Afew hours before John F. Kerry's speech, the FleetCenter starts buzzing. P. Diddy struts around with his posse. Actor Alan Cumming walks by with his own minor posse. And all around them the thousands of people with no posse at all enact the common man's version of status-preening that defines the culture of this convention.
"Oh my God, it's dark blue!" says Felicia Sunner, an observer from Massachusetts. Before that she'd had a Hall pass, one of the low-class, light-green ones that let you roam around the hall "like a Gypsy" but not actually sit anywhere. But at 7 p.m., a friend from the mayor's office called to say he had a coveted Podium pass that would allow her to sit near the stage. Was she interested?
"Are you kidding?" she says into the phone. "That would totally make my night."
This is the last moment to bump up your status, and everyone's making deals. Paul Rivera, a senior political adviser for Kerry, is handing out different colors like so many pieces of candy. Independent consultant Jenny Backus has a pocketful of passes she's going to unload to her "kids," as she calls them, young interns who wait hopefully outside the Dunkin' Donuts.
"It brings out all of our deepest junior high school anxieties about what big clique we belong to," says Backus. "This is like a big massive party with all of our friends and we spend the whole time obsessing over what small piece of cardboard everyone has around their necks."
Political culture is always status-obsessed, inventing endless ways to judge everyone's standing: title, salary, direct access to the principal, proximity to the principal's office. The difference here at the convention is that your status is on display, like so much expensive jewelry.
"I generally try hard not to care about status symbols, but here it's so hard because you wear it around your neck," says one Democratic staff member. "All day long when you walk around, people are looking at your pass, seeing what color you have. You're nothing without a good credential."
This staffer, like so many mid-level staffers on the Kerry campaign, has one of the euphemistically named Special Guest passes -- "nosebleed seats," he reports. "It's terrible." What this means is all day you try to trade up, kiss up to the person in charge who controls the passes, so you can get something better. "You can't be nonchalant," says the staff member, who begged for anonymity because he's embarrassed to be seen groveling for access. "You need to be right up there in their face, or else you'll lose the game."
The bling-bling comes in the form of a clear plastic pouch filled with about a dozen variations of passes and tickets that define where you are allowed to walk or sit. Passes are reissued every day, and guards are posted every few feet to check.
Arguably, the hottest ticket is light blue, for Back Stage. This is intended for those who are crucial to the main speakers -- speechwriters who do the last-minute tinkering, family members, speaker-trackers who guide them onto the stage. Plus, it sounds the coolest, like a rock concert.
A subset of Back Stage is an even deeper level of cool -- the Boiler Room, a pass invented not by convention staff but by the Kerry campaign. This pass is the best-looking, bright red with pictures of lobsters and a lobster pot boiling over, its top exploding off. This is the nerve center of the campaign, a political junkie's heaven where the brain trust of Michael Whouley and Charlie Baker and other Boston political royalty plot minute-to-minute strategy, big and small.
Rogue sign spotted in the Missouri delegation? Dispatch a runner onto the floor with dozens of "Vote Kerry" signs. Speeches not playing well on TV? Tinker with the message.
Another hot ticket is the bright red Floor pass. While these are meant for delegates and hoi polloi, they've acquired a kind of working-class chic. There's a sense that down on the floor is where the action is, particularly last night for the balloon drop. Donors, who tend to sit up in the skyboxes (where the perks include plates of food that magically appear), will often say, "I could have been a delegate" as a way of expressing their regret at being so distant from the main show.
Staffers who end up with bad passes can beg for a "suite overlay," a little card with a picture of Paul Revere. It lets them into the skybox level, and while they don't have a place to sit, they can still wander around, run into Ben Affleck and get a better class of free food.
The only people above passes are former presidents, in this case Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton (Sen. Hillary Clinton gets in, too), who come with their own Secret Service entourages. Big stars, such as Affleck and P. Diddy, technically need passes but don't actually wear anything around their necks. They seem to get around by virtue of posse momentum.
The pass culture bleeds outside the convention hall as well. The best parties give out their own passes, and in one case even special thick leather lanyards designed by Marc Jacobs. Only the boldest ignore them. At a party hosted by GQ magazine Wednesday night, a security guard yelled, "Lady. LADY! YOUR PASS!" as Arianna Huffington walked brazenly by.
Late in the evening someone offers Backus a Podium pass. It's tempting: She's laden with passes, but this is better than all of them. Does she want it?
"I don't know," she says. "It's all so tiring. Maybe I'll just go watch the speech from some bar."