The Real Work

The Real Work

I spent the better part of my July working in Cleveland for the RNC, as part of the pool team for CBS News. In a nutshell, we were tasked with setting up and capturing all the goings-on of the events during the convention for the major networks so that everyone didn’t need to set up their own cameras and gear. Each network divides the big events among themselves based on a lottery system, so CBS had the RNC, CNN had the DNC and the other three (Fox, ABC, NBC) will have the debates.

These sort of large scale events are an exercise in herding cats as there are so many moving parts at any given time, it can be very hard to see the forest for the trees. Between layers upon layers of meetings, indecisions based upon a variety of new factors and just the general chaos of having literally hundreds of people working all at the same time, these events take weeks, even months to come together. Thankfully, on our end at least, we were able to do the job and then get out.

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Since I had such a long time in one location, surrounded by a group of people that I didn’t usually get the chance to mingle with on a consistent basis, being a resident of ultra-liberal New York, I talked as much as I could with various people, to try and understand and appreciate their beliefs and points of view.

Last night, during a conversation with a few friends, the point was raised that when you can put a real face on an issue, people’s general beliefs and prejudices are easier to wash away. The example used was when an anti-gay group talks directly with a gay activist and they all realize that, you know what, we’re all just people. When we talk in generalities, that’s when the real ugliness comes out because talking in general is a victimless crime. Hypothetically hating someone or a group does not render any target, but to target an actual person or group that is right in front of you… human empathy usually kicks in. Or so we hope.

Many of the people who attended the convention were typical people in every which way. They waited in line, excited to be a part of the event, even if most weren’t overly enthusiastic about the candidate. Most seemed more curious about how it would turn out than actually looking forward to what would be said. One man said it was like binge watching a show, at a certain point you should probably take a break, but you’ve come this far, and want to see how it ends.

As I got to know some of the people a bit, we’d discuss sports (Go CAVS! Go Indians! Eh, let’s not talk about the Browns), family, the idea of what it means to be a good American, how much it hurts to see people get injured doing their job and I would usually not bring up politics since I had a feeling it would be a third rail.

By invoking just one name, these seemingly low key people who I agreed with on a wide variety of things, would suddenly start to fill with anger and for a time, there would be little room for common ground.

That name of course was: Hillary

“Lock her up!”

“She’s a war criminal!”

“She’s a murderer!”

“She’s a disgrace to women.”

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All of them were talking points and chants during the convention but they also were spoken directly to me. I made it clear I was not looking to defend Hillary Clinton in these discussions, but wanted to know why they had such strong feelings for a person they’d never met. By the personal anger a lot of people expressed, you’d think Hillary had hit their dog, then stolen their life savings and burned their house to the ground. That’s how specific the anger burned.

At first, I would try to form a counter-argument but the thing is, when people are angry, reasons aren’t valid, no matter what. Emotion is what matters. Someone feels guilty, so they are. Justice is blind sure, but the heart is not.

Seeing that this was a dead end spot, I then decided to pivot to another question. What part of America needs to be made “great” again?

Surprisingly, a lot of the people said it was just another slogan, but that it WAS a catchy one. They knew that no one person was going to make America great again, but that the idea that we as a nation were declining was definitely on a lot of minds. Somehow, we’ve become less as a country. Could it be because there just seems to be so much violence within our borders? Could it be because we aren’t fighting any wars currently that we could dominate?

One woman sort of agreed on that latter point, saying America started to decline around the Vietnam war, as that was the first time our military didn’t finish a job and even worse, we treated the returning soldiers like criminals. From that point on, save for the cold war, we’ve had up and down outcomes in our global interventions and that, from her perspective, is the real test of America’s standing. How much ass we can kick and how effectively we kick it.

That might be the real power in Donald Trump: He gives off the persona of an action hero. An old western gun-slinger, who would rather go it alone, guns blazing, in many ways, an American archetype. All of the bile and racial baiting can be overlooked because his message is that it’s time for America to Kick Asses Again. On some level, that does sound appealing. Who hasn’t rooted for the action hero to beat the bad guys up? However, hidden within that is a deeper question that few had the answer to: What happens after that? After the fight, what about the mess left behind? That, to me, ends up being the real issue I have with the Trump campaign since it seems he’d be content to just leave the mess for others to clean up. Like the poor bartender or busboy who has to clean up all the broken glass after a bar fight.

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The week of the convention is a literal showing of force. The streets of downtown Cleveland were filled with law enforcement. Concrete and steel walls were put up everywhere and unless you had the right credentials, you were not getting anywhere near the event. Every morning, as we’d caravan in with our rental car, we’d pass through layer after layer of security and while it was meant to make you feel safe, I ended up feeling more uneasy. I’ve never been one to suppose a worst case, but it should be noted, we did set up what we call the “Doomsday” Camera, a locked off wide shot of the arena from another building. It’s purpose was basically: if the arena was destroyed, that would be a camera angle far enough away to see what was going on. The fact that it was standard protocol for these sort of events speaks for itself.

Thankfully, the convention went smoothly from our standpoint. Enough has been written about what was said and frankly, I couldn’t pay attention to the content of the speeches since all of us on the crew were listening to the director and rest of the team. That’s a sort of funny irony when you cover news: You’re in the middle of it, but don’t actually pay attention to it in the same way. It’s probably for the best, as you can be detached and just do your job rather than get sucked in one way or the other.

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I caught the eye of one worker, an older man who was working at a concession stand. He was taking everything in during one of the nights and could see his face was one of both confusion and a sort of weary resignation. During a little break, I went over to him and at first, we both just nodded at each other. Finally, I asked him how everything had been going. He was glad for the event, because it meant work for everyone employed by the arena. During the summer, when there’s no Cavs basketball, the arena isn’t used as much and a lot of the employees need to take other jobs to make ends meet. For these few weeks, everyone was getting plenty of hours, which was great.

Then, he paused for a minute and looked around.

“Everyone seems scared.”

Of what, I asked?

“That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out. Maybe, fear of the unknown, fear of the future, fear of living in the past or longing for a past that has gone by or never existed to begin with. That explains HIM in a nutshell.”

So, you’re not a fan of Trump?

“I’m not a fan of politicians period. Anyone running for office is someone who wants the spotlight. The best work happens when the lights are low. One thing I’ll give Obama is that he has a good family. He loves his wife, looks like he has two good girls. That’s not a small thing. But, he’s a politician too.”

So, the good work is the work that gets done when nobody is looking?

“Well, think about what you and I are doing here. We’re working while everyone else is partying. Once this is over, we have to clean up, right? That’s the real work.”