The Bush campaign advance team stages a St. Petersburg event that is part rock concert, part infomercial. The goal: Produce the visual image of the president that resonates with TV viewers.
By BILL ADAIR
Published October 31, 2004
[Times photo: Autumn Cruz]
24 HOURS TO GO: At sunrise Oct. 18, roadies build the stage and set up the sound system for President Bush’s campaign stop at Progress Energy Park in St. Petersburg.
COST: It looked like a Bush campaign event, but the Republican Party paid for it. The party would not say what the St. Petersburg rally cost, but a Democratic advance staffer estimated about $110,000, not including such taxpayer costs as police and Secret Service.
TICKETS: More than 11,000 were distributed; 1,000 red ones for prime seats behind the president, 2,000 blue ones for people on the field, 8,000+ green ones for people in the stands.
[Times photo: Autumn Cruz]
STUNT DOUBLE: A yellow flag stands in for the commander in chief to help workers locate the stage and bleachers.
Anatomy of a Bush campaign event
Nothing is left to chance at the rally at Progess Energy Park. The press is strategically placed to get the most favorable camera angles. People are carefully chosen to sit behind the podium. The lighting is perfect, 12,000 watts on the presidential nose. Click for interactive graphic
‘Put the bike rack near POTUS’
The lingo of the White House advance staff and roadies BIKE RACK: The portable fencing used for crowd control. BUFFER: The area around the stage to separate the president from the crowd. He shakes hands with supporters here. FLOTUS: First Lady of the United States.
MAGS: Magnetometers, the metal detectors the Secret Service uses to check the crowd for weapons. POTUS: President of the United States. Other nicknames include the Boss, the Man. ROPE LINE: A line or fence that separates people from the president. When he shakes hands there, he “works the rope line.” VOICE OF GOD: Introduces the president. He or she does not appear on stage, so the voice seems to come from the heavens. WHEELS UP: The moment that Air Force One or another plane in the president's entourage leaves the ground.
The president’s motorcade included at least two dozen cars, buses and SUVs, carrying dozens of reporters, Secret Service agents and police. Click for graphic
Precise to the minute, the advance team changes the schedule right before showtime.
“The Shot.” After six days of planning and countless hours of hard work, everything comes together.
[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
ST. PETERSBURG - The tiny yellow flag is the president of the United States.
Planted behind home plate at Progress Energy Park, it marks the spot where President Bush will stand during a rally 36 hours away.
For the White House aides and political roadies setting up this "Victory 2004" event, the flag is the center of the universe. Key decisions - where the TV cameras will go, where the Secret Service agents will stand, where Lee Greenwood will sing God Bless the USA - revolve around the flag.
"The Shot" - how the event will look in newspapers and on TV - drives even the smallest details. The target audience is not the crowd in the stadium but TV viewers around the country.
The advance team will spend six days and tens of thousands of dollars readying an event that Bush will attend for less than an hour. They'll build a concrete platform near the pitcher's mound so the TV camera won't jiggle. They'll illuminate the president's nose with more than 12,000 watts of TV lights to keep it from casting a shadow.
"If he gets up there and the lights are wrong and the sound is wrong, he's going to look like a ghoul," says sound man Howie Lindeman. "That can't happen."
How to bug the Secret Service
Two distinct groups put on the event: the White House staffers and the roadies.
The staffers are true believers, young Republicans, well-coiffed, ambitious. Their leader is 29-year-old Mike Heath, a friendly Massachusetts native with a keen eye for the Shot. His No. 1 goal is to make sure all photos and TV images convey energy and enthusiasm. He will go to great lengths to make sure the president is not photographed against a blank wall or a cluttered street.
While the staffers fret over the Shot, the roadies focus on the Show.
Veterans of tours ranging from Metallica to Riverdance, they build the stage and arrange the lighting and sound.
Lindeman stacks speakers in front of the third-base dugout. He is 52, with short gray hair, Army pants and Magnum police boots. He has done sound work for Kiss, Stevie Wonder and the Rolling Stones, and says he has won three Grammys and worked on 28 albums that went platinum.
"And I'm still broke!" he says, smiling.
His sound partner is 34-year-old Matt Fox, who has a shaved head, a goatee and four silver earrings. Among his claims to fame: He won an episode of Rock and Roll Jeopardy.
