Somewhere, over the rainbow, a blog is born. A blog for Kansas. A blog for America. A blog by a reporter with a difficult-to-pronounce last name. But most importantly, a blog that is AMERICA'S ONLY PLACE dedicated to the vital intersection of politics and Sunflowers. The Heartland gods nod in wise approval.

Saturday, July 31, 2004

Weekend update

Hey -- thanks for the feedback thus far. It's genuinely helping me figure a few things out about building a better blog.

Rep. Tiahrt has released a letter in response to the reaction to his son's death. And the Kansas delegation's going home.

Friday, July 30, 2004

Out of the echo chamber

Talk about rude awakening. Cell phone rang at 8 this morning (was up past 4). Knight Ridder, wondering why my computer was still in the press tent. "Because I'm working today," I said. "Not from here," was the reply -- the tent was folding up, taking all the media organizations with it.

Didn't know about that. Oops. Threw on jeans, spent $42 cabbing to Fleet Center, got computer, returned to hotel right before checkout, bummed a ride and am now in Somerville, Mass., among friends. Now, Weekend Update (and not The Daily Show, which you may notice I'm not linking to. Oh well -- last year I was on Jeopardy! and lost. Some folks just aren't meant to be famous.)

One week into my blogging career, and I've made one firm conclusion about blogging: I have no idea what I'm doing. Second, almost-as-firm conclusion: Most other people don't either. Tom Webb provides moral support, and Adam Smeltz, the 20-something scoopmeister himself, provides inspiration. But as can be seen from the avalanche of narcissistic blog coverage this week, the medium's still early in its evolution, and how one fits in, and then expands, the sphere remains very, very much a mystery.

Dan Bricklin provides a particularly insightful piece on event blogging that accurately describes the life cycle many of us at the convention faced. We got off to great starts, with well-written, well-thought out posts. Then, the convention hit. We got tired. Initial acclaim faded, and we didn't know where to take thinks next. We didn't know whether to write about events, write scene-setters, or just gaze at our own navels. I struggled with this a lot -- I've been a daily newspaper reporter for five years, and for this I tried to combine my reporting experience with an earlier life as an opinion writer in college. Sometimes the fusion worked -- it was like being 10 years younger while also being less of an idiot. Sometimes I felt even younger, though, in a bad way -- like a 13-year-old with an uncertain, cracking voice, afraid of girls and wondering if he's really normal.

(Wait. That's how I am now.)

So basically, I'm exhausted, confused and directionless.

But optimistic.

Mechanical and creative frustrations aside, this is fun -- and it has potential. The e-mails from everywhere are great, and so's the pent-up charge of expression flowing throughout the blogosphers. Bloggers are so numerous, and come from so many perspectives, that one really does get a crazy-quilt comprehension that's unlike anything else ever exposed to a global audience. And it would be nice to strike a tent and carve a niche. The convention was very much a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks experience -- but the nice thing is, another convention's coming up, and everyone has a few weeks to learn lessons and prepare.

A few "to-do" things for me this month.

1. Blog needs a name. While I think "Alan Bjerga" connotes virility, wit, virility, native genius, virility ... No one uses a simple name for a blog. Please -- send suggestions. Of course, to name a blog, it helps to ...

2. Get an identity. I still don't know what this blog should be "about." If it's just about me, that's not going to fly -- I'm not that interesting. Any thoughts on that are appreciated too.

3. Get a camera. I hate taking pictures, but it's time to go multi-impressional. Need digital camera.

4. Read other blogs. This is kind of overwhelming, but the embarrassing fact is, I don't read many blogs. If anyone has an example of one they think is particularly good, I'd love to know about it.

Thanks. I'd like to see this space evolve. Ya know, it's really fun. I think the interactions are broadening, and creatively the whole format is challenging and intriguing. Lemme know whatcha think, and I'll be back soon.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Patriotic progressives?

"For us, that flag is the most powerful symbol of who we are and what we believe in. Our strength. Our diversity. Our love of country. All that makes America great and good.

"That flag doesn't belong to any president. It doesn't belong to ideology and it doesn't belong to any political party. It belongs to all the American people."

John Kerry is trying to (re)capture the flag. How well he succeeds will determine the 2004 presidential election.

After a week of parading generals, salutes to patriotism and testimonials on the candidate's war record, John Kerry's acceptance speech Thursday night mentioned military service or national defense in 33 of his speech's 100 paragraphs. This aggressively points Democrats straight where Republicans seemed unassailable in the 2002 elections -- in a partisan battle royal over who can best claim the mantle of protecting America.

