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Republican National Convention
Interview with Bill Harris, Convention Manager and CEO - Nov. 23,2004
[very preliminary transcript]

Democracy in Action:  You've been working on conventions since 1988?

HARRIS:  Actually it's 1984.  I started out--I've been to 'em since '72, but the first one of any significance, I was the Sergeant at Arms for the convention in 1984.

Democracy in Action:  Is that a decorative position?

HARRIS:  No, it was a working position.  It was an all volunteer position, but it was a working position.  I was in charge of all the security and the...crowd management for the one in Dallas.  It was Reagan's second convention.

Democracy in Action:  Each convention is unique.  The obvious thing about this one would probably be security more than ever before, but what are some other things.

HARRIS:  ...Obviously any time that you are the perceived ruling party in a time of war it's a different thing and security was much more stringent than anything I've xxx  I think that being in New York xxx  it was an environment where people assumed that we would have a great deal of trouble--because I mean I think the President got 28 % of the vote in Manhattan if I remember correctly.  Not a bedrock of support.  And because  xxx construction intensive operation, it's a very heavy labor union environment, which is not traditionally  xxx and you're dealing with an incumbent president.  So all of those make it a remarkable opportunity...

Democracy in Action:  Could you identify some major forks in the road where you could have taken one direction or another?

HARRIS:  I think that sort of operationally we took the attitude to be cooperative and you found out that things that people perceived to be hostile were not.  For instance a lot of people in New York weren't going to vote for the president but they wanted the convention to be successful in New York City.  Labor unions were not necessarily going to vote for the President for re-election, but they were proud of the work they did and they wanted to be successful so they could get more business.  So xxx between the city and the convention operation. 

And I think secondly the decision to really make sure that you took care of the people in the hall--make sure they had a proper atmosphere to do their work--but to realize that it wasn't just television.

The decision to use the round stage on the last night, but also I think probably even more significant than that was the decision to raise the floor.  The floor of the arena was raised 9 1/2 feet on steel beams over and above what it normally was.  I think gave it  xxx  so that when you looked at the floor of the convention you were looking at something 9 1/2 above, for instance, basketball.

So we came in and we had offices down there--all of our dressing rooms and teleprompter rooms and all that were down underneath that floor.  So administratively it helped a little bit because we got extra workspace.  But I think that it created a much more intimate television atmosphere.   I think that the round television helped.

The minimalist stage.  I mean before if you think about our podiums and also quite honestly the Democrat podium this time, [they] tend to be huge, big, running, massive affairs and ours was much more simplistic in nature.  It was actually asymmetrical if you remember looking at it.  It was not a symmetrical stage.  And I think the entertainment stage where it came up and down was very helpful in adding to sort of the excitement and the atmosphere.  People got to where they really anticipated that.

Democracy in Action:  I wasn't ready for the round stage; was that a surprise?

HARRIS:  Well it wasn't as much of a surprise as we wanted it to be of course.  We had thought of various ways of doing it as a surprise but by the time you have hundreds of workers working on it and you have to work with a lot of the camera intensive organizations to work out camera angels ahead of time so it sort of got out but it was not widely known what we were going to do and it wasn't known exactly what we were going to do.

Democracy in Action:  What were some of the other ways you considered, but you didn't decide to go ahead with?

HARRIS:  ...You're limited somewhat in your options.  We looked at multiple stages; we looked at doing it totally in the round which is impractical when you actually do business-type sessions in that you disenfranchise half your house basically.  So we decided not to do that.  And you looked at going in one end zone.  We think we came up with the best options, what worked for us.

Democracy in Action:  Was that a sudden light bulb, the idea of doing it in the round?

HARRIS:  No it evolved over time.  We started out--  I ran a process early on with both people involved in politics, people involved in other conventions, people involved in production, not necessarily political production, to try to come up with new ideas and new concepts so that you didn't necessarily reject everything you'd done in the past but that you try to take a fresh look at it.  We tried in organization, in construction, in programming to take a fresh look at what we were doing to try to make it a little relevant to the process.

Democracy in Action:  If I'm going back and looking at videotape of the convention are there any little details that I might notice if you were to point them out that I wouldn't have seen on the first viewing?

