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THE VIEW FROM THE FLOOR.

 
   
   
 

"Go ahead, sir."

The security guard with the wand is waving me through, but I barely hear him. I'm about to walk head on into Republican National Convention territory, and I feel like a criminal. I'm not carrying a

 
 

weapon. I'm not carrying drugs. I'm not even carrying a camera cell phone. What I am carrying is a sincere distaste for the Bush administration, and though I carry it deep within me, I sense that the cheerful delegates around me can somehow smell it on me like a dog smells fear. I'm an intruder. An outsider.

As I pass through the metal detector, I am suddenly struck by the fantasy that my liberal bleeding heart will be visible on the security x-ray machine. "We got us another one!" they'll say, as they throw me up against the wall, the free

 
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condoms I planned to distribute spilling from my pockets.

That doesn't happen. Instead, I find myself safely inside the so-called "media tent" in the Farley Post Office Building across from MSG, where I stop to catch my breath. People with Blackberry pagers and laptops scurry past me. None of them even stop to look at the shiny media credentials I've been lucky enough to snag for a few hours. But no matter. I'm in.

And I'm immediately disappointed. There's not a whole lot to see in the media area. Curtains divide the first floor of the Farley Building into makeshift offices, and in each one, a clumsy arrangement of chairs and computers is visible. Newspapers stacked on desks spill over onto the floor, and four days worth of used coffee cups litter the tables. Nobody seems to be working. Granted, it's 6 p.m., and the convention program doesn't begin for almost two hours, but the emptiness and lack of activity is eerie.

Arrows plastered on the walls direct visitors to a stairwell where, according to a nearby sign, they are promised "Restaurant -- Spa." This is more like it. On the second floor, past a very gourmet-looking snack bar, I climb a rickety set of stairs and almost walk into a guy setting up a tricky shot over a pool table. I am in the Barney's New York complimentary day spa for journalists. A very pleased-looking group of men and women are receiving haircuts, massages and manicures, while others lounge on couches and wait their turn. If you felt for a minute that news coverage of the convention was shoddy or incomplete, it's because the entire Fourth Estate is hanging out here, instead of, oh, say … working.

The entrance to the mysterious footbridge spanning Eighth Avenue is blocked by yet another security checkpoint. I take my place in line behind a cluster of Texas-shirt wearing guests, and, my panic having subsided, I get through with no problem. While replacing my loose items in my pockets, I spot Pat Boone in a butter yellow-colored blazer and striped shirt standing in the corner.

"Can I take a picture in here?" I ask a guard. She looks at me like I've just asked if I can leave a stick of dynamite.

"Just thought I'd ask first," I say.

"Good decision," she says.

That is why I do not have a picture of Pat Boone in a butter yellow-colored blazer.

The footbridge (carpeted on the inside, natch) deposits visitors in the outer ring of Madison Square Garden. Walking around the arena's circumference, one passes an information booth, a half dozen concession stands, and a set of glass doors through which delegates arriving on buses are streaming into the place. I step up to a "merch" table, where vendors are doing a brisk business in T-shirts, buttons and keychains. I try to take a look at what items are available in the display case, but pushy delegates keep nudging me aside to be next in line. I make a few attempts to get the attention of a woman behind the counter, but she looks right past me. It's worse than trying to order a drink at a club. I walk away.

Up the escalators, to the doors that access the arena floor itself. Upon emerging from the gate onto the floor of Madison Square Garden, I can't help but blink in surprise. It is bright in there. It seems smaller than it does on TV, and relatively quiet. A few hundred delegates mill about on the floor, circulating among the folding chairs and signs that indicate each state's designated area. Other people sit scattered throughout the rest of the Garden's nearly 20,000 seats. I see why the Texas folks have arrived early -- the alternate delegates have staked a claim of about 100 seats in the first seating section off the floor, and as they chatter amongst themselves, one enthusiastic representative strikes up a cheer that his fellow Texans quickly pick up. "Four more years! Four more years!" I look around. Nobody else in the place is chanting along. It is 6:20 p.m.

