Angeles' Staples Center arena. This week on the floor, just when the delegates and the dozen or so TV viewers least expect it, Joseph Lieberman will surprise everyone by introducing Al Gore's real running mate and Malibu's best-kept secret: Elvis Presley, alive and well and surprisingly trim due to daily tennis matches with his neighbor, Johnny Carson.

That first paragraph was a lie, though it depends on what you mean by "lie." Rather, you could call it an ironic riff on the shocking predictability of political conventions and the importance of Gary Smith. At age 65, with 24 Emmy awards and four decades' experience with TV specials and variety shows, Smith has served as executive producer for Democratic conventions since 1988, when he began renting out his considerable showbiz expertise to a tradition that was, even then, wearing thin. That was the year he updated the look of the convention with an imposing wall of video screens behind the podium. In 1996 he recruited Christopher Reeve for one of the campaign season's loveliest moments. In the year 2000, he's identified the basic problem. "You're taking four days to do what could be done in one," he says.

Unfortunately, Smith doesn't have the power to shorten the convention (he answers to the DNC and the Gore campaign), but he's doing what he can to put some life in the party. Last week TIME shadowed Smith as he prepared for the Democrats' arrival: On Monday, Aug. 7, seated before more than three dozen party officials, production coordinators and crew members, Smith runs through the convention day by day. "We may have Whoopi doing the Pledge of Allegiance on Wednesday night," he says, and he explains the breakdown of TV coverage. The convention will build each day toward the hour of 7 p.m. (Los Angeles time); that's when the major networks turn on their cameras, so it's the convention's "prime time." The opening night's prime hour is reserved for Bill and Hillary Clinton, and there's much discussion during the week about where Hillary will sit during her husband's speech. (It seems that no one carrying a ballot box wants to be too close to the President, as Monday's Lieberman news makes clear).

Smith says that the first night's finale, following Clinton's speech, will be "76 Trombones," performed by the cast of Broadway's revival of "The Music Man." Smith loves finales. "If we put an entertainer on singing or doing something in the middle of the prime time hour," says Smith, "the networks will go to a commercial or do something else. They will not think that's important and I agree. I don't think a convention is the place for entertainment that isn't relevant. Except for the finales. The finales we can have some fun with." Smith is also gleeful over locating a 1928 recording of Al Gore Sr. playing the fiddle. It will be heard (and accompanied live by violinist Mark O'Connor) on Thursday, when the younger Gore accepts the presidential nomination.

During Monday's production meeting, Smith is hopeful that Tom Hanks will agree to read an appreciation of the Declaration of Independence. By Tuesday, Hanks has declined; by Saturday, Michael Douglas is a maybe. Smith has also made the rather risky decision to play "Mambo No. 5" — a song about womanizing — in the convention hall to keep up delegates' enthusiasm between speeches. "Obviously we're not using the original lyric," says Smith, who plans to rewrite the song with names of states instead of names of women. For Smith, equal parts entertainer and Democrat, that's the trick: Taking the same old tune, changing the words and hoping that it catches on.