Marriage to a human encyclopedia like Michael Medved is eminently convenient, as I found out last night when Sen. Norm Coleman (MN) and his charming wife Laurie invited us to join them where the Republican National Convention elite meet, an unusual Tampa institution, a restaurant called Bern's Steak House. Michael's identification of important party players let me appreciate them as they passed close enough to touch.
We're not accustomed to entering such venues, given we're pescatarian and kosher, but accepted for the famed fresh vegetables from the private garden, and mainly, the camaraderie. Despite being unable to avail ourselves of the specially-aged beef, we had a wildly memorable evening.
Outside, you see a monolithic square edifice with an awning marking the entrance. But inside, it's Halloween, a haunted mansion with darkened two-story foyer, clawed chandeliers emitting orange light, and medieval style portraits in ornate frames climbing the walls around a grand curved staircase, complete with gilt gargoyles and maroon velvet-topped banister.
Sen. Coleman and Michael immediately hailed congresspeople, GOP shakers and convention mavens. Among those moving through the entry with a large entourage was Speaker John Boehner, who stopped to shake the hand of everyone in his path (me, too!), delivering each a smile and kind word.
We finally settled in The Rhone Room, one wall of which is a backlit series of photos forming a panorama of the French river. The full restaurant produced a powerful noise level. At our table rested a thick, leather-bound wine list; touted as the largest private collection in the world. We found out later that among the thousands of selections are kosher offerings from Israel.
Staying parked at a table seemed a brief experience amid a parade of exclaiming people so glad to see everyone; a chorus of syncopated shrieks, a cascade of grasped hands and hair-kiss hugs. It'd had been so long since some saw the other; it was so delightful for each to meet. Seconds-long met glances, smiles, what a great occasion, faces with laugh lines melding to a blur.
I'm a political outsider, an observer amused and interested in a process that whirls through Tampa as a reward, really, for the people who have put in time to bring it to this point. Delegates give up weekends months before to rally their neighbors, to endure meetings and speeches and phone trees and organizing for the payoff of the convention. This event is a formality for them, since Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan's selection is set. It's also for the American public to see the enthusiasm and energy behind the Republican effort to reset and reinvigorate the economy.
After dinner we--and other groups of diners--enjoyed a tour of the Bern's kitchen, wine cellar and then something I'd never seen: "dessert rooms." Guides took us though various stations in the meandering kitchen--salad-making, bakery, meat-aging, sprout-growing, plating. Then wine specialists led us into the cellars, where millions of dollars' worth of bottles lay in narrow numbered sections, stewards rushing by locating orders. Finally we climbed a stairway to a warren of barrel-shaped enclosures, each containing only a table set for six, eight or ten. Each quiet, separated space was dark, intimate, cocoonish. And its purpose was ordering and consuming dessert.
Today at the Convention Center, the pace jumped a notch. Folk who yesterday set up electronics wearing polo shirts returned in suit-and-tie. The aisles are thick with publicists, their charges and camera crews, senators and congressmen and candidates. My husband, yellow highlighter and newspaper in hand, this morning attempted show-prep, as Dennis Prager spoke into a microphone a few feet away. Our son Danny, 20, busy as on-site producer, has lined up a full schedule of guests, as well as appearances for Michael on other outlets. Today Danny's in a sharp black suit and red tie, gaining the instant respect of others on The Row--enough so that he's already appeared in two TV segments representing the Republican youth view. As I post, Michael's interviewing anti-tax expert Grover Norquist. He's talking now during a commercial break about Michael's chapter in his new book The Odds Against Obama that "Demography is Destiny," as Grover cited a study showing Republican legislators have twice as many children as their Democratic counterparts.
Downstairs is the Google-sponsored media room, free coffee drinks and lots of tables with outlets for the bloggers--young, serious and focused--to file their stories. The Row booths host media veterans; the downstairs media center, wrinkle-less up-and-comers.
Tonight's the first of the major convention programs, Ann Romney rescheduled from last night is the grand finale, followed by Gov. Chris Christie. Rick Santorum is up as well, with Speaker Boehner, Cathy McMorris Rodgers and a raft of others. Afterward are scattered parties that run til 2 am. The RNC is a world unto itself; time seems an endless series of hellos, interviews, speeches and applause, hermetically sealed in air conditioned halls. All this creates history and determines the future of the nation. Much more to come.