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Defining convention

Veteran producer David Nash is the man behind the Republican event's curtain, helping to shape a program to keep audience attention high and 'surprises' of only the planned variety.

August 29, 2004|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The executive producer of the Republican National Convention won't say much about the big show he's overseeing from New York's Madison Square Garden this week, but he's clear on one thing: The nation's TV viewers won't hear him swearing if the balloons don't drop as planned.

It's not that David Nash lacks sympathy for his counterpart at the Democratic convention, Don Mischer, who was broadcast live by CNN using a string of expletives in frustration when the traditional convention-ending balloons were slow to fall. But Nash seems determined not to make news himself.

His reticence extends to talking about the official production, which has been kept under wraps for months, with the Republicans only last week confirming the lineup of speakers and musical guests such as country's Brooks & Dunn and rockers Third Day. Other scheduled acts include Christian rocker Michael W. Smith; tenor Daniel Rodriguez, a retired New York City police officer; surfer Daize Shayne, whose first pop album came out last year; country performers the Gatlin Brothers and Sara Evans; and soul-inspired singer-songwriter Dana Glover.

For Nash, it's all about doing "whatever makes the president comfortable."

Exactly one week before the big event kicks off, Nash, sitting in a soon-to-be-vacated New York office with a wary Republican convention spokesman monitoring the conversation, doesn't want to provide too much detail about how he will keep viewers' attentions from wandering. "Any surprises need to be a surprise," says Nash, who allows that the planners have opted for a "high-tech look" and more pre-taped videos. This year too the producers have decided to get away from a stage and speaking podium with a "big battleship look. It was so gigantic that attention wasn't as well-focused on the speaker," Nash says.

The soft-sell belies the importance of the event. The big broadcast networks may have scaled back their coverage of the convention to a mere three hours this week, but PBS, C-Span, the cable news networks and some local stations nationwide will be there almost full time. Like the Democrats' convention in July, the Republican gathering will be the first time that many potential voters truly focus on the Republican message. So the four-day event is all about putting President George W. Bush and the GOP speakers in the best light.

In Nash's case, that means literally. He makes sure the spotlights are positioned just so and that convention delegates who are sitting behind the stage can see giant screens of what's happening, to keep the energy level in the hall upbeat. It's Nash who has to squabble with TV network officials about the massive lighting and sound grid that the TV executives have complained will ruin their panoramic shots inside Madison Square Garden this year. ("It's as high as it can go," he says unapologetically.) He gives the Republicans advice on pacing, so delegates don't get bored by speaker after speaker and suddenly head to the restrooms en masse.

Nash, a 68-year-old grandfather and registered Republican who lives in Canyon Country, about 40 miles north of L.A., started his career as a Broadway stagehand. He has overseen logistics for Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center, worked as a coordinating producer for a 1980s Dolly Parton TV series and was part of the team producing the 1986 celebration of the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. For that event, he worked for longtime Hollywood producer Gary Smith, who hired Nash in 1988 when Smith was the executive producer of the Democrats' convention in Atlanta. Four years later, Nash went over to the opposition and was named executive producer of the Republican convention, a post he has held for every convention since.

When he's not wrangling the Republican elephants, Nash has been directing camels and Rockettes, spending the last 15 years working closely with New York's Radio City Music Hall setting up its traveling Christmas extravaganzas in places such as Detroit; Branson, Mo., and later this fall, Denver.

For the Republicans, Nash prefers to describe his role as that of a "caterer. We're here to service them." Others who have worked with Nash and the convention planners note that Republican Party officials traditionally keep a much tighter rein on the plans than do their Democratic counterparts. This year, the GOP micromanagement has been even more pronounced, said one network producer working on the convention, because the event is in support of the reelection of the president. "Everything is going through a vetting process [Nash] has not had to deal with previously and he's not getting answers he needs for certain things as quickly as he'd like," the producer says.

While Nash promises surprises, they will be of only the scripted kind, if he can help it. He prefers to work with specialists he knows and trusts. The balloon drop will be handled by the same convention-experienced company that does New Year's Eve in Times Square.

Nash doesn't want to speculate about what went wrong in Boston, but he calls Mischer "one of the classiest people in show business." A glance at the transcript shows that the producer had been calling for the balloons some 20 times before he finally lost his cool, Nash says, adding, "I expect I would have said something sooner." But on the off chance that happens in New York, he won't be in the same position that Mischer was when his obscenity was broadcast across the country on CNN.

The cable news network asked for the same access to Nash's audio communications from the control room, but he said no. "I just don't believe in that," he says.

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