WILMINGTON, Delaware — The stage where Joe Biden was set to assume the Democratic nomination for president, fulfilling a dream of more than four decades in national politics, was sitting in parts on the backs of trucks, already assembled, waiting to be unloaded in Milwaukee.
The event was exactly two weeks away when Ricky Kirshner, the producer who has put on every Democratic convention since Bill Clinton's election in 1992, had to call his trucks and turn them around. Hundreds of pounds of equipment — screens, lights, audio visual hardware — had already arrived in Wisconsin. One of his trucks, which came from across the country, was scheduled to depart that morning until Kirshner intercepted it and sent the driver coordinates for their new destination in Wilmington, Delaware.
A small group of Biden and party officials made the call to make the Democratic convention almost entirely virtual in a morning meeting on Aug. 3, two days before the deadline to begin physically moving equipment into Milwaukee, due to concerns over the coronavirus. The decision to relocate Biden’s acceptance speech to Wilmington, news made public in a short tweet by a Bloomberg News reporter, privately set off an absolute fury of planning, and replanning, and calls to Milwaukee officials to apologize and explain — and then, of course, there was the matter of the speech.
They had no site, no audience, and two weeks to pull off the size and build of a speech that is supposed to signify the start of a general election, the sweep of a candidate's political career, and the mix of religious fervor and high stakes that the country projects onto presidential campaigns — all of it captured by the weight of a massive stage, perfectly lit, with balloons and bags of confetti and an arena full of delegates, elected officials, and activists chanting the candidate's name.
Kirshner's production team usually leads conventions from a high platform behind the center camera platform, inside the room. "So we feel the energy and we call the show from the room,” he said in an interview on Friday. What happened here in Wilmington was different. “Half our staff wanted to go outside just to see it, to see if it was really happening, because we're watching it on TV just like everybody else. We cued it, we ran the music, and then it was like, ‘Well, we'll watch it on TV like everybody else.’ It's a totally different feeling."
Americans saw the finished product on Thursday night as it was made for television — an unprecedented technological feat led by hundreds of people across the country on Ricky Kirshner's team, the convention committee, and Biden’s campaign, concluding with the nominee’s 24-minute speech. It was somber and earnest in pitch, the lens trained direct-to-camera on Biden, delivered in the style of an Oval Office or East Room address, followed by a drive-in movie-style fireworks show.
"The nation needed to see him as president, and the setting matched the moment — well-dressed flags, great lighting, an eloquent but not overdone stage," said Greg Hale, a veteran Democratic operative who has produced events for nearly every recent Democratic nominee. "Mission accomplished."
But here in Wilmington, the result was a much stranger scene — a quiet and eerie reminder of the convention that this was not, the one Biden didn't get.
At 77 years old, Biden delivered the most important speech of his life in a darkened room to about 30 members of the press and a skeleton production crew.
By the time they moved the acceptance speech to the Chase Center in Wilmington, there had been four versions of the stage already: First, the original setting in Milwaukee's Fiserv Forum, capacity 18,000. Then COVID-19 hit, and they devised a socially distanced convention, also in the Fiserv Forum. Then COVID got worse, and they moved to a big stage in the Wisconsin Center, a smaller venue in Milwaukee. The last version, an even tighter room in the Wisconsin Center, was their final attempt to keep the convention in a crucial battleground state for Biden this fall.
Shortly after Aug. 3, a new team of “advance” staffers — the people who do the meticulous work, often out of sight, of making an event look and feel perfect on television and in photographs — arrived in Wilmington, Biden’s hometown, to develop a fifth and final version.
Over the next two weeks, signs of their efforts appeared in and around the Chase Center, a large event venue situated on a tributary of the Delaware River. Layers of a secure perimeter, consisting of 5,000 feet of bike rack, 5,000 feet of tall, black fencing, and 5,000 feet of concrete jersey barrier, were erected around the parking lot in a matter of days. Eight giant American flags, ranging in size from 10-by-15 to 30-by-50 feet, were hoisted in the air and affixed to various buildings. And a little more than 1,300 firework shells were procured in advance of the finale on Thursday.
Earlier this week, a large tree that slightly obscured a Democratic convention sign — a large “D20” banner draped over the west side of the Chase Center — disappeared seemingly overnight, replaced by a pile of fresh mulch. A day later, shrubs and flowering plants appeared in place of the tree. (Convention staff had only asked landscapers to prune the tree, not remove it, one Democrat familiar with the incident said.)
In Milwaukee, ghosts of the original convention came in the form of a small gift shop bearing such items as Wisconsin pins and "The Cream City” T-shirts. Back in Wilmington, there were echoes of a city 800 miles away. Nurses on site greeted reporters and production staff each day with thick, friendly Midwestern accents. They had been flown in from Wisconsin to set up shop in the "Health and Safety Testing Center," a ballroom in the back of the Westin Hotel in Wilmington where convention participants waited in line every morning for the required three consecutive days of COVID tests, standing on stickers placed 6 feet apart. Every afternoon, the cotton swabs were transported back to the original labs in Wisconsin for testing, with results returned less than 24 hours later.
