Click here for Xpress coverage of the Romney Victory Rally at the US Cellular Center.
I didn’t listen to a word of Mitt Romney’s speech.
Somehow, for one reason or another, I ended up with unbelievable access to this election cycle’s Republican candidate for president. It started with a walk down the press chute through the middle of the crowd on the floor of the US Cellular Center. I actually had no idea where this chute would end up until I got there.
I spent most of Thursday dreading the event. The media frenzy, the political charade, the standing and waiting, the jostling for a shot which would then need to be cropped to make it seem like the candidate wasn’t half a mile away. I anticipated all the electioneering and grandstanding with a fair amount of self pity.
When I found myself looking up at the Speaker of the House from a distance of about ten feet, my attitude improved.
This is how it works: You show up in the pit, everyone yells at you, you crawl around on the floor with $5000 of fragile equipment, and then the candidate strides up the runway like it’s Christmas morning and he’s ready to open presents. The crowd goes wild. Then the guy starts yakking about why he’s so great and the other guy sucks, and then the Secret Service pulls you out of the pit and yells “GO GO GO!” and because you don’t want to end up in some black-ops CIA prison somewhere, you go.
So when people ask what I think about politics or the election or who’s going to win, my response is: How should I know? For all I care, Mitt Romney could be a department store mannequin with a wind-up key in his back. I just want him to stand in good light and not make funny faces.
But apparently I’m alone. They put us in an elevator, and for just a moment we were unsupervised. One of the national press photogs turned to another and said, “I just feel like there’s so much hate everywhere we go.” At first I thought they meant that the Secret Service was being too brusque, but as they kept talking, I realized they meant that they feel this hate as they travel around the country with Mitt Romney.
Then the door opened, and there was of course another agent waiting to escort us, and the private exchange was over. I had no time to reflect on whether or not Mitt Romney hates me; they were herding us onto the catwalk above the floor.
As we watched from high above the crowd, Romney finished his speech and started working the rail. Now I regretted the special access—the best shots were clearly to be had down below. I could see the crowd contract around the pit like grains of iron around a magnet.
With no good photos to shoot and an all-encompassing view of the floor, I was struck by the strange disparity in perspectives. The supporters below crush in for a handshake; the press watches from above. For us in the rafters, it was just another spectacle to document, but for the fans on the rail, it was something else.
For a moment I was stunned: These people actually believed in Mitt Romney. Even though they’d seen politicians come and go their entire lives, they thought this would be the one who saved America. For them, Mitt Romney was the solution to a very troubling problem. For the photographers who felt hated, Romney was the problem. Either way, they both believed in something I wasn’t able to understand.
An unpleasant side effect of the media’s attempt at impartiality is that we often consider partisans with a kind of jaded pity. But looking down at that crowd, I felt like an atheist decorating a Christmas tree. Unwilling to accept the rationale but yearning for the emotion. I was jealous: What must it be like to believe in something like that?
And what about the Secret Service? These guys wake up every morning ready to take a bullet for whichever scumbag they’re guarding that day. Not for liberty or the Republic, but for the flawed, deceitful human being that fills some high office.
To someone with that level of selfless devotion, the needs of a local press photographer must be so insignificant that they approach non-existence. So when one of the agents looked at me and said “You need to disappear,” I disappeared. My special access was over.
On the street, the protesters were still at it. Romney supporters had approached the police barricade to engage in counter-protest, and the cops stood stone-faced between them. Again I was dumbfounded: What is it that motivates people to yell at each other in the street? Who among us has said, “I used to hate that politician until a bunch of his fans screamed at me and now I think he’s a great guy?”
But that’s how we do things in America. Angry protesters—and supporters who blindly believe their politicians—are side effects of free speech. Hard-line skeptics like me will just have have to deal with it.
In the end, I suspect that the image of the mannequin with a key in its back applies to all of us. We all bring our motivations to the scene and let them walk us through the prescribed paths we’re supposed to take. If anyone really knows what’s going on, I bet they’re standing off to the side, watching quietly while we march around in circles, winding down.