Touring with Bush because they need the work, they won't discuss their politics, lest they jeopardize future gigs. The rebels of the roadies, they blast heavy metal when they conduct sound checks, just to annoy the Secret Service.
Hecklers be gone
Heath and his team arrive six days before the Oct. 19 event. They enlist dozens of Republican Party volunteers to handle everything from painting signs to escorting VIPs.
The volunteers gather above the first-base dugout. "You guys are going to be the captains," White House advance staffer Jonathan Hoffman tells them. "It's really important to remember that most people will only get to see a president once in their lives. It's our job to make sure that's as easy as possible."
Hoffman raises the delicate subject of hecklers. By requiring tickets, the event will be private; they can remove anyone who is disruptive. The campaign prohibits people from bringing signs, even pro-Bush ones, because demonstrators have been known to conceal anti-Bush ones behind them.
Instead, people will be given signs that are supposed to look homemade, painted by campaign volunteers. The messages include: "WOMEN FEEL SAFE WITH BUSH," "Babes for Bush" and "Jenna Will You Marry Me?"
The organizers are secretive about how they deal with demonstrators, but both parties use a tried-and-true approach: Volunteers sprinkled in the crowd watch for hecklers. Any protester is quickly surrounded, blanketed with campaign signs and drowned out with a chant ("Four more years!").
The campaign tightly controls tickets for people sitting near the president, so there's little chance a protester can mar the Shot.
For this rally, the Pinellas Republican Party distributes more than 11,000 color-coded tickets; 1,000 red ones go to VIPs and loyal Republican workers. They can sit behind the podium, in the Shot. Another 2,000 blue tickets allow people on the field, near the president. The remaining 8,000 green ones go to regular folk.
Nothing off message
Every presidential event has a message. It comes not just from the president's words but from the backdrop.
In a photo "there is a certain amount of space that's always going to be around his head," says Mel Lukens, who runs Showcall, a company that stages the Bush events. By putting the message in that space "you are ensuring you are going to get your message on TV. Someone flipping the channels sees the sign "Leadership Matters' and - boom! - you have conveyed your message."
The message of the St. Petersburg rally, held two weeks before the election, is enthusiasm for the president, conveyed through a backdrop of cheering supporters.
Designing the Shot, the White House advance team wants to avoid anything that undermines the message. That's why photographers will not be allowed to take pictures of Bush arriving. The background would be an office building or a parking garage, and neither structure can be counted on to display proper enthusiasm for the Bush-Cheney ticket.
"The Shot is going to look great," Heath says, surveying the field. "A setting like this will convey there is a lot of enthusiasm out here about the president - even at 6 a.m."
Sound check with Stinkfist
Bush is scheduled to speak at 9 a.m., when the bright sun will be above leftfield. Powerful lights will be needed from the opposite side to prevent the president's nose from casting a shadow.
Lighting technician Kimber Simms stands onstage where Bush will stand; a colleague focuses the lights on her. Perfect.
As workers unfurl a "4 MORE YEARS" banner, Lindeman makes an announcement through a device that distorts his voice into a demonic roar. "THIS IS THE VOICE OF YOUR LORD. IT'S ABOUT TO GET LOOOOOUUUUD."
Tool's Stinkfist booms from the speakers.
Pain and comfort
Deep within you
'Til you will not have me any other way
Fox walks the stands to listen for "flat spots," and Lindeman walks the outfield to make sure the sound will reach a large crowd.
Satisfied, he returns to the sound board and announces in his menacing voice:
"THE VOICE OF YOUR FATHER SAYS, WE'RE DONE! HAAAAA-HAAAA-HAAAAA-HAAAAAA!"
No blanks allowed
The stage is assembled, the president's podium front and center, with loudspeakers beneath it. But that's a problem. Can't have speakers cluttering the Shot.
Karen Reaves, a member of Heath's advance team, tells Lindeman the speakers must move.
Lindeman hates when his beloved speakers have to play second fiddle. He says White House staffers know so little about sound that "feedback is a foreign concept to them" - but he knows it's futile to argue. The Shot trumps everything.
"We can put them wherever you want," he says, "as long as the infield folks can hear."
