My friend and neighbor, Treb Heining, stopped by Friday on his way
home from the Democratic National Convention. He came bearing gifts: a
cap and a spiffy blue shirt, both carrying the crest "America 2000, the
Treb knew where these suckers would find a good home.
I wish I could have created a shirt for Treb with an inscription
reading: "I survived two political conventions in two weeks."
He not only survived, but in the process listened to every speech and
watched every film at both conventions from the best seat in the house:
the photographers' platform directly in front of the podium, from which
he directed a crew of 21 balloonists.
Most of us have lived for years with the illusion that the function of
a presidential convention is to send a winning candidate out to do battle
for his party. But ever since Treb's first convention in 1988, the real
contest has been over the number of balloons dropped on the
Before 1988, a drop of 50,000 balloons was considered spectacular.
When Treb took over the balloon performance at the Republican convention
in 1988, he introduced some revolutionary new techniques (Treb can
inflate and tie 22 balloons a minute) that produced 150,000 and
counting--and smashed the Democrats. So did George Bush. The other one.
The Democrats began to understand the importance of the balloon stakes
in 1992 and especially in 1996, when the 20-foot-high ceilings at the San
Diego Convention Center cramped Treb's style considerably. He told me
plaintively: "I said to the Republicans that year, 'Why don't you people
think about the balloon drop when you pick a convention site?' "
The Democrats, you may recall, won both the balloon and presidential
contests four years ago. You can make whatever connection you like.
So this year, to level the political playing field, Treb and his
partner and companion, Kelli Sipp, engineered a balloon standoff at the
two conventions. Treb was in charge of balloons and confetti in
Philadelphia, and Kelli -- with a distinguished record of design awards
-- won the Democratic job and enlisted Treb's help on the mechanics and
logistics of the balloons. The result: Somewhere between 150,000 and
200,000 balloons hit the floor at both conventions. Thus neither
candidate takes the balloon edge into the campaign getting underway.
Sitting in their kitchen the other day, I asked Treb and Kelli -- both
of whom consider themselves political independents -- to reflect on these
two frenetic weeks. Treb, especially (Kelli wasn't in Philadelphia)
because he could draw direct comparisons.
Treb's assessment was that the Democrats were "much freer, more
easygoing, more given to impulse than the Republicans, who perpetually
left a feeling of being stressed out. I think the balloons in
Philadelphia were the least-scripted part of the whole convention."
A lot of Republicans would agree -- not happily. There was simply a
blizzard of balloons and confetti that rained down after George W. Bush's
acceptance speech, so thick at times it was hard to see anything else.
Said Treb: "Just before the drop was scheduled, we were told they
didn't want any balloons or confetti hitting the stage, so we had to move
everything at the last minute. That's why so much more fell in the front
of the house. But TV made it appear a lot thicker than it really was by
turning their cameras around and shooting through it."
While "the Democratic music was much better, and they had a lot better
sense of showtime than the Republicans," security was something else. In
Philadelphia, the Republicans didn't require credentials for the 200
schoolkids Treb brought in to help blow up the balloons, and convention
workers were given a single credential for the entire period. But in Los
Angeles, each kid was checked by the Secret Service, and workers had to
pick up new credentials each day.
"The biggest relief since coming home from the Democratic convention,"
said Treb, "is that I can go to the bathroom without a credential."
But the feeling that Treb brought home most profoundly is one that not
very many Americans seem to share these days: "If we would take the time
to really watch a convention, no matter how rigidly it is controlled, we
could learn a whole lot about both the candidates and the party."
He watched and listened to the speakers without being distracted by a
TV camera searching out faces for reactions and feels that this practice
is a considerable disservice because "people can't hear the candidates in
the clear, without the conditioning messages from the audience. I was
listening to human beings talking to people, and I wish this could be
experienced by everyone, free of the bias and tricks of the news media
that tell us how to react. When I read the newspaper accounts the next
morning, I wondered if we had been watching the same convention."
Both Treb and Kelli found the atmosphere and content of the two
conventions and the feelings that came through about the candidates
personally persuasive. Gore won the first round for both of them, but,
says Treb, "that may change in the weeks ahead." Besides, even at this
moment of saturation, they would both like to work future conventions.
After all, somebody needs to make sure that candidates go off even in the
battle of the balloons.
JOSEPH N. BELL is a resident of Santa Ana Heights. His column appears