Recalling a low-tech visit during a high-tech political convention

I can say with relative certainty that I was the only journalist to cover both the Republican National Convention and the Brickyard 400 in the same week in 2000.

The winners were a pair of Texas guys. Both were emerging from the shadows cast by more imposing members of their own families — George W. Bush and Bobby Labonte.

The pandemic-prompted virtual conventions of these two weeks brought to mind how 2000 introduced what was touted as The First Great High-Tech Convention. There were breathless press releases about the miles and miles of ethernet cables and all the accoutrements that enabled the media and officials to communicate efficiently and electronically.

At the time I was afflicted with what I referred to as a “sick fascination with politics.”

Hard to believe, but we were still in the beep-beep-beep-beep-buzzzzzzz-crrrrrrrrr-grh dialup days of digital communication then. Even that was leaps and bounds from the previous convention, when someone’s mobile phone was roughly the size of a four-slice toaster.

Covering the Brickyard 400 NASCAR race was a no-brainer for a sports columnist with a company credit card and Marriott Platinum status. It was a geographically convenient, and, as a Saturday race, we could make a splash in the Sunday paper and reconnect to the NASCAR population we hadn’t seen in a couple of months.

The convention, well …

Well, at the time I was afflicted with what I referred to as a “sick fascination with politics.”

As opposed to being a little more than sick of politics right now.

The madness of a political convention always intrigued me. And who was more experienced in covering a big event and relating all the color and flavor of such an extravaganza than a sports columnist? After all, it was just a big ol’ Super Bowl, but with more people in suits and with more speeches. The energy was the same, the fib-factor the same, the blind devotion the same.

I mentioned that “sick fascination” to my boss, the amazing Joe Distelheim, and that I’d always wanted to cover a political convention. Joe had hired famed writer Mitch Albom at a newspaper in Detroit, and he hmmmed, “You know, we used to send Mitch to the convention.”

So. There.

They also used to send Mitch to the Iditarod, America’s Cup, Wimbledon and the like. Somehow I couldn’t pull those off. Philadelphia and the Republican Convention, yep.

We had a political reporter named Brett Davis who would handle the nuts-and-bolts. My task was to come up with a column a day that told a personal story or set the scene or was something the wire services wouldn’t provide. I covered a protest and I wrote about a high school kid who was an honorary delegate. I wrote about the madness inside the convention hall.

Then, the day before I flew off to Indianapolis for the race, I rented a car and drove west to Amish country.

If this was The First Great High Tech Convention, I was curious how that was touching a sheltered community an hour away, for whom “high tech” was such a foreign concept. Did they know what was happening in Philadelphia? Did they vote? Did they care? How did they get their news?

Indeed, there was an awareness, but a very cautious one.

I talked for a long time with a middle-aged gentleman who ran a store there. He had a great perspective, that, yes, politics was important. But there was a distrust of politicians and the seedy process.

He also told me a lot about the Amish, their beliefs, their lifestyle, their reluctance to embrace all things modern. So grateful I was for his time, I wanted to buy a few souvenirs to return the favor.

As I thumbed through my wallet for some cash, the Amish store proprietor miles away from the great high-tech convention said, “We do take Visa and American Express.”

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