There’s nothing like a battalion of local police armed with high-powered pepper ball rifles to get those gears of democracy turning.

pepper ball

So, missing the good vibes of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions of four summers ago, we lurch into the second series of post-9/11 political confabs, where the full authority of the Washington law enforcement and homeland security establishment enjoins every available local cop and emergency responder to converge on two cities to protect the whole of the Washington political establishment brave terror threats and summer traffic to nominate two guys for president and to well, hold a big pep rally for themselves. Oh yeah, and to establish party platforms — that’s well worth the $200 million in security costs right there!

It’s good to know that the fuzz has armed up for the celebrations, though. Not to be outdone by pepper balls in Denver, the St. Paul police have purchased tasers in honor of the RNC event.

It all brings me back to those magical 2004 conventions in Boston and New York City. Basically, just when you thought the political caste system that had hardened like sedimentary rock around these pretentious party rituals every four years couldn’t get more stratified, 9/11 happened and then convention security became the new fetish, the new vanity – and the ultimate rubric for determining the importance and self-worth of every individual there. More doors to shut in the face of the hoi poloi, more bodyguards and handlers to rush the serious pol on endless hallway sprints to nowhere, an improved battery of multi-colored credentials to determine one’s security “clearance” into which reception, access to which hallway in the conference center.

In Boston and NYC, it was helicopters above, and cops in riot gear ahead, closing off yet another street 20 blocks away from the convention center – could there be a security breach, an actual terrorist? More likely it was the season’s more deadlier threat: a cheeky intern demanding your credentials, NYPD’s finest looking on to bounce your lame reporter’s butt from the premises – which happened to be a hotel conference room nowhere near the triumphal convention center — if necessary. Or maybe the temporary police barricade was thrown up to assist that Very Important Pol in his black mid-sized luxury car get to his Very Important Panel discussion on why Americans think congress is out of touch at some swanky midtown club.

Believe me, it happened. Like all the time.

Ah, the sweet smell of democracy. I’d listen to “conservative” Republicans mash all day about good Christian ideals and “fiscal responsibility” and the federal trough and all that, and then have to wring a story out of some “event” like “Meet the NASCAR Dads” which was really a greasy Potemkin village barely hiding the lobbyist trough laid out, all lobster tails and microbrews, for the swells with the right colored credentials.

Inside the convention halls, there were elaborate digs for “radio row” and “bloggers ally,” where pundits would preen and sycophants pant – all day – while suckers like me tried to find anything resembling a story with a shelf-life beyond a piece of haddock. There’s Newt Gingrich, happy to stop for a millisecond to bestow a vague, insipid quote before gliding off, handlers and college-age dreamers in tow. There’s Sean Hannity, holding forth at his radio kiosk, long-legged girls and proto-courtiers lined up four deep to giggle at his every syllable.

All this to eventually hear Rudy Giuliani say “Thank God that George Bush is our president, ” and watch Zell Miller do his best Lonesome Rhodes impersonation (later, a moon-faced Chris Matthews would replay his on-air scuffle with Miller 1,567 times, his proudest moment of any Republican confab ever).

If I sound bitter, it’s probably because my clearest memory of the RNC “event” was toiling away in an unfurnished trailer dumped in the middle of 100 creepier trailers in the middle of what can only be described as an armed camp. Cement barricades and floodlights everywhere, cops with automatic weapons lined up like it was Stalingrad – they were nice enough when you needed to get by, but come on. Once in the convention center, I had but 15 minutes at a clip to race down like ten staircases to the main floor to hook some poor delegate in a menacing hat for a quote, before I had to race back up the ten staircases, five floors to our press booth, past a series of manned checkpoints and sudden squalls that would gather around B-list celebrities, in time, so I didn’t have to forfeit my pass forever.

The Democratic Boston mess was no better. I remember standing in a line a million miles long outside the Fleet Center – another Orwellian nightmare, more invoking of Animal Farm – hoping to God I hadn’t anything in my bottomless workbag to set the armed guards at the metal detectors askew, a one way pass to an un-credentialed exile for the rest of the week. Once in, we started what would become the dance: march the gauntlet to the convention center, try to snag lawmakers and Very Important Pundits as they rushed by fiercely, with totem handlers, all on cell phones, to places unknown in a haste not understood because it was in fact, only 2 p.m. on the first day of the convention.

The fatuousness was enough to power, well, a missile of most destructive proportions. A country at war, every corner of the nation at risk from Islamofascist (was that term in vogue then?) bogeymen and sleeper cells of death, and the Washington establishment partying it up and enjoying the dearth wealth of every local, state and federal law enforcement resource at hand, on our dime.

Fast forward to 2008 – the year of change – we’re still at war and our soldiers are still bleeding on foreign soil. No mind, the corporate booty will arrive on time in Denver and St. Paul for the ultimate high school reunion, law enforcement at all levels will demand tens of millions of dollars in public funding as overtime to secure the cities from threats of all types – including scummy protesters and un-credentialed reporters. Federal agents will spy, and the Department of Homeland Security will cordon off massive perimeters as National Security Events, unleashing more resources and untold surveillance practices. Word is, homeland security maneuvers have already begun in Denver, in helicopters, buzzing low, dark dragonflies among the tall buildings.

The one possibility for authenticity within this mélange of plastic perversity is the Ron Paul rally planned for St. Paul, and accompanying movement to nail down enough Paul delegates to secure him a speaking role at the convention, as well as force a vote for vice president, in hopes of getting Paul on McCain’s ticket. The latter’s a veritable dream sequence, but the prospect of a real moment, forced by outsiders with all the desire to beat not join this carnival of hypocrisies, may be the only reason to attend the Republican National Convention in 2008. I leave it up to someone keener than myself to think of a good reason for covering the Democratic one.