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This Is The Strangest Presidential Convention I've Ever Covered

republican national convention 2008
Jae C. Hong
The crowd cheers during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2008.

The more I look back on the 2008 Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the more of a bizarre dream it becomes.

It had it all:

  • There were thousands of Republicans scared to death to start whooping it up for their four-day house party because of the fact that, in the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Gustave was about to slam into Louisiana, and no GOP stalwart likes the idea of TV footage of them wearing funny hats and goofy patriotic costumes while people are suffering.
  • There was the night that Rage Against the Machine, the highly political alt-rock band, put on a wild show at the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis, sending hundreds of frenzied fans into the streets.
  • On the last night of the convention, hundreds of protestors tried to march on the site of the convention, the Xcel Energy Center, about two hours after their police permits expired.
  • Then, on the next-to-last day of the convention, there was the sight of Ohio delegates and their guests running – some seemingly in fear for their lives – from bands of silent disco dancers, each listening to his or her music on earphones or ear buds and dancing - dancing!

In the midst of all this, Sen. John McCain officially became the GOP nominee for president while his hand-picked running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, became the rather outspoken vice presidential candidate.

john mccain sarah palin
Credit Charlie Neibergall / AP
Republican presidential nominee John McCain is joined by running mate Sarah Palin at the end of his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008.

And, before I forget, it was the one convention of the 16 I have covered where I ended up in the hospital, having bags of fluid pumped into me through IVs.

Fortunately, I got that episode out of the way early in my stay in the Twin Cities.

The convention was to begin on Monday, Sept. 1; I arrived on the Saturday before just to get settled in and make the switch from a week of covering Democrats to covering Republicans.

You see, on Friday, I had flown out of Denver International Airport after eight days of nearly around-the-clock reporting in the thin air of Denver on the Democratic National Convention, which nominated Barack Obama.

I was in the airport bar, treating myself to a celebratory Bloody Mary because my coverage was being raved about by the Enquirer editors back home. Not to brag, but I think I had earned a drink.

I called my editor back in Cincinnati, Carl Weiser, and he agreed – have a drink, man. He also told me something I was just learning as I sat in the airport bar watching CNN – John McCain, who would be formally nominated in St. Paul the next week, had named Palin as his running mate. He would introduce her to the world in a rally later in the day at the Wright State University's Nutter Center in Dayton.

I had flown out of Dayton to save the Enquirer a few bucks; that's where my car was. But there was no way I was going to get back to Dayton in time to cover the Palin unveiling (they were, by the way, hiding her in the old Manchester Inn in Middletown).

So Carl and I decided somebody else would cover Nutter Center; I would go home, wash some clothes, get a decent night's sleep and fly to Minneapolis the next morning.

Which is what I did.

Which is why I arrived completely exhausted at the Ohio delegation hotel – the Radisson in downtown Minneapolis, one block from the famous Mary Tyler Moore statue.

I spent some time talking to the Ohio Republicans who had arrived early and hooking up with some of my fellow Ohio reporters. I turned in early that night.

The next morning I was planning to walk down to the Minnesota Convention Center, which is where the Republican National Committee was issuing credentials for the convention at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

Job No. 1 for any reporter covering a presidential nominating convention – pick up those credentials! You will need them wherever you go. Protect them with your life.

As I walked the 10 blocks or so to the convention center, I started feeling light-headed, dizzy and very weak in the legs. I had to keep stopping to sit and rest.

But I made it to the convention center and started heading back to the hotel.

The dizziness, though, was getting worse. I felt I was on the verge of passing out.

I've got to do something about this, I thought. I flagged down a cab and asked the cabbie to take me to the nearest hospital emergency room which was at the Hennepin County Medical Center downtown.

Eventually, they wheeled me into the emergency room and I described for the doctor and nurse what was going on and what I had been doing for the past week. They gave each other knowing looks and, the next thing I knew, I was hooked up to an IV with a bag of fluid drip, drip, dripping into my right arm.

After two or three hours, I had drained two IV bags and the doctor explained what he thought was going on.

You're a 54-year-old guy who has been pushing it too hard for the last 10 days. You're dehydrated. And over-caffeinated. Go back to your hotel and do nothing for the rest of the day. Sleep. See how you feel in the morning.

Back at the hotel, I called Carl and Joe Fenton, who was the editor on the desk that day, and told them what was going on. They were very concerned. Both of them told me to shut it down on Monday if I was still that weak.

I'll be fine, I said, just need a good night's sleep.

I'm not sure I believed that, but it was true. I woke up early the next morning, feeling fit as a fiddle, and dove into my work at the first Ohio delegation breakfast.

Somehow, I had gotten my second wind and kept it going for the next four days.