It's a bold move, and one the Republicans will forcefully parry at their convention a month from now. While Kerry genuinely looked strong, this is also the time for the post-convention bounce, when Stockholm Syndrome media and keyed-up activists combine to create an often-unsustainable momentum. That said, the move toward what an alliterist could call "Progressive Patriotism" may be the Dems version of 2000's "Compassionate Conservatism" -- an approach that tries to turn perceived weakness into strength. If anybody has the life story to pull it off, it's Kerry. Republicans will argue that if anyone has a voting record that doesn't, it's Kerry.

Kerry's speech also outlined economic principles, and tried to wrestle the word "values" from the GOP as well. Only one paragraph dealt with religion -- Kerry still isn't comfortable in the faith realm the way Bill Clinton was. Lots of talk about uniting, not dividing as well -- though in upcoming months one must watch what the parties do, not what they say. This election is still about well-calibrated messages to battleground states -- while voters may thirst for unity, there are few signs out there that that sort of dynamic, which normally only happens in landslides, is ready to materialize.

Those are some quick first impressions. After the speech I stuck around the Fleet Center long enough to retrieve a red, a white, and a blue balloon, my official convention souvenirs. I remember the first time I ever saw 'em fall, watching the Democratic convention of 1980. A co-worker said he was surprised the balloon fall still happens, due to the heightened security.

But when balloons no longer fall, then the terrorists have won. And if one thing is certain, both parties are stepping up this fall to make sure that never happens. Now, if only I can get the air out of 'em without popping any.

Luke Tiahrt funeral

Story on the funeral, from kansas.com.


Huh ... I see the last post has little trademark thingys all over it. Won't ever cut-and-paste off a Word file again. Let us leave it online as a cautionary tale.

BTW, NPR went well, considering my steadily approaching delirium. Show is available here. When I get tired, I start talking and singing to myself, which may be one small step toward feeling what Dennis Hopper once felt.

(Just took a walk past the pavilion -- heard a protest, can't actually see the protesters in their cage from the media compound, but found myself singing "More than a Feeling" by Boston. The incoherence is advancing ...)

Music's a big part of convention presentation. I've heard "Johnny B. Goode" three zillion times in tribute to Kerry/Edwards, saw Peter, Paul & Mary two days ago, and the Black Eyed Peas shouted out after Edwards's speech last night. Tough for the GOP to top that next month.

My personal highlight? John Mellencamp, acoustic, "Small Town" last night. I've always considered it the Flyover National Anthem (Note to coastal audience: If you don't quite get it, no biggie. It's a Heartland thing. You wouldn't understand.), and the performance was the one moment the entire convention when I just dropped the objectivity, just turned on the tape recorder and sung along.

That was a nice experience. Conventions are like any other case of advanced task overload -- it's easy to get so caught up in details that you miss the moments. But when thousands of flags are waving and people are united behind a system of government they believe in, and when you realize that it's all a part of a process that's proven its value over the test of time, and when you think about how no matter what happens in November, it will happen again in four years, and when you think of how many nations can't conceive of that certainty, it's important to pull back for a moment of perspective.

But that's not very cynical, is it? Sorry -- for a moment there I forgot I was blogging.

Dennis Hopper, solved

It was all about the letter A. And in the case of one controversial subject, the A stood for "appreciation."

"The home of the abolitionist, John Brown, who fought against slavery; the home of Amelia Earhart, the aviator, who braved the skies; and the home of the actor, Dennis Hopper, who’s brave enough to, well, brave enough to be Dennis Hopper."

With those words, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius cast the state’s 41 delegate votes Wednesday night for Sen. John Kerry at the Democratic National Convention. States traditionally give some "home of" speech about their state when they cast their ballots.

It’s a fun way to identify a state to a nation, but like everything else at a convention, it serves a political purpose. Constituencies are pleased, tea leaves are read, etc.

The Kansas intro played it pretty safe. Yeah, John Brown was in his day considered by many to be America’s foremost terrorist, and after he left Kansas he was executed by the federal government, but hey – he’s on the right side of history, and most folks have mellowed out over the Civil War by now. Earhart’s a slam-dunk – aviatrix, well-known, Kansan through-and-through.

Then you have Hopper. Respected actor and director, born in Dodge City, Kan.? You bet. Noted unemployable psycho of the ‘70s, known for weeks-long drug bungers and uncontrollable rage? Yup. Sebelius said the Hopper choice did raise a couple eyebrows, but in all good fun, the choice was appropriate.

"We wanted A’s – you know, abolitionist, actor, aviator," she said. "But I have to tell you the followup.
"After the convention, I was with (Gov.) Bill Richardson and some of the folks from New Mexico," where Hopper now lives, she said. "One of them said, ‘You know Dennis will think what you said is great. I’ll get him on the phone.’

