Interview with Bill Harris, Convention Manager and CEO -
Nov. 23,2004 [very preliminary transcript]
in Action: You've been working on conventions since 1988?
HARRIS: Actually it's 1984. I started out--I've been
to 'em since '72, but the first one of any significance, I was the
Sergeant at Arms for the convention in 1984.
Democracy in Action: Is that a decorative position?
HARRIS: No, it was a working position. It was an all
volunteer position, but it was a working position. I was in
charge of all the security and the...crowd management for the one in
Dallas. It was Reagan's second convention.
Democracy in Action: Each convention is unique. The
obvious thing about this one would probably be security more than ever
before, but what are some other things.
HARRIS: ...Obviously any time that you are the perceived
ruling party in a time of war it's a different thing and security was
much more stringent than anything I've xxx I think that being in
New York xxx it was an environment where people assumed that we
would have a great deal of trouble--because I mean I think the
President got 28 % of the vote in Manhattan if I remember
correctly. Not a bedrock of support. And because xxx
construction intensive operation, it's a very heavy labor union
environment, which is not traditionally xxx and you're dealing
with an incumbent president. So all of those make it a remarkable
in Action: Could you identify some major forks in the road
where you could have taken one direction or another?
HARRIS: I think that sort of operationally we took the
attitude to be cooperative and you found out that things that people
perceived to be hostile were not. For instance a lot of people in
New York weren't going to vote for the president but they wanted the
convention to be successful in New York City. Labor unions were
not necessarily going to vote for the President for re-election, but
they were proud of the work they did and they wanted to be successful
so they could get more business. So xxx between the city and the
And I think secondly the decision to really make sure that you took
care of the people in the hall--make sure they had a proper atmosphere
to do their work--but to realize that it wasn't just television.
The decision to use the round stage on the last night, but also I think
probably even more significant than that was the decision to raise the
floor. The floor of the arena was raised 9 1/2 feet on steel
beams over and above what it normally was. I think gave it
xxx so that when you looked at the floor of the convention you
were looking at something 9 1/2 above, for instance, basketball.
So we came in and we had offices down there--all of our dressing rooms
and teleprompter rooms and all that were down underneath that
floor. So administratively it helped a little bit because we got
extra workspace. But I think that it created a much more intimate
television atmosphere. I think that the round television
The minimalist stage. I mean before if you think about our
podiums and also quite honestly the Democrat podium this time, [they]
tend to be huge, big, running, massive affairs and ours was much more
simplistic in nature. It was actually asymmetrical if you
remember looking at it. It was not a symmetrical stage. And
I think the entertainment stage where it came up and down was very
helpful in adding to sort of the excitement and the atmosphere.
People got to where they really anticipated that.
Democracy in Action: I wasn't ready for the round stage;
was that a surprise?
HARRIS: Well it wasn't as much of a surprise as we wanted
it to be of course. We had thought of various ways of doing it as
a surprise but by the time you have hundreds of workers working on it
and you have to work with a lot of the camera intensive organizations
to work out camera angels ahead of time so it sort of got out but it
was not widely known what we were going to do and it wasn't known
exactly what we were going to do.
Democracy in Action: What were some of the other ways you
considered, but you didn't decide to go ahead with?
HARRIS: ...You're limited somewhat in your options.
We looked at multiple stages; we looked at doing it totally in the
round which is impractical when you actually do business-type sessions
in that you disenfranchise half your house basically. So we
decided not to do that. And you looked at going in one end
zone. We think we came up with the best options, what worked for
Democracy in Action: Was that a sudden light bulb, the
idea of doing it in the round?
HARRIS: No it evolved over time. We started
out-- I ran a process early on with both people involved in
politics, people involved in other conventions, people involved in
production, not necessarily political production, to try to come up
with new ideas and new concepts so that you didn't necessarily reject
everything you'd done in the past but that you try to take a fresh look
at it. We tried in organization, in construction, in programming
to take a fresh look at what we were doing to try to make it a little
relevant to the process.
