'I'm With Willie'

Even though I was working the early shift during the Democratic National Convention in Boston and had to wake up at 2:30 a.m., I was determined to watch Senator John Kerry’s acceptance speech live at the Fleet Center. I figured it would be an electric event, the climax of the week, and wanted to experience it for myself even if it meant getting two hours of sleep. What I didn’t know is what a challenge getting in would prove to be.

I walked through security and into the arena around 8 p.m., no problem.  I was credentialed and had been in and out of the building dozens of times over the past few days. I walked up the stairs to the fourth floor concourse, but the door to the staircase leading to the club level where our skybox/workspace was located was locked, so I made my way to the escalator where I was stopped by one of several security guards posted there.

“Sorry, can’t let you up,” he told me.  I showed him my credential, told him I was with FOX News and was going to our skybox.  “Sorry,” he said.  “Fire marshal has shut the floor down.  We’re at capacity.  Only Secret Service is allowed upstairs.”   “But there’s room for me in the Skybox!” I told him.  “It’s our workspace!”  “Well, I can’t let you upstairs.  It’s closed.”

I was upset, and I wasn’t alone.  I walked over and struck up a conversation with the security guard.  I told him what was going on and what I hoped to do, and he was sympathetic.  “Look, you can get on the elevator, but I can’t guarantee the elevator operator will let you out on five, and you can’t give him a hard time if he doesn’t.  He’s just doing his job.”  I got off the elevator on the seventh floor to see if there was a way back down to six, but my search was futile.  There was access into the arena, but the seats were built above the skyboxes.  I’d need a rope to rappel down.  All the staircases to the fifth and sixth floors were locked.  The only place to go was back down to four.

I returned to the escalator again.  I started to suspect if you knew the right person it might help.  Just then I saw Willie Nelson and his entourage approach.  Willie had just performed on the stage downstairs, and apparently now he wanted to go upstairs just like me.  As he walked up, I approached him.  “Hey Willie.  Rick Leventhal.  FOX News Channel.  How you doing?”  He shook my hand.  “Fine, thanks.  Having a good time?”  “Yeah, this is great,” I said.  “You?” I asked.  “Fine, fine.” “I saw your sound check this afternoon.  You were terrific!”  I told him.  He thanked me.  Then I figured what the heck.  I knew somehow he would get past security, and thought perhaps he could help me do the same.  “Listen, Willie, I’m trying to get up to our Skybox, and these guys won’t let me upstairs.  Will you tell them I’m with you?”  Willie forced a little smile and didn’t say yes or no and kept moving towards the escalator.  I didn’t think he’d be much help, but fell in with his entourage behind him anyway, just in case.

Sure enough, Willie’s advance man convinced the security team to let them pass and a woman in Willie’s group began counting off the eight people to be allowed in.   “Him, him, him, him… NOT HIM!”  Someone grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back.  I looked at the guard.  “Is Willie Nelson in the Secret Service?”  I asked.  He looked at me with a blank face.  “Yes,” he told me.  “Really.  And his entourage?”  “They had a Secret Service escort,” he told me.  I was beginning to think I’d have to watch Kerry’s speech on a TV in our trailer outside. 

Then I ran into one of our affiliate crews from Cleveland.  Bill Martin, an anchor at WJW, was also trying to get upstairs along with his cameraman and producer.   They were having similar problems, but he had a live shot scheduled, and was even more focused than I was on getting upstairs.  While his producer was on the phone trying to reach an actual Secret Service agent, he went up and talked to one of the guys guarding the escalator.   It was now past 9:30, and I had just about given up hope.  Then…a miracle occurred.  Somehow, Bill had convinced the guards to let us upstairs!  The booth (and the entire arena) was extremely hot and a little crowded but I found a place to stand and later sit, and watched Kerry’s entire speech, then stayed to watch the balloons fall (or, more accurately, NOT fall).

I wound up getting less than two hours sleep that night but had lots to talk about during my live shots Friday morning, and was really glad I’d hung in there and got the chance to witness history.   Hopefully I won’t have as tough a time watching President Bush’s acceptance speech…