Behind the Scenes, a Tightly Scripted Affair in Charlotte
Few people are as risk averse as those who are in the business of choreographing politics. Of this group, campaign operatives are the worst.
As a result, bringing together the uncertainty of live television with the high level intensity of the final stretch of a contentious presidential campaign is a recipe for a heart attack among those putting on the giant production that is a political convention.
Enter a group of seasoned veterans who know and understand their party and their convention. These people know that they are meant to put on a show, seduce the public, amuse the media and, perhaps most importantly, script a tight message.
At the Democratic National Convention, this team is made up of four people who will have written every word spoken on the convention stage, outside of individual politicians’ speeches. The scriptwriters are a part of the larger Podium Operations Team, which is sequestered in a narrow closet of an office in the make-shift labyrinth under the belly of the Time Warner Cable Arena stage.
The scriptwriters are led by Rick Boylan, a former DNC staffer currently working as a contractor with Democratic National Committee and the secretary of the Florida Democratic Party; Maritza Rodriguez, formerly a family and immigration law attorney in New Jersey; Laura Khare, an associate general counsel with Motley Rice LLC in South Carolina; and William Cramer, a former DNC staffer and current marketing director of the non-partisan National Association of Counties in Washington, D.C.
The team worked together four years ago to script the Denver convention, so when they touched down in Charlotte on Saturday morning they were ready to “hit the ground writing.”
From 9 a.m. to at least 6 p.m., the script writers wrote non-stop. Everything from the introductions for each speaker to all the procedural processes, the DNC resolutions and anything else that will knit the convention together.
“It’s been really busy,” Cramer said. “But we’re making great progress. We have Tuesday all written and ready to go. Wednesday is 90 percent done and we’re starting to work on Thursday already, which is really kind of early.”
Rodriguez said that this convention is “a little more organized.” For many on the Obama campaign, the 2008 convention was their first. The result was a ton of last minute changes, disorganization and confusion.
The script writing team “was working, literally, 20 minutes ahead of schedule,” she said, with a laugh. “Now we’re three days ahead.” She said that the DNC and the Obama campaign have “got a better handle” on the program. “They are really well prepared,” Rodriguez said.
The program starts this afternoon, and from there every name pronunciation and every word choice is noted in the script. Almost every word that will be uttered on the stage from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m. and then again from 8 p.m. until 10 p.m. is already drafted.
Boylan, the head of the team, will always be on or near the stage.
Both Cramer and Rodriguez have attended a slew of conventions, seven and four respectively. The group of seasoned professional knows the pressure on the campaign to strike the elusive balance between production perfection and genuineness that the public and the media will be looking for during the three-day show.
Don’t expect moments like the Clint Eastwood’s speech at the Republican National Convention in, Cramer said.
“I was watching it feeling very uneasy and just thinking, ‘My god, this is very sad,'” he said. “Especially, the next day when I read in the newspaper that it was ultimately the only two or three minutes the Romney campaign allowed not to be scripted. That was so unfortunate for them, because everything else was so tightly scripted. When [they] gave three minutes, it turned into 10 minutes and it was kind of a rambling mess.
“I think we learned the lesson,” he said. “Certainly, going second, [the Eastwood debacle] is right in to forefront of our minds.”
Another plus of having the scripts written days in advance, Rodriguez said, is that if there are any last minute surprise guests or changes, the team will have enough time to add them in.
“I think they have left in room for surprises,” she said. “But there won’t be the kind of surprises which will make us have to scramble last minute.”
As with all live events, there is only so much preparation the team can do.
At the 2008 convention, for example, one speaker had such a case of nerves that he got sick backstage before he was supposed to go on.
The team hustled and moved things around; the nervous speaker addressed the convention the following night.