The original plan called for the president to exit the first-base dugout, step onto a curved ramp and walk to the stage. But someone notices that, for a few seconds, no Bush supporters would appear in the Shot; the backdrop would be a boring green wall.
"You don't want to put him in a position where there's not smiling faces behind him," says Lukens.
They tear up the ramp and rebuild it to make room for people to stand in front of the wall.
Heath is unhappy with the camera angle from the stand-up platform, where reporters will do live reports for Good Morning America and the CBS Early Show. A pole partially blocks the "4 MORE YEARS" banner; he directs a crew to move it.
The advance team discusses where to hang a huge American flag and whether a Florida flag can be placed beside it. They decide to use only the American flag, centered behind the president.
Advice for the Boss
At 5:45 a.m. - three hours before showtime - Lindeman conducts a final sound check, blasting AC/DC.
Shook me all night long
Yeah you shook me all night long
Working double time
On the seduction line
If anyone in the neighborhood was sleeping, they aren't now.
At the sound board, Lindeman dons his headset. "Go for Howie," he says.
He is talking to Lukens, in the dugout, the anonymous "Voice of God" who will introduce the president and others on stage.
Lindeman tells Lukens that because of the high humidity and the stadium echo, he should alert "the boss" - President Bush - to lean closer than usual to the microphone.
Lukens practices his lines. "Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Taylor Pancake!" he says in a deep voice, referring to a soldier who will speak before Bush.
Heath's insistence on moving the "4 MORE YEARS" banner pays off. When Kate Snow does a live report for Good Morning America, the sign appears beside her head.
By 7:30 a.m., several hundred Bush supporters with blue tickets are crowded around the stage. They are a demographic mix: retirees, yuppies, a soldier, students, a mom with her daughter on her hip. Black people get prime seats behind the president.
The Progress Energy signs in the stadium have been covered with "WWW.GOP.GOV."
The advance team finds the perfect group to fill the space in front of the boring green wall: Little Leaguers in bright red and purple uniforms.
Volunteers hand out tiny American flags and red, white and blue pompoms.
The Shot is ready.
As Lee Greenwood warms up the crowd, Heath steps to the podium. He wants to make sure the lights are not too bright for Bush to see the crowd. He places white tape on the stage to let Bush know where to stand while he's being introduced.
Greenwood finishes his hit, God Bless the USA. "Leadership matters!" he shouts. "The president will be right out! Let him know you love him!"
Bush's intro music begins, songs selected to build excitement and show that Republicans can rock. The first is Van Halen's Right Now. (Do the Bush supporters swaying to the beat realize it comes from the album For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge?) Next comes Brooks & Dunn's Only In America (a more fitting tune for this crowd: "Only in America . . . Dreaming in red, white and blue.")
The crowd chants "Four more years! Four more years!"
The Voice of God echoes:
"Ladies and gentlemen! Please welcome Taylor Pancake . . . the next senator from the great state of Florida, Mel Martinez . . . and Gov. Jeb Bush."
"Ladies and gentlemen! The president of the United States!"
Lights, camera - the Shot
The crowd roars. People wave the campaign-furnished signs. Bush walks the ramp, waving and smiling. The loudspeakers blast Gary Glitter's Rock & Roll, Pt. 2, the "Hey Song."
"It's close to voting time," the president says, "and I'm here to ask for your vote."
His stock campaign speech is fresh to this crowd. He jokes about Dick Cheney's hair and criticizes Sen. John Kerry for "20 years of out-of-the-mainstream votes." The crowd cheers the applause lines, boos any mention of the opponent.
The lights pump 12,000 watts on Bush's countenance, leaving no hint of a shadow from his nose. Behind him, the multicultural crowd waves flags and signs.
There are no hecklers, just an overly enthusiastic Bush supporter who shouts, "To hell with France!"
The Shot makes the local and national news.
WTSP-Ch. 10 begins its report with people swaying as Greenwood croons God Bless the USA. CBS and ABC use extensive footage of supporters waving signs and flags, perfectly lit and buzzing with energy.
For Heath, it's another successful event. "Now we'll clean up, start breaking everything down - and get ready for the next one."
- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Washington Bureau Chief Bill Adair can be reached at 202 463-0575 or firstname.lastname@example.org