And I had a bottle of water in my hand for the whole time.

Thankfully, that first day was rather easy.

There was a lot of anxiety in the top levels of the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee over the situation with Hurricane Gustave in Louisiana.

And although the storm was not as fierce as predicted, it was enough to make them pause.

They made a decision early in the day to shorten the first session at the Xcel Energy Center, doing routine party business until shutting down about 6:30 p.m., long before primetime TV.

That meant President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney didn't get to make their speeches.

But First Lady Laura Bush and Cindy McCain made short, non-political speeches to the delegates asking them to be generous in giving to agencies that were trying to help the Louisiana hurricane victims.

Mike DeWine – now Ohio's governor but then an ex-senator – told me it was "absolutely the right thing to do."

"You don't celebrate and act political when people are suffering,'' DeWine said.

The Ohioans weren't all sackcloth-and-ashes that first day.

That night, they took a scenic paddleboat cruise down the Mississippi River. They sipped from glow-in-the-dark martini glasses, listened to live jazz music, dug into dozens of pies, including a banana cream confection decorated with elephant-shaped cookies.

But they also raised money for hurricane relief.

DeWine's wife Fran made red pledge cards which brought in $10,608 for the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. The cruise's corporate sponsors agreed to match the delegation's contributions.

By the second day, the Republicans felt like they could get on with the party again; Louisiana was still standing.

Bush was piped into the St. Paul convention hall because he was still dealing with the aftermath of the storm.

In the summer of 2016, there were a lot of people concerned that the Republican National Convention in Cleveland that nominated Donald Trump would produce violent clashes between thousands of protestors and the police and National Guard.

Wide-spread confrontations did not materialize in Cleveland. The protestors I saw numbered in the hundreds, not thousands.

Minneapolis-St. Paul was far worse.

st. paul protestors
Credit Ross D. Franklin / AP
Police use pepper spray to attempt to remove protesters who were blocking a street, during a rally at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., Monday, Sept. 1, 2008.

There were clashes between protestors and police every day of the convention.

Over the four days, somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 protestors were arrested or detained, although only a relative handful were eventually prosecuted.

Most of the action was on the St. Paul side of the river. But, on the second night, Rage Against the Machine, a very political rock band, put on a concert that packed Minneapolis's Target Center to the rafters.

The band brought the crowd to a fever pitch, and hundreds of people streamed out of the Target Center and into the streets of downtown Minneapolis, where they shut down streets, blocked the entrances to dozens of delegation hotels and had traffic at a standstill.

Those of us over at the Xcel Energy Center had no idea all of this was going on. My friend and colleague, Malia Rulon, then a reporter covering Ohio for Gannett News Service, had a rental car and we decided to make a break for it near the end of the convention session and drive back to the hotel.

I figured it would be a lot quicker than waiting around for one of the hundreds of shuttle buses back to the Minneapolis hotels.

I was quite wrong.

We ended up driving in circles in downtown Minneapolis for at least two hours, trying to find a street that would get us to the Radisson.

It was impossible. Every possible route was blocked by police or by rampaging Rage Against the Machine protestors.

Finally, we abandoned the car in a garage as close to the hotel as possible, grabbed our gear and schlepped through the streets of downtown to the Ohio hotel – which, thankfully, had yet to be blocked by the protestors (although the hotel across the street was).

Can we go home now?, I said, as we hiked through traffic-choked streets.

Two more days, she said, wearily.

The strangest thing that I saw in the Twin Cities was on the fourth and final day – in the afternoon, before the night session where McCain would make his acceptance speech and the balloons would drop from the ceiling.

I had nothing better to do that afternoon, so I decided to go with the Ohio delegation to an afternoon cocktail reception in a beautiful 19th century meeting hall a few blocks away from the Xcel Energy Center.

As we got off the buses, the Ohioans were suddenly surrounded by dozens of smiling young people, all of whom wore ear buds or ear phones and were listening to music; dancing in out and of the crowd of Ohioans as they tried to hustle their way into the cocktail party.

They were part of a phenomenon known as silent disco; and they all danced to tunes that only they could hear.

silent disco
Credit Wikimedia Commons
People take part in a silent disco.

The Silent Discos never spoke; they just smiled at the Ohioans – although they did get in the personal space of some people.

But they never hurt a thing. Some people on the streets found them very entertaining.

The Ohio people, for the most part, did not.

I talked to a couple inside who were from Findlay, Ohio.

The husband was irate.

What business do these people have scaring people like that?, he said.

His wife agreed: It was very upsetting.

I asked what was upsetting about it.

They were dancing! Dancing!

I moved on.

That's it, I though to myself. I've seen it all now. Time to end this thing and go home.

tales from the trail
Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.