"Suddenly, I’m handed a phone, and here’s Dennis Hopper. And I said hello and it was him. He thought it was delightful he was being mentioned by Kansas."

Sebelius added that Hopper’s current wife, Victoria Duffy, is a delegate to this year’s convention. That would be Hopper’s fifth wife – his most famous ex-wife being Mama and Papa Michelle Phillips, who  divorced him after eight days in part because he was, oh, keeping her in handcuffs so she couldn't run away. (Hopper said it was her idea.)

That was then, this is now, Sebelius said.

"Dennis Hopper is a totally new man," she said. "There’s a lot of people who make mistakes early on and figure out a mistake," she said. And it’s undeniable that Hopper’s mellowed quite a bit since the ‘70s, mounting a lauded film comeback while cleaning up his act.

"He’s definitely a well known Kansan," she said. "We thought it would be a lot of fun to recognize him."

Runnin' round

Ran into Thomas Frank -- says Wichita's been the highlight of his book tour so far. "Most intelligent questions," he said. Also ran into Gov. Sebelius this morning, who has an explanation and amusing anecdote that solves the Mystery of Dennis Hopper(!). Two teenage Kansas delegates were featured in the Boston Globe this morning, and for more amusing campaign minutiae, click here.

Drinking Mountain Dew at 10 a.m. Never drink Mountain Dew at 10 a.m. Off to NPR.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Dennis Hopper (!)

Listening to the votes being counted, and the Dems are making their statements. Had never seen John Edwards speak in person before -- oddly enough, I found his speech more compelling when I looked at the TV monitor than when I focused on him onstage. That's probably for the best for the Democrats, as "Two Americas" isn't aimed at the activists on the floor and in the stands -- it's aimed straight at Middle America, and it will be interesting to see how the Bush team parries.

Other observation: The endless succession of military veterans, retired officers and war heroes all onstage for Kerry. It seems almost like a reverse of the "Compassionate Conservative" theme the GOP used in 2000.

(Timeout. Gov. Sebelius just cast Kansas's nominating votes, in which she praised Kansas native "Dennis Hopper, who was brave enough to, well brave enough to be Dennis Hopper." Huh. Dennis Hopper. Hey -- Easy Rider is a brilliant film, but the choice of  an erratic, drug-addled-for-years actor who shot at and handcuffed his wife during an eight-day catastrophe of a marriage seems an odd tribute at a nominating convention. Okay. Time in.)

Compassionate conservatives -- will they be succeeded by "patriotic liberals?" Both positions implicitly acknowledge a weakness and attempt to turn it into a strength. The former attempt has had some success. How the latter plays out will play a big part in determining whether Democrats can regain the White House.

The ubiquitous Dan Glickman

Dan Glickman is everywhere! I just ran into him at the press pavilion snack stand, where he was buying treats before going into the convention. For a note on just how big the former "Dan, Dan the Congress-man" has become, look at Michael Kinsley's recent column.

Media, media, more media

Dinner has arrived at the bureau, and everyone's getting their eighth wind. Mine is assisted by Montain Dew, which only comes out in extreme circumstances. The weather has warmed up, and so have the delegates. Kansans were spotted on Leno last night, dancin' as only Kansans can.

Spent the afternoon at the Rural Caucus, in part for story ideas and in part to bone up for an NPR appearance I'm doing tomorrow at 11 EDT. "The Connection" is a Boston-produced politics show that airs nationwide, though some regions are better-represented than others. Station listings are here -- many of them offer webcasts. The show's done live from Harvard, and the other panelist is Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, so I'm anticipating some tough questions -- topic is swing states and how Democrats can try to win rural votes. One hour of grillin'. Should be fun. "The Daily Show" -- if I'm actually on it -- should air tonight or tomorrow.

John Edwards is tonight's convention highlight, of course. But what I'm waiting for is the state roll call, where you here all the "Great State" intros, as in -- "The Great State of Kansas, home to the world's largest ball of twine, the KU Jayhawks, the K-State Wildcats, Operation Rescue," etc., etc. I always wonder who writes those things, and how they decide what gets included. Keep reading The Wichita Eagle, and soon you'll know too. 

Introducing "The Cabbie Project"

Continuing the anthropological imperative of this Web space, coming in from the hotel this morning I engaged yet another  cab driver in political conversation. A previous conversation was reported here, and this one was no less fruitful. In this case, the subject -- a man who appeared to be in his mid-30s, with tendencies toward Classic Rock stations and random comments on the Boston Red Sox, said the only politicians he trusts are Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura. "I've been in Boston too long to like John Kerry," he said. "And Bush, he's lying to us."