The arena seats directly across from the stage are surprisingly empty, and I take a spot three rows back from the floor. The view is terrific. The tech crew is testing the enormous monitors that rise up behind the podium, shuffling through the various graphics that the Republicans have chosen as symbolic of their party. The Statue of Liberty. A waving American flag. The word "COMPASSION." It's hypnotic. In the upper decks, the various television news networks have set up shop, each with a rudimentary studio overlooking the floor, and each with a big backlit sign bearing their network's logo. Al-Jazeera is there -- their sign is small and tucked away under a shadowy overhang. Banners draped along the upper guardrails scream the convention slogans: "A Nation of Courage," "Fulfilling America's Promise." The giant monitor now reads, "A Safer World, A More Hopeful America." Madison Square Garden is decorated entirely in Message.

The Texans start yelling again, some sort of call-and-response "We Love Bush" chant. I glance over, assuming they've strategically located themselves behind the section of the floor reserved for their own delegates. But they're smarter than that. They're actually seated on the exact opposite side of the Garden from their own delegation, which means two groups of rowdy Texans, wearing two groups of identical Texas-flag shirts, are bellowing at each other over the heads of every other person on the floor. Man, are they hollerin' up a storm, I tell you what. These guys own the place. By and large, the Texans are being aggressively ignored. A tall man from the nearby Arizona delegation gives them a dirty look.

The stage is big. Real big. It's hard to tell from the cable news coverage, but a runway extends about 30 feet in front of the podium, terminating in a circular stairway that looks kind of like a flattened, many-tiered wedding cake. Another podium hidden in the top stair raises up so the more prominent speakers can address the crowd from a thrust stage. The whole thing looks more suitable for a fashion show or Busby Berkeley production number than for a speech about terrorism. But what is a national political convention if not a week-long production number? Who are the countless party faithful strutting around on stage if not models on display? Except instead of unveiling the new fall couture, the GOP is here to show off their designs for the next four years.

The Texans are at it again. This time, they're holding their cowboy hats high in the air and twisting them back and forth on each syllable of a two-word chant. I can't make out what they're saying but they're certainly well choreographed. Twist, twist. Back and forth. Then I catch the words: they're shouting "Flip-flop! Flip-flop!" The convention doesn't even start for another hour.

The floor is starting to fill up. A polo-shirted convention staffer repeatedly informs those seated around me that the first six rows of our section are reserved, but nobody moves. On stage, the New York Port Authority color guard gathers for a rehearsal. I watch their flags bob up and down -- they seem to be having some trouble getting their act together. Another staffer wanders across the floor with an armful of cardboard "4 More Years" signs, haphazardly handing them out to delegates. I look up, and stuck on any available space on the lighting grid are giant nets filled with balloons. I know the big balloon drop comes right after Bush concludes his speech, and the thought of being in the convention hall when those balloons all come fluttering down makes it seem almost worthwhile to sit through the following four hours of Republican rhetoric. Almost.

The Texans are trying unsuccessfully to start a wave. This seems as good a time as any to leave.

Anyway, I can't stay -- I need to return my credentials. Though the evening's program starts in five minutes, I'm shocked at how few people seem to be in the arena. But once I make it downstairs and exit the Garden, I see them. Thousands of delegates, guests and visitors, cramming through the metal detectors, spilling out of the doors and down 7th Avenue. Many of these people are wearing goofy hats. There are a surprising number of little kids. And all of them are psyched. Unlike most of the people inside, these eager attendees exude a thrilling energy, these people who have come to hear their President speak, who are excited to be a part of something larger than themselves. I may not agree with them, but as I slip past the crowd, I'm glad to have experienced a tiny bit of that emotion.

Not as glad as I am to be moving in the opposite direction, though.

 

Jason Reich is an Emmy-winning writer for The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.