The Ink-Stained Wretches Go to La-La Land

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If politics is Hollywood for ugly people, what comes of it when the ink-stained wretches of political journalism follow their subjects to L.A., the land of the beautiful? No good, dear reader, no good.

The media scene at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia gave journalists exactly what they're supposed to thrive on — a communal sense of low self-esteem. Four white tents, connected by narrow gateways crammed with smokers. Peeing in bathroom trailers. (Nice bathroom trailers, which occasionally even had soap and paper towels, but trailers nonetheless.) In the air outside, a stifling, unrelenting, insta-sweat humidity, all while the Big Show plodded on in the Comcast castle across the street.

In this age of scripted, preordained, no-news conventions, the age of rolling roll calls and 1,123-0 delegate counts, this was about as close to the legendary campaign-trail cluster-buses of years like '72 as the modern quadrennial summer crowd was likely to get, particularly young Internet bucks like me who rarely get out from behind the desk. In a word, adversity of the creature-comfort kind.

Which is what political journalists are supposed thrive on. Sure, there was no news, not much heavy stuff going on, but it seemed like everybody was looking anyway. Scuttling about, notebook and business card in hand, peering in this curtained media area or that. Ooh — David Broder's writing. Hey, was that E.J. Dionne? Did you hear Howard Fineman was running after The Rock, begging for an autograph for his nephew, and The Rock just kept moving?

In Internet Alley in Tent 1, where the dot-coms hung out in tiny cluttered booths near the steaming doorway, it was buzzing like a Moroccan bazaar —the hot spot of the Media Pavillion. One afternoon, in a modern classic of meta-meta-meta journalism, Ben Stein was interviewing Mitch McConnell for Comedy Central, which was all being recorded by, which was all being watched and scribbled about by a handful of news-starved and irony-stuffed young journalists, me included. When McConnell was done, a redheaded novice approached him awkwardly and asked, "Mr. Forbes, can I have a picture with you?"

Yes, it was pathetic. But it was action.

Walk down L.A.'s version, dubbed "Internet Avenue," on Wednesday evening and you could see i News Views interviewing pundit rotundus Bill Schneider. With booths on either side of him deserted. And nobody watching. The back of Schneider's head looked slightly embarrassed.

Bizarre, maybe. But the place was like a mall on Sunday morning.

Maybe it was the digs. In Los Angeles, the Democrats had the logistic luxury of having a gleaming glass-and-carpet convention hall right next to the Staples Center, and it was posh. An escalator slicing up from the entryway, up to the — gasp! — second floor. Every big media outfit in their own room, with real walls and doors. Out the side door, the crisp SoCal sunshine and a concrete expanse called "Media Beach." With free beer.

Free beer.

"And free massages and free lattes, right over there," says Lee Banville, editor-in-chief of the Online NewsHour, cyber-arm of "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." In Philly, Banville and the whole of the under-budgeted "NewsHour" operation were cloistered in cramped wood-paneled trailers beyond Tent 1, not even in the tent with the rest of the wretches. In Los Angeles, they sat indoors, in a cavernous room near the back entrance of the convention center, within shouting distance of both a frothy caffeine fix and a dose of stress relief — which nobody here seemed to particularly need. "We're still doing the same thing," Banville says. "But the logistics are a lot easier. It's making it very easy not to do that much work."

Had they been over to Internet Avenue? "It feels like a trade show," said ONH tech ombudsman Scott Anderson. And we all know how exciting those can be.

Some attributed the chilled-out attitude to experience. "Everybody was trying new things for the last convention," says David Rapp, executive editor and senior VP for Congressional Quarterly Inc., from his Internet Avenue booth. "We went through a shakeout. Now we're much more confident and much less harried." And then there's the matter of "fool me twice, shame on e." "There's nothing to cover at these things," he says. "But in Philadelphia, everybody was really trying to find stuff."

Not so in La-La land, where there are lots of better, real-live celebs to spot than Ben Stein and Mitch McConnell, and lots more to do for a glamour-starved journalist than hang around some media center looking for Al Hunt. How you gonna get 'em excited about Sam Donaldson again when Tommy Lee Jones is nominating Al Gore?

Look at (Please.) For the Republican convention, my colleagues and I stayed at the downtown Mariott, arguably the epicenter of the convention scene. Larry King was heard barking at the bellhop for a New York Times. The Texas delegation was staying on the seventh floor. George W. Bush crashed there for a night. For political atmosphere, there was no better place to hang out than the lobby.

For the Democrats, we're at the Mondrian, the Ian Schrager joint that's arguably the epicenter of all things L.A. The bellhops wear beige suits, the makeup mirror says "Me," and across from the elevator bank there's a TV-shaped hole in the wall with a TV in it facing the wrong way. (If you stick your head in really far, you can watch Gilligan's Island upside down.) The guests are beautiful people. The waitresses are beautiful people. Heck, the male bartenders are beautiful people. The pool scene is like a 21st-century version of the Roman Empire, with bikini-clad bodies lolling about on mattresses and topless women talking on cell phones. It's enough to make this ink-stained wretch with the Manhattan skin want to shave his chest and hit the health club. But I am impenetrable. Incorruptible. I also only have a week. So I go around wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

Poolside Wednesday afternoon, a TIME writer sits sipping a rum-and-tea-leaf concoction, idly pondering what she'll do for this week's People page. "I have to go down to the convention center," she says. We have a mammoth banana split called the "Bay of Pigs." Asked about the general sunstroke among the chattering class, she shrugs, the culprit obvious. "It's L.A."

And like Randy Newman, we love it. But somehow it doesn't seem right. Back at Internet Avenue, I approach Emil Guillermo, vice president of webcasting and on-the-ground-reporter at political activism site I tell him that in Philly, Grassroots board member Mike McCurry made special mention to me of his star reporter's work covering the protesters. Here, I notice, he looks a little bored. Guillermo gestures around. "Why is it I feel like I'm in the lobby of Grand Central Station, waiting for a train?"

"The Republicans had us in a much smaller space. There was a real sense of intimacy there that's missing here in L.A.," he says. "Those tents." He pauses. "As much as we all hated them, we're a little nostalgic."

And that, dear reader, is what political journalism is all about.

But at least I got some good color out by the pool.