Remember the columns arrayed behind Barack Obama the night he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president at Invesco Field in Denver on Aug. 28? That’s right, the classical stage set widely derided by Republicans as the “Temple of Obama,” and rather pricklishly defended by Democrats who pointed to a similar set-up behind President Bush when he addressed his convention in 2004. Well, it could have been worse — a lot worse.
Two insider campaign accounts published this week take readers behind the scenes when Obama aides quashed a stage design that involved purple runway lights, even more massive pillars and a pulsating screen that would have bathed the nominee in an unearthly glow. At a critical moment in the race, when strategists were trying to beat back the McCain campaign’s charges that Obama was “the world’s biggest celebrity” and imbue the nominee with gravitas, the original stage sent precisely the wrong message, according to the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza. “[It] looked like a set from ‘Deal or No Deal,'” said an Obama staffer.
Two days before Obama’s acceptance speech, in Denver, Jim Margolis, a top media consultant to the campaign, went to inspect the stage at Invesco Field. McCain’s aides had successfully turned the Greek columns ringing the stage at the stadium into a story about how a godlike Obama would be speaking from a “temple.” But when Margolis arrived he realized that it was even worse than that. “I walked in and turned to look at the stage, and they had put in purple runway lights all the way around the whole stage, up across all the columns and it looked like a set from ‘Deal or No Deal,’” he said. “And in back of them, where he would walk out, there was a colored horseshoe that was lit that would have gone around him. And in back of that was a sixty-five-inch plasma monitor that would change colors. And for a guy who is being torpedoed every day about celebrity and Hollywood this was straight out of a Hollywood set. My mouth just dropped open.” Margolis ordered the producer and the set designer, who had worked for months on the design, to remove the screen and the purple lights and generally make the stage look less like a Hollywood production.
Newsweek reporter Evan Thomas, embedded with the Obama campaign and embargoed from writing about what he saw until after the election, tells the same story from a different perspective in a fascinating, lenghthy narrative printed in this week’s edition and available on the magazine’s Web site.
At Invesco Field in Denver, the production staff of the Democratic National Committee proposed erecting enormous white columns on either side of the podium with all sorts of lights and adornments. To Axelrod, the whole setup looked like an over-the-top version of ancient Greece — or, more likely, a scene set from the movie “Star Wars” — and he asked for something more modest and sober, simple but presidential. The designers came back with some white columns that vaguely resembled the arcade between the West Wing and the White House, still a little presumptuous, perhaps, but better than trying to re-create Mount Olympus.
As it turned out, the set won at least grudging praise for its resemblence to the White House portico and it didn’t distract much, if at all, from Obama’s speech. Still, it’s a wonder how close the whole event came to resembling a Las Vegas review, minus only the dancers.