Arnie and "The Body," on the other hand, are fonts of authenticity, according to this man. "I like the way Arnold got elected and started all that trouble in California," the cabbie said. "Jesse always told it like it is. I'd vote for either of those guys."

Unlike my previous cabbie conversation, I took notes this time, and after four days in Boston I'm coming to the conclusion that cab drivers may actually yield more insight into the American political mind than the Democratic National Convention. As a result, I'd like to launch a massive study into their insights between now and Election Day. Since this blog appears to have a national audience, I'm hereby asking all readers to e-mail me any and all political conversations they have with cab drivers across America in an effort to understand the heretofore-unexplored nuances of what could be one of our nation's most influential occupational groups. Insights gleaned from "The Cabbie Project" will be reported in this space, with credit given where appropriate.

Please, no Jack Kelley or Jayson Blair fabulations. Cab drivers may be the sleeper swing vote that sways the election, and we mustn't taint the data. I expect numerous talk-show invites and solicitations from both major political parties (Green and Constitution) as the result of this, but I won't let that lessen my commitment to the integrity of the political process. Thank you, and please join me -- together, we and the cabbies can help America fare better.

The Man is Still Behind the Curtain

Hey -- blog got a mention in the LA Times today -- couldn't a done it without Gary Hart.  I guess the blogosphere is the Media Story of 2004, and as a practitioner I certainly hope it sticks around. Would hate to be looked at in four years the way we look at the online overload of 2000, a cautionary tale for anyone on the edge of anything.

Last night I had the most memorable moment of the convention at the "Salute to Agriculture" party -- one of those moments in which you find yourself an ambiguous moral actor in an impromptu set piece in which the Man Behind the Curtain is revealed and you find yourself identifying with an individual to whom you had previously felt no resemblance. It was an experience in which the intersection of media and politics were shown in the stark context of human need and regret, when the loneliness lurking beneath the superficiality of yet another alcohol-blurred affair peaks through the surface, revealing how the dynamics of power in American democracy serve to stifle the desires of the very powerless for whom the system is designed to protect.

Of course, I don't have time today to write about any of it, since there are receptions to attend. So how about that Michael Dukakis? USA Today is clearly reading too, as they answered yesterday's blog with an article on his presence -- or lack thereof -- at the convention. The state of Kansas had its own tidbits of the sun Tuesday. Kansas's favorite grandson, Barack Obama, made a huge splash -- the text of his speech, which mentions Kansas, is here. And while Gov. Kathleen Sebelius had to compete with dinner break in her three-minute address, the delegation loved her. She's expected to give the "Great state of Kansas ..." schpiel tonight as the nomination process begins.

Thomas Frank, author of the more-relevant-than-expected "What's the Matter With Kansas?" is in town for a book-signing today -- here's a particularly insightful review of his book by a rising literary figure. Today I want to go to the meeting of the Rural Caucus, then head to the center for the big events. Wednesday, and running on empty.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Breaker one-nine, breaker one-nine

Hey-lo ... minor milestone here. This blog got its first mention in non Knight-Ridder media. Only in passing, but hey -- think Lou Gehrig's first box score, the Village People's first demo, Michael Dukakis's first run for student council, and you know just how momentous this could look in retrospect. The rest of the piece is worthwhile too -- lots of insight into the new media phenomenon that will either transform the vox populi or go the way of the CB radio.

Speaking of the Duke, I almost ran him over on my way to Kathleen Sebelius's speech. So why isn't he speaking at the convention, hmmmm?

Tonight's agenda is the "Leaders of American Agriculture" reception downtown, honoring Dan Glickman, Tom Daschle and other farm-state Democrats. Good eatin', guaranteed.

Quick turnaround

Back in office, must get to Sebelius speech. Highlight of day thus far -- asking the head of the Nebraska Democratic delegation, in a completely appropriate context, "Do you consider yourself a diva?" For more on that, read tomorrow's kansas.com!

The Daily Show?!?!

"I can say for certain that if John Kerry wins Kansas in November, he will win the nation in a landslide." -- Once-upon-a-time presidential hopeful Gary Hart, speaking to the Kansas Democratic National Convention Delegation on Tuesday morning. For more on Kansas and the convention, including a piece on its up-and-coming governor, who is speaking tonight, check here.

Early spin on the DNC seems "positive," after last night's star-studded lineup with Al Gore, Jimmy C. and Billary. I missed some of Al's speech due to ambush from a crew from "The Daily Show," which asked me for an interview. Said they wanted a mainstream print journalist. I've watched the show maybe twice, but am aware of its place in the uber-hip pantheon, as evidenced by the "OMIGODYOUREGOINGTOBEONTHEDAILYSHOW" comments I received when I scampered back to the press gallery. Theproducer said I'd air Wednesday or Thursday, assuming I make the show. I played the interview totally straight, which I'm sure won't help my dignity whatsoever. I have a certain amount of trepidation, but also I'm interested to see how they'll edit the footage to best make me look like an idiot. Plus, it's fun to participate in the media-on-media overkill. Don't know when I'll actually see the show -- got TiVo, anyone?

