Interview With Dave Barry, Convention Columnist


Dave Barry, the newspaper humorist, has been covering presidential conventions for 20 years, writing daily columns with a bit more explicit political bite than his popular weekly work. This year, he's also added campaign material to his weblog, mostly in the form of torturing the Washington Post's convention-bloggers-watching weblog, which had the bad manners to call his site "threadbare."

Reason readers will remember Dave's government-mocking politics from his terrific Q&A with Glenn Garvin; I caught up with the erstwhile presidential candidate two hours ago over in the Media Hospitality Lounge, to hear him say, among other things, that this might be his last year making fun of the infomercial.

Reason: What I want to know from you is, you've been covering these since 1984. What would be some of your best tips for people to, like for instance, avoid suicide?

Barry: Well, I have the advantage—it's good to be a humor writer because then you can just lie. Cuz nothing else is going on. And really everyone is lying, even The New York Times, they're all pretending that some news is occurring here, when it's not. But they have to lie within accepted parameters of journalism, which means they have to be true lies, strung together. Whereas I can just make it up and try to make it more interesting.

What I've found over the years, I spend less and less time going to or listening to any aspect of the convention, and just sometimes try to actually make news myself. One time—this is in Atlanta, when the Democrats nominated Michael Dukakis—and it was one of the first conventions where they had a designated Protest Zone, which is such a weenie idea: you sign up for your cause, you know, and protest 'til your hour runs up.

Reason: Tim Blair refers to this one as "The Freedom Cage."

Barry: They're all sad, every one of 'em. They're all upset about this one, but they've all been lame and sad and pathetic. But some friends and I went out there to the protest zone, which was then kind of a new idea, and we put boxes on our heads.

Mine was a telephone box; we had little slits cut into them. And we just stood there—three guys wearing boxes on our heads. And within I would say five minutes, we had a media clot of several hundred people around us. We had print reporters, we had photographers. I mean, because as soon as one goes over they all start running over, and then the clot gets to its critical mass, where as far as these people are concerned it's the Kennedy assassination, and they're just running to get there because it might be news. And they'd ask us like "who are you," and we'd say "we're people with boxes on our heads," you know? We were very honest—we never said there was any protest or anything—and then we were the lead protests in the AP roundup the next day, and we were in hundreds of papers. And we all wrote columns—we all three of us were columnists—about how stupid it was, and then I got these furious phone calls all the next day. I had to leave the bureau because of the just endless calls from editors, asking me why we'd hoaxed the media. And I said "well, we didn't hoax the media, we had boxes on our heads and we said we had them. You're the idiots who put it in the newspaper!"

But that's really what it's come to. And that was a more newsy convention by far, than this one is. I mean I can't remember the last time a news event occurred that was related directly, that wasn't just a protest or something, or something going wrong. The only one I can think of is when George Bush announced that Dan Quayle would be his nominee the day before the convention. Which was a huge mistake, because nobody paid any attention to anything except Dan Quayle for the whole rest of that convention. It was good for the newspeople, but you can understand why they don't want any news to occur.

But we've reached the point, it's gotten so bad, that nobody even writes that story anymore. Everybody has even given up on saying there's no news at these things.

Reason: Yeah, I mean, you see how tired people are, just pre-emptively tired, even before the convention, of discussing how there's not going to be news there, that they're going to be there and they're not sure why–OW! FUCK!

Barry: Matt just stuck his finger into a Budweiser can and—I hope this will appear—is now bleeding from a self-inflicted wound. And you know what? We're now on the wrong side of the security, so there's no hope for you. We can't get you any help.

Reason: You can't give me aerosol, or my umbrella.

Barry: They took away my flashlight.

Reason: You brought in a flashlight?

Barry: Well, Knight-Ridder issued me—this is true—an evacuation kit, with an evacuation hood, a flashlight, and a whistle. To fight terrorism with. And I was instructed to carry it, so I'm carrying it, and I'm stupid—I brought it through security, and they confiscated my flashlight because it wasn't an official DNC flashlight. […]

Reason: So why do you keep coming back?