Democracy in Action: If I'm going back and looking at
videotape of the convention are there any little details that I might
notice if you were to point them out that I wouldn't have seen on the
HARRIS: Every convention, be it Democrat or Republican,
tries to have a thematic development. We of course continued to
try to do that. But I think that what we tried to do was to--with
two things which I think were a little unique--where we would try to
have issue segments, where it wouldn't be me coming up an droning on
about one particular thing, but we would try to address it in multiple
ways so that you would have a segment which would have somebody say
something about it onstage, maybe somebody in a video clip, maybe
somebody from a remote location so that it was sort of a fresh
approach... I think that's a different way of looking at
what you're doing. And I think also we used what we called
convention jockeys, which we'd never used before, which I think--I
remember the meetings where we sort of evolved that concept, where you
try to involve people in the hall more with what's going on and to
liven it up and to make it a total sort of production scenario. I
think that really worked.
Democracy in Action: Waht was the biggest risk you took in
terms of something you weren't sure whether it would work?
HARRIS: Well I think there were several things. I
think going to New York was a risk to begin with. I think
secondly changing over to that second stage for the last night was a
risk... We only had a limited amount of time to do that.
And then our time frame it was right. I mean we finished the
turnover just in time for the president to come do his practice.
So that was--if you'd had any sort of hitch there that would have been
risky. I think that from a political viewpoint the decision on
whether or not to address 9-11 at all as part of the programming, which
we faced and of course were under even more pressure after the
Democrats focused on it so much themselves at their convention.
So that bore a certain amount of risk.
Democracy in Action: Day-to-day running of this whole
operation, what's for you the biggest headache, most difficult part of
HARRIS: It's of course a many multi-million dollar
operation. And I think the understanding that if you have a
normal corporation and you go put in a computer system--I mean you
conceptualize the system, you design it, you put it in, and then you've
got a few months of tweaking to make it work and get the bugs out of
it. We don't have that luxury... We know that at a specific
time, 10:02 on the 2nd of September, the President was going to accept
the nomination of the party. So we couldn't say, oh wait a minute
we don't have the computers working yet, hold on. So...you try to
operate in a businesslike environment, to use the dollars wisely, to
get the best bang for the buck, but you know we don't have the luxury,
we have no slippage in time. We have to conceptualize it, build
it, operate it and tear it out all in a specific period of time.
I think secondly you're operating with a lot of people that come on
board, that haven't necessarily worked together before and so you have
to operate a company, if you will, effectively and make everybody work
together and understand where they are, is a little bit of a leadership
challenge, particularly in the end where we bring on several hundred
people the last couple of weeks as volunteers. And they're full
staff members vested with operational ability, but they don't
have...the shared doctrine of building up for a period of time.
So making sure that they are, what their job descriptions are XXX
resources are associated with them are well communicated to them and
well trained. And then it's not a monolithic operation because
you've got the convention, but you also have the host committee, you've
got the networks, you've got all the media organizations, you've got
the police, in a certain sense you've got the demonstrators, state
parties--all of whom expect to do something in and around but they
don't work for you. You've got to make sure they all sort of head
in one direction to the extent that you can...
Democracy in Action: Did you have a chance to look at the
HARRIS: I did not look at it very much to be honest with
you... We felt like we had our mission and we did it
successfully. We weren't going to react to the Democrats at al
other than be cognizant of what they were doing with some of their
programming and what they were saying politically... I looked at
their stage; I didn't like their stage. I thought it was too
cumbersome and too busy. I thought it was distracting.
Democracy in Action: How about their political--their
HARRIS: I think the Democrats made a significant mistake
with their convention. And it wasn't really the convention's
fault; it was more of a campaign decision than the convention
operation. It seems to me that they had decided that the country
had decided to get rid of Bush and therefore their mission as a
convention was to make Kerry acceptable. And that wan't
true. The country had not decided to get rid of the
President. They might be worried about the situation, they might
be concerned, they might be trying to make up their mind, but they
hadn't taken the decision. So I think that they based their
approach on a bad premise and to that extent wasted the resource they
had available there, the convention. So it was a mistake. I
think that the President had a good convention, got a lot of momentum
and excitement out of it, and I think history will show that Kerry made
a mistake. Not that it didn't work okay...
Democracy in Action: Can you give a sense of your budget,
what the two or three biggest categories of spending are?
HARRIS: You got two or three major categories of
expenditure. Staffing is obviously is a major part. The
Committee on Arrangements' budget, if I remember correctly is $38.9
million. A good percentage of that is the staff operation.
Build out is by far the largest. The construction in the hall, in
the millions of dollars. Production itself was out of the COA
budget. It was several million dollars for them to do the film,
but in the screens and do that sort of thing... The lights cost a
million, the sound cost a million, that sort of thing and then from a
city perspective security was by far the largest cost.
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2004 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.