Won't post again for awhile -- am following a KS delegate around all day, culminating with Gov. Sebelius's speech at 5:30. Long days, longer nights, long commute back to the hotel, which I just found out was home to a shooting last week over a failed Oxycontin deal. That's the bad news -- the good news is that I saved my employer bundles of cash by bidding for my hotel on priceline.com! I regret that I have but one life to give for my corporation. 

Monday, July 26, 2004


A minor rebellion of journalists and interns duct-taped all the air vents in the air-conditioning system today, rendering the bedoin tent that is our office more friendly to fingers, toes and other things that tend toward frostbite. No more need for the pullover. Of course, now we'll be short of duct-tape should the evildoers strike.

Speaking of homeland security, the Wichita-based Operation Rescue West is threatening a lawsuit connected to the convention. Operation Rescue's a pretty serious anti-abortion group, known for their trademark "Truth Trucks" that feature blow-up pictures of aborted fetuses on the sides. According to the group, security pulled 'em over on their way to Boston, infringing their first amendment rights. (These guys, by the way, are not fans of abortion opponent/Attorney General John Ashcroft. Patriot Act makes 'em nervous.) Don't know what the follow-through will be on this.

More Tiahrt info

Funeral arrangements have been set.


Thanks for the feedback! Main criticism is that posts are too long. Not this one.

Steaks and stakes

The Plaza III Kansas City Steakhouse only exists in two cities -- Kansas City and Boston. That made the site for this year's Kansas delegation reception at the Democratic National Convention blatantly obvious, with a festival-of-flesh menu of beef-on-a-stick, sauteed beef, fried beef ... add in beefcake and Captain Beefheart and you'd have a perfect party.

So, delegate Judith Loganbill, whaddaya think of the food?

"The crab cakes are to die for!" said the state rep. from Wichita.  

Freethinkers, be them Dems. And the Plaza III delegation kickoff showed Kansans in their full sunflower glory, chowing down before getting down to business.

With the reception titled in her honor, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius was the official star of the evening. But the real star was "Hollywood" Dan Glickman, former Wichita congressman, former U.S. agriculture secretary, current head of Harvard's Institute of Politics, and soon-to-be head of the U.S. film lobby. True to new form, Glickman arrived late, left early and never hovered with any one person too long.

Slattery on 2nd

Lesser luminaries, like former congressman Jim Slattery -- a power lobbyist in his own right -- stuck around long enough to talk KS politics.

Slattery's got authority on a budding race -- the Second District Democratic quest to get Slattery's seat back from incumbent Jim Ryun, in which challenger Nancy Boyda is raising serious money for a seriously uphill battle.

Slattery thinks she can do it. He also thinks John Kerry can become president. But in the Heartland, he said Democrats better make economic and foreign affairs the election's focus.

"If the election's about guns, gays, God and government," he said, "Democrats  don't have a prayer." 

Sunday, July 25, 2004

A well-fed media

Walking through the press pavilion outside Boston's Fleet Center, I can't yet shake the feeling I'm in some sort of documentary. The whole setting is straight out of every stock-footage piece ever used to say, "news industry." Every big name in American journalism is sectored off under a big blue tent (will the Republican tent be red?) with organization ID emblazoned on the front: Washington-Post-New-York-L.A.-Times-Scripps-Newhouse-Ridder-Gannett. String them all together, and it reads how corporate journalism will look like after the Big Media Merger of 2020.

Wandering the halls you see Important Media People communicating Important Media Messages on their cell phones -- inside the pavilions, you see tangles of cables and tech folks in jeans, explaining to Frustrated Media People why their connections don't work. (I spent a half-hour in that scene.) The media people don't wear jeans -- they're practical-yet-professional, tasteful-yet-trendy, ready to hide behind their clunky librarian glasses faster than you can say "left-wing bias," -- or even "fair and balanced."

More power to 'em. I'm just blitherin' cold. The Knight Ridder office is directly below the makeshift air-conditioning system which, to keep The New York Times at 68 degrees, needs to keep us at 55 degrees -- such is the plight of working for a nonelite newspaper chain. I am literally seeing people blow on their hands for warmth. The TV people inside the convention hall apparently have it better -- of course, conventional wisdom has pretty much conceded American political conventions to television production values since the "New Nixon" was launched in 1968. But the printed word soldiers on. Apparently we're all having catered dinners and free coffee throughout the convention, and (I'm not the first to say this) a well-fed media is a happy media.