Barry: I don't know that I will anymore. I've just gone out of a sort of tradition and ritual. I kind of like that there's some guys that I hang around with, cartoonists mostly, that I only see at presidential conventions. And every now and then we get to do something fun, but not this time. In 2000 at the L.A. Convention, we were Mayor Richard Riordan's security detail, me and a bunch of other cartoonists. He let us do it, and we put on dark–

L.A. Times Cartoonist Michael Ramirez, from the table next door: Dave Barry! Michael Ramirez, political cartoonist for the L.A. Times.

Barry: Heeyyy!!

Ramirez: I noticed you guys back there. I just heard "Riordan." … I'll let you guys be.

Barry: That's OK, just listen in and you might get some ideas.

Reason: Yeah, with Tom Tomorrow, right?

Barry: Yeah, we had sunglasses and phone cords in our ears, to be security guys. But we got into a party that way.

Which has kind of been the only point of the conventions for a long time. But even that has been—I don't know if you've done this, where you get to the Hot party, and there's like a million people outside who really really really want to get in, and you reach this point where you'll do almost anything to get in, you know, and then you get in and it's just so always incredibly boring. It's always really more interesting outside trying to get in than being in the party. […]

Sunday night, we had an MTV Rock the Vote event, and there were literally thousands of people in line to get into this event, thousands. And it was moving about one person an hour, unless you're like Jerry Springer, or Cory Feldman—I didn't even know who he was, but everybody assured me he was a celebrity and he got right in.

Reason: I heard—and this is just a rumor, so we should put it on the transcript of a Q&A and broadcast it to the world—that Sean Hannity managed to cut the line in a men's restroom at the Fleet Center.

Barry: Well, if you're Sean Hannity, that's something that should go with being Sean Hannity, don'tcha think? Not having to wait to pee.

Reason: So I noticed you made it all the way 'til Wednesday before resorting to the "blah blah blah."

Barry: Well, I feel like every column I've ever written about the convention I've already written before. But one of them used to be a transcript of what it's like to listen to a speech, where they can say literally anything, literally anything, as long as they end it with the name of the nominee. So, "the three bones in the middle ear are the hammer, the anvil and the stirrup. JOHN KERRY!!" "YAY!!" And because the people—I don't know if you've been out on the convention floor….

Reason: Yeah. They respond to rises in throat pitch.

Barry: At a certain moment when you raise your voice, you're either saying "John Kerry," or you're going to "beat George Bush," and everybody applauds.

Reason: But isn't it nice in some kind of way to listen to the entire Big Chill soundtrack?

Barry: They're up to the '70s! Give 'em some credit, man! […]

You can get a Band-Aid if you want. It's kind of weird being interviewed by a guy who's sucking his own blood.

Reason: Do you want to talk about your feelings about the guy?

Barry: Well first of all, can I just say for the record that the mere fact that the mainstream media are really into talking about blogs this time just shows how over blogs must be. There's gotta be something wrong. I kind of liked it six months ago when nobody knew what a blog was, but now that everyone knows, (adopts haughty voice) I'm not sure I want to be part of it.

But it kind of felt like professional wrestling, because the Washington Post blog dissed my blog. They called it "threadbare," OK? And my feeling was, you know, well fuck that. So I came down on them hard—I blogged some items, specifically for the benefit of Washington, to give a kind of meatier feel to my blog; basically a series of items from various points in Boston pointing out there was nothing going on there, either.

But then other people got into it: Some other blog, that had been observing my blog, observed that I had been going back on the Washington Post blog, and the Washington Post blog picked that up—they hadn't seen it, they didn't know I was going after them. They didn't know I was in it with them, until they saw this other blog that my blog was going after their blog. So then the Washington Post blogged that this blog had blogged that my blog was going after their blog. So then today, just let it be known, I got an apology from the Washington Post. They're not going to fuck with my blog ever again!