JOSEPH N. BELL -- The Bell Curve

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

Democratic Convention."

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

conventioneers.

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

Thursdays.

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