Stay tuned. Tonight is my first convention party, a reception in honor of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and the Kansas congressional delegation. It is, of course, at a steakhouse.

More Tiahrt

More information on Luke Tiahrt, including the first report from D.C. and reactions from Kansas officials. Also, Tiahrt announced last night that he's cancelling all public events for the month of July. Here's a link to a family photo.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Keep them in your thoughts

Didn't intend to post today. Please keep the Tiahrt family in your thoughts and prayers.

From the office of Rep. Todd Tiahrt, Wichita's congressman:

Luke Tiahrt dies Saturday morning
WASHINGTON - U.S. Representative Todd Tiahrt (R-Goddard) and his wife Vicki mournfully announce that their youngest son Luke, 16, died tragically of an apparent suicide in the Tiahrt's Virginia home early Saturday morning.

The Tiahrts respectfully request prayer and privacy during this difficult time. Funeral arrangements are pending. Details will be released as they become available. 

Friday, July 23, 2004

Voters and dragon shirts

A couple thoughts while packing for the convention:

1. I really resent that Hotmail has had "Coppola, Tarentino dating" as their lead headline for the past two days. I don't want one speck of my precious declining brain matter devoted to the fact that Sofia Coppola and Quentin Tarentino are an item -- yet media repetition guarantees that 20 years from now one of their names will come up in conversation and I'll say "Hey. Didn't he/she date she/he early in the century?"

2. Why is it that whenever a politician schedules a bunch of speeches in towns where his constituents live, it's called a "listening tour?"

Huh ...

Had a humbling moment on the cab ride home this evening that will stick with me through the convention. I get in the cab, and the first question out of the driver's mouth is "So who is it this year, Bush or Kerry?" I instinctively hate answering that question point-blank. I'm a journalist and professionally, I don't take sides. So I dodged the question with a nonsequitur -- "I'm going to the convention tomorrow," and tossed it back at him. "Who do you think?"

"I'm a lifelong Democrat," he said (imagine deep Virginia drawl. He's got a white goatee, slick-black hair, a seat pushed back, a belly touching the steering wheel, and a shirt embossed with deep blue dragons), "but I don't think, with everything goin' on right now , that we should switch halfway.

"Bush, he knows everything about Osama bin Laden and where all that stuff is hid. Kerry, he'd win if that weren't going on, but I think I'm going for Bush."

I'm about to engage him in a discussion about the war on terror, and he continues.

"Now Hillary," he says, "she's strong. If she was running I'd vote for her in a minute." And then the cabdriver went on about how great Hillary Clinton is. I didn't follow everything, and he didn't talk long -- my cell phone went off, and by the time I got off the call he was talking about a really beautiful woman he'd seen in front of the Old Town Holiday Inn earlier in the day. Reflecting later, I shouldn't have taken the call.

Now, I'm not saying I agree with the guy. I'm not saying he's the most informed person out there. I'm not even saying I didn't find his presence, and his odd connections, a little bit disturbing. But that's beside the point. The point is, this guy votes, and he will never show up in an opinion poll. Journalists will never write a story about people whose two top politicians are George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton. Karl Rove will deny that such people exist! A billion dollars will be spent on persuading this cab driver to think a certain way this election cycle, and the chance of a silver-bullet message putting him in lockstep is nil. And who knows where he'll be by November? Maybe he'll decide Kerry's tough enough and go Democrat. Maybe he'll give money to Bush, hoping Kerry's loss will help his true political love -- Hillary Clinton! -- in 2008.

Pollsters simply don't identify the Democrats-for-Bush-unless-Hillary-were-running demographic -- but that cabbie, like millions of other voters, splits in a unique way that the finest minds in the Ivy League will never fully understand. And thank God for that -- the day politics truly becomes a science, when every person's opinion becomes the predictable product of spin, that's when the police state takes over.

Of course, in the aggregate, consumer decisions are rational -- quote Adam Smith. But individually, the American voter is one of the most fascinating, inscrutable, free-thinking creatures ever created -- for better, for worse, and for the spirit of big-D Democracy. And I have the pleasure of examining the creatures, and everything the "experts" throw at them, firsthand.

I gave the guy an extra dollar tip, headed to the fridge, chugged a Coke and started packing. Boston's gonna be cool.

Spinning through 9/11

The final 9/11 Commission report spilled into the media's waiting hands yesterday, and the spin/counterspin predictably spews forth. Comprehensive coverage can be found here, and my own quick-and-dirty story on it is here -- my job yesterday was to hang out at the auditorium, get a report, run like hell to the office down the street and get something really basic online so Knight Ridder had something to compete with AP, Reuters, etc. Be there first, darn it!

