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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

A Party Fixture Since 1968, and Fixer Who Sets the Stage

Michael Berman listens, and people speak. The longtime Democratic loyalist toils in the wings, scheduling those who will address the convention from the podium for the next four days.

August 14, 2000|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Today, when Michael Berman takes his place on the center stage of Staples Center, parking himself for the duration of the convention in the second to last chair, stage right, a kind of final chapter will commence in the life of a longtime Democratic loyalist.

Or so Berman is promising.

The 61-year-old attorney, lobbyist and Democratic activist has no official title at this year's Democratic National Convention. But for the fifth (and last, he says) time since 1976, Berman is charged with scheduling the estimated 250 speakers who will climb to the podium in the next four days. The job might be more than headache-inducing were Berman a different kind of guy--or were this not his 10th presidential campaign.

On Friday, for instance, Berman ran into an old pal, Harry Thomason, the Clinton confidant and television producer. Thomason--whose wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, produced Clinton's "Man From Hope" video at the 1992 convention--is putting together the video introducing the president's speech tonight. But he couldn't exactly tell Berman how long it would be.

"Just remember, we don't want to push him too far out the back end of the evening," Berman said of Clinton.

"He should cut his speech," Thomason joked.

"Good point," Berman said. "Would you like to deal with that?"

Berman is of the generation that was weaned on gavel-to-gavel TV coverage and lively in-fighting among party factions; his first convention was 1968, when he ran communications for Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. He's been at this long enough to understand what conventions are about in 2000, when nominees are picked long before the proceedings begin and the real scheduling battles revolve around who gets on in prime-time. These days, the only thing missing is a good political dogfight.

"I think this is the last round of four nights," Berman said, predicting, as others have, that the conventions, with their reduced TV exposure and absence of tension, will be scaled-back affairs in the future.

It was Thursday, and Berman, his shoes off, was ensconced in a small office at the Arco Plaza, working on what he calls "the undercard"--the 1 to 5 p.m. speaking slots, filled each day with 40 or so people, none of whom is supposed to exceed three minutes. The speakers are elected officials and activists, some addressing a sea of empty seats.

While scheduling is his tangible role, Berman, with his institutional knowledge and deep contacts, serves countless other functions: a fixer moving easily between the Gore campaign, DNC officials, the news media and the Staples Center, where Gary Smith, the Emmy Award-winning television producer, is again executive producing the convention.

"What is the word, eminence grise?" said Tom Gorman, director of production for the Democratic National Convention Committee, when asked to describe Berman's role in Los Angeles. Indeed, Berman, a native of Duluth, Minn., got his national political feet wet in 1964, coordinating a congressional district in Minnesota for the Johnson-Humphrey ticket. He later served as counsel to Vice President Walter F. Mondale, as well as treasurer of Mondale's 1984 presidency bid. In more recent years, in addition to his work as a lobbyist for what his wife deems "overdog" clients (General Motors, Time-Warner), Berman has provided backstage assistance to Clinton, including helping to establish the president's legal defense fund.

And his memories of Chicago 1968? In addition to the civil unrest outside the Hilton Hotel, there was the late-night purchase of his first toupee, for $500, in a Skokie, Ill., wig shop.

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