HARRIS:  Every convention, be it Democrat or Republican, tries to have a thematic development.  We of course continued to try to do that.  But I think that what we tried to do was to--with two things which I think were a little unique--where we would try to have issue segments, where it wouldn't be me coming up an droning on about one particular thing, but we would try to address it in multiple ways so that you would have a segment which would have somebody say something about it onstage, maybe somebody in a video clip, maybe somebody from a remote location so that it was sort of a fresh approach...   I think that's a different way of looking at what you're doing.  And I think also we used what we called convention jockeys, which we'd never used before, which I think--I remember the meetings where we sort of evolved that concept, where you try to involve people in the hall more with what's going on and to liven it up and to make it a total sort of production scenario.  I think that really worked.

Democracy in Action:  Waht was the biggest risk you took in terms of something you weren't sure whether it would work?

HARRIS:  Well I think there were several things.  I think going to New York was a risk to begin with.  I think secondly changing over to that second stage for the last night was a risk...  We only had a limited amount of time to do that.  And then our time frame it was right.  I mean we finished the turnover just in time for the president to come do his practice.  So that was--if you'd had any sort of hitch there that would have been risky.  I think that from a political viewpoint the decision on whether or not to address 9-11 at all as part of the programming, which we faced and of course were under even more pressure after the Democrats focused on it so much themselves at their convention.  So that bore a certain amount of risk.

Democracy in Action:  Day-to-day running of this whole operation, what's for you the biggest headache, most difficult part of the job.

HARRIS:  It's of course a many multi-million dollar operation.  And I think the understanding that if you have a normal corporation and you go put in a computer system--I mean you conceptualize the system, you design it, you put it in, and then you've got a few months of tweaking to make it work and get the bugs out of it.  We don't have that luxury...  We know that at a specific time, 10:02 on the 2nd of September, the President was going to accept the nomination of the party.  So we couldn't say, oh wait a minute we don't have the computers working yet, hold on. try to operate in a businesslike environment, to use the dollars wisely, to get the best bang for the buck, but you know we don't have the luxury, we have no slippage in time.  We have to conceptualize it, build it, operate it and tear it out all in a specific period of time.

I think secondly you're operating with a lot of people that come on board, that haven't necessarily worked together before and so you have to operate a company, if you will, effectively and make everybody work together and understand where they are, is a little bit of a leadership challenge, particularly in the end where we bring on several hundred people the last couple of weeks as volunteers.  And they're full staff members vested with operational ability, but they don't have...the shared doctrine of building up for a period of time.  So making sure that they are, what their job descriptions are XXX resources are associated with them are well communicated to them and well trained.  And then it's not a monolithic operation because you've got the convention, but you also have the host committee, you've got the networks, you've got all the media organizations, you've got the police, in a certain sense you've got the demonstrators, state parties--all of whom expect to do something in and around but they don't work for you.  You've got to make sure they all sort of head in one direction to the extent that you can...

Democracy in Action:  Did you have a chance to look at the Democrats' convention?

HARRIS:  I did not look at it very much to be honest with you...  We felt like we had our mission and we did it successfully.  We weren't going to react to the Democrats at al other than be cognizant of what they were doing with some of their programming and what they were saying politically...  I looked at their stage; I didn't like their stage.  I thought it was too cumbersome and too busy.  I thought it was distracting.

Democracy in Action:  How about their political--their message?

HARRIS:  I think the Democrats made a significant mistake with their convention.  And it wasn't really the convention's fault; it was more of a campaign decision than the convention operation.  It seems to me that they had decided that the country had decided to get rid of Bush and therefore their mission as a convention was to make Kerry acceptable.  And that wan't true.  The country had not decided to get rid of the President.  They might be worried about the situation, they might be concerned, they might be trying to make up their mind, but they hadn't taken the decision.  So I think that they based their approach on a bad premise and to that extent wasted the resource they had available there, the convention.  So it was a mistake.  I think that the President had a good convention, got a lot of momentum and excitement out of it, and I think history will show that Kerry made a mistake.  Not that it didn't work okay...

Democracy in Action:  Can you give a sense of your budget, what the two or three biggest categories of spending are? 

HARRIS:  You got two or three major categories of expenditure.  Staffing is obviously is a major part.  The Committee on Arrangements' budget, if I remember correctly is $38.9 million.  A good percentage of that is the staff operation.  Build out is by far the largest.  The construction in the hall, in the millions of dollars.  Production itself was out of the COA budget.  It was several million dollars for them to do the film, but in the screens and do that sort of thing...  The lights cost a million, the sound cost a million, that sort of thing and then from a city perspective security was by far the largest cost.

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Copyright ©  2004  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.

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