I spent much of the rest of the day thumbing through the report -- which doesn't contain a lot that hasn't been disclosed, but does have some interesting tidbits, like the finding that hijackers, not passengers, downed the Pennsylvania plane as the struggle for control began. Part of the danger of news today is that images, impressions, sometimes flat-out rumors get fixed in the public mind. I remember that day how a friend held the United 93 struggle up as an example of how America fights back once it's been surprised. Still is, but reality's always more complicated than the narrative makes it out to be.

After filing the report I spent much of the day following around Sen. Pat Roberts, who as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee usually gets a lot of ink when things like the 9/11 report comes out. Not this time -- his press conference went head-to-head with another conference featuring John McCain, Joe Lieberman and the heads of the 9/11 commisssion, and I ended up in a not-full TV studio, taking notes with plenty of legroom.

The news cycle keeps churning. The 9/11 commission's going on the road, but the convention caravan's already headin' to Boston. I'm hopping an Amtrak at 6 a.m., planning to read the 9/11 report on the way before I get to South Station. Judging from yesterday's skimming, it's not bad narrative -- and reading it will be useful at next week's parties. This fall, the 9/11 report's going to be kind of like the Bible -- lots of people will argue about it, but few will actually have read the thing. I'm coming to the arguments prepared. Knowledge is power! (And ignorance is not truth.) 

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Wear Your Mask


Half of Washington, it seems, is heading to Boston this weekend. Politicos preparing their party. Media folks punching in their colleagues' cell numbers, preparing for their parties. Jeans for the dirty work, dresses for the receptions -- and gas masks.

Yesterday, along with checking computer networks and setting itineraries, Knight-Ridder convention-coverers took a full day for security training, learning to watch for terrorists, crouch for safety during civil disturbances, stop-drop-roll and clear air passageways for the wounded. The training came courtesy of Centurion Risk Assessment Services, an outfit of former British special forces officers that does a lot of media boot camps for reporters heading out to cover Iraq, Israel and other hot spots.

The daylong series of seminars (which included free bagels and apple juice, making attendance a must) at times had a theater-of-the-absurd, Dr. Strangelovian quality at times. The hour spent on civil disturbances -- out-of-control protests circa 1968 Chicago -- was near-obsessively focused on the disturbances the Centurion folks knew most, northern Ireland. I came out of the seminar utterly versed in the tactics of Orangemen and Irish Republican Army hooligans -- should they arrive in Boston (and if they arrive in any U.S. city, it would be that one), I'll be prepared for their petrol bombs and ruffian conduct. The two hours of first aid training also bred frustration -- other than some really gnarly photos of people with bolts impaled through their hands and stuff, I doubt that I'm really going to remember the hurried instruction on the "recovery position" and the "ABC" method of checking a victim. (I know it stands for something -- airway/breathing/circulation, maybe.)

Reception to the presentation was -- no surprise here, given that the audience was all-journalist -- skeptical, and maybe a bit fatigued. This is the battle-hardened D.C. press corps. Many of them saw 9/11 first-hand, as I did. Many of us also remember the leadup to the Iraq war, when government officials put anti-aircraft batteries outside the Capitol (was the Iraqi air force about to bomb us?) and told everyone to buy plastic sheeting to create "safe rooms" in case of chemical or biological attack.

None of it happened. And, as exhaustive congressional investigations have shown, none of it could have. The weapons of mass destruction weren't there. The government was wrong. Or worse, maybe it lied to us. And now here we are, in a conference room training for Boston, and some British guy is telling us that the first thing we do when we reach our hotels is examine the exits in case the attack comes on our watch, and if we don't like the exits, we should leave? Sorry dude, but if the manager at the Courtyard by Marriott Boston Revere tells me to love it or leave it, I ain't ploppin' down $250 a night for a different hotel in sold-out Boston because the emergency staircase is too narrow. I've been burned before by these terror forecasts, and I ain't wearing a hazmat suit because John Ashcroft says it might rain.

Then The Voice speaks, quietly. The little voice in the back of my head that says hey -- this stuff really does happen. Just ask people in Bali, or Madrid. Just ask the folks I ride the metro line with every day, the ones who lost relatives at the Pentagon. Nobody who jumped from the 106th floor of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 had that on their to-do lists when they got up that morning, but it happened, and it happened in part because we didn't take warnings seriously enough. Throw out the politics, and the fact remains: There are people out there who want to cause harm. And though some question the stark language, they want to do it because, when you boil it down, they hate America.
And they don't care that you're a journalist, or that the intelligence was wrong, or that the 2004 presidential race is hinging on people deciding who-handles-what-best. And you think of that, and you listen to the Centurion guys, and you write down what to put in that first aid kit, and you think that yes, this is faintly surreal and yes, surreal things do happen, and yes, without being an alarmist, I'm gonna be prepared. 