Signs printed with COVID guidelines, presumably made before things got as bad as they did, advised participants to "Wear a Mask When Possible." When reporters arrived in Wilmington on Monday, the "When Possible" had been crossed out with sharpie. A day later, someone had covered the sharpie with white tape and written in marker: "At All Times." Reporters tweeted about the sign. (There was little else to do — no color for their stories, they commiserated.)
By Wednesday, a white board appeared in the COVID testing room. "NO PHOTOS," it read in black marker.
Party conventions are loud and overflowing with people who are dying to be in the room, all of them sizing up the access level granted by the lanyards hanging at all times around their necks. For both parties, the level of pageantry and occasional melodrama, seen and unseen, makes it one of the most curious events in American politics.
A widely shared clip this week resurfaced audio from the control room of the Democratic Convention in 2004, where the director can be heard queuing the on-stage celebration after John Kerry delivered his acceptance speech.
"Go balloons, go balloons! Standby, confetti," he says as Van Halen's “Dreams” is blasting. "Keep coming balloons, more balloons, BRING 'EM! BALLOONS, BALLOONS, BALLOONS! We want balloons — tons of 'em! Bring 'em down. Let 'em all come. No confetti, no confetti yet, no confetti. Alright, go balloons, go balloons, we need MORE balloons. ALL BALLOONS, ALL BALLOONS, KEEP IT GOING. COME ON, GUYS, LET’S MOVE IT. Jesus! We need more balloons. I want ALL balloons to go. GO CONFETTI. GO confetti. I want more balloons! What's happening to the balloons? We need MORE BALLOONS. We need all of ’em coming down. Go balloons! Balloons. What's happening, balloons? There's not enough coming down. ALL BALLOONS. Where the hell, there’s nothing falling, what the FUCK are you guys doing up there?"
(Though in fairness: "The balloons were too slow in Philadelphia, too," one seasoned convention staffer noted of Hillary Clinton's acceptance speech celebration in 2016. "The problem is that they take for fucking ever to fall.")
Reporters wanted to know what the big moments would be in Wilmington. There were very few. For about two minutes on Wednesday, as she prepared to deliver her speech accepting the party’s nomination for vice president at the Chase Center, live audio from Kamala Harris's microphone played from backstage into the hold room where reporters were waiting to enter the convention site. She was murmuring a line about Biden's late beloved son, Beau — practicing her remarks.
The next night, waiting for Biden’s acceptance speech, there was only silence.
Reporters waited in a large ballroom called Wilmington Hall — 22,000-square-feet with 24-foot high ceilings — the biggest available in the Chase Center. The stage was brightly lit, framed by an electronic backdrop bearing the royal blue of the "D20" logo, with 16 flags standing vigil behind the podium.
Everything else was pitch black.
At that back of the room, a producer spoke through a headset to his colleagues in Los Angeles and Milwaukee. "Glenn in LA," "Glenn in LA," someone said, referring not to a studio, but to the homemade control room where director Glenn Weiss worked barefoot at a folding table in his living room in Brentwood, California, surrounded by monitors. (Weiss, Kirshner's longtime business partner, had just directed the BET Awards from his living room as well, Kirshner said.)
Just before 11 p.m., with no introduction or fanfare, Biden walked on stage, led by a member of the production team. Then the stage manager was gone, and it was just Biden in the dark, waiting for the lights to go up. He took a breath, the silhouette of his shoulders rising, then falling — hands clasped in front of him.
"Good evening," he said.
"Ella Baker, a giant of the civil rights movement, left us with this wisdom: 'Give people light and they will find a way.' Give people light. Those are words for our time."
Reporters sat in silence, clacking on the keys of their laptops, each one casting a small pool of white light into the darkness. The 22 seats for journalists, each one in socially distant squares demarcated by blue tape on the carpet, amounted to only the audience that night. Backstage, his wife, Jill Biden, represented the family alone.
A placard on the wall advised: "Capacity: Not to Exceed 3,500."
That was the sad part: no friends or family. "It just kind of sucks — he missed out on a real convention with his family," one staffer here said this week. Another person on the convention team, a member of the senior staff, said the former vice president was prepared: "He was fine with it,” the person said. “The VP knew from May or June that this could always possibly be how it happened."
Outside, fireworks went off from the outfield and roofline of Daniel S. Frawley Stadium, a baseball field nearby. The Bidens looked on from an outdoor stage with the other half of the Democratic ticket, Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, while cars in the parking lot honked in support.
For the first time that week, a reporter tried to speak to the Democratic nominee. "Mr. Biden, have you been tested for COVID-19?" he yelled.
"Are you kidding me?" a Biden aide yelled back.
Back inside Wilmington Hall, a small group of staffers walked on stage to pose for photos at the podium. Without the bright blue "D20" backdrop still illuminated on either side of the stage, no one would guess that the Democratic National Convention had just taken place. Production staffers were already taking the stage apart.
"Alright," one aide said near the podium where Biden delivered his speech. “Who wants more pics before we start tearing this baby down?!”
They had to be out as soon as possible. A Christian booksellers convention was moving in the next morning. ●