So off we go to Boston. The threat isn't going to slow anyone down, and it's not going to scare anyone off, and it shouldn't. In my case, I simply can't afford it. I've got the 9/11 report to cover today (stay tuned), and I've got to get everything lined up before I head north Saturday. Check off that to-do list. Make sure computer works. Make contact with the "Salute to Agriculture" folks. Make sure I've got the right cell-phones for the Kansas delegation. See if I can reschedule the physical therapy appointment, because I got up at 5 this morning and I don't have a break until 9 tonight.

And I'm not complaining. This is the convention. This is an uninterrupted American tradition. This is something worth fighting for. I've got a new suit, a couple pairs of jeans, and a gas mask. Let's roll.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Terror in Training

Posting early today, as I'm spending the entire day in Knight Ridder terror training for the convention. A necessary, slightly unnerving evil -- good for blog fodder (stay tuned) but bad for the psyche. But hey -- if the orange-alert catastrophe comes, KR's prepared.

Security's a continuing theme at the conventions. Although The Washington Post reports that fewer Americans are concerned about terrorism than they were a year ago, most Americans aren't going to be in Boston, a.ka. Target City. The Kansas Democratic Party picks up the theme on its convention-and-blog site, and you can read all about precautions here, along with ongoing dark conspiracy theories about how Republicans are plotting to use terror threats to postpone the election -- a concept that Kansas Republicans reject.

And that's where that all is. Today's DC report focuses on Sen. Pat Roberts' ongoing quest into the massive intelligence failures that helped provoke a war. Sen. Dianne Feinstein's got the spotlight right now, with her proposed cabinet-level Director of National Intelligence, which seems to be gaining momentum. Roberts is noncommittal, ready to spend a lot of time on it, etc. Back in the Sunflower State, the Eagle Eye (not to be confused with the Evil Eye)  notes a new immigration lawsuit that's coming into play in the Kansas 3rd GOP primary, one of the hottest in the nation.

(Note on the Evil Eye: According to the link provided above, the concept transcends culture: "In Hebrew it is ayin ha'ra (the evil eye), which in Yiddish is variously spelled ayin horoh, ayin hora, or ayen hara. In mainland Italian it is mal occhio (the bad eye) and in Spanish mal ojo or el ojo (the bad eye or just the eye). In Sicily it is jettatore (the projection [from the eye]) and in Farsi it is bla band (the eye of evil)." Remember that at your next dinner party.)

On the GOP convention front, Sen. Sam Brownback's been added to the New York speaker roster.  He's been in Israel, telling Knesset members the U.S. should move its embassy to Jerusalem -- in part to get President Bush more votes.

That's the story, morning glories -- more on terror training later today.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

First edition/manifesto

This entry is a test. It's only a test. I swear, it's only a test.
Eight o'clock in a dusky D.C. evening, and the marketing folks say I better get something posted fast unless I want the world to beat a path away from my door at the sight of blogging blankness on my very own blog, sponsored by the kind and tolerant folks at Knight Ridder Newspapers.
If you're looking at this, it's probably because you're A. A Knight Ridder consumer, B. Interested in Kansas politics, or C. You got trapped in one weird Google search. This blog is here to serve all interests. Immediate interest is campaign '04, most immediate is next week's Dem. convention. But we'll evolve as we go along.
Background on me: Wichita Eagle Washington reporter. Live in Alexandria, VA. Been here since September 2001, which was an interesting time to move from Wichita to Washington. Minnesota native, been in journalism since '98.
Conventions coming up. Monday, to be exact, but everyone's running around, making last-minute preparations. Got an invite today from Dan Glickman, former Kansas Fourth District congressman, current head of Harvard's Institute of Politics at the Kennedy school and new head of the Motion Picture Association of America. Dan's Harvard group is doing a study on young voters attitudes in 2004, and he's having a reception rolling it out on Thursday. Can't make it -- I won't be in Boston 'til Saturday -- but I'll post it once it's available.
Purpose of blog: Inform voters. Entertain readers. Link to relevant information, which is going to have heavy Sunflower emphasis (and isn't it ABOUT TIME someone did that? Hoo-ha for Kansas!) in an effort to make this a must-read for the Kansas-connected. Please -- tell your friends -- blogs are viral, so catch the bug! Impress your relatives by knowing me. Comment. Point out typos. All will build a better blog.