Down At the CNN Diner

Folksy ol’ CNN has rented out the Tick Tock Diner, on the corner of 34th St. and 8th Ave, across from Madison Square Garden, for the duration of the Republican National Convention. The cable news giant is using the diner mainly as a kind of common room for its staff covering the events across the street — but it’s also filming “Crossfire” and some other interview segments from inside, using the counter as a backdrop.

Inside the CNN Diner, your money is no good. There’s an open bar, with CNN-themed cocktails like the “Crossfire Island,” and peanuts and edamame peas for snacks. Staffers can enjoy, for free, a full menu of diner food — burgers, popcorn shrimp, and “CNN Fries.” News hounds not lucky enough to be employed by “The Most Trusted Name in News” — and thus confined to the Garden’s sweaty basement and sad-looking sandwiches — can be forgiven for feeling jealous.

Wait staff wear aprons saying “CNN Diner” and “America’s Campaign Headquarters.” On the tables sit CNN postcards, which the staff will stamp and mail for you. Everyone gets a gift bag, which includes buttons, mints, a fridge magnet, and a “CNN Convention Diner” t-shirt. And at the back last night, a DJ was getting ready to spin records once the last speeches had ended and the party could really begin.

The place has the feel of a neighborhood bar “where everybody knows your name” — albeit a very upscale neighborhood, and one that’s home to a large number of ambitious 20- and 30-somethings. Well-dressed staffers flit from table to table, drinking, gossiping, ordering hot dogs and forgetting about them.

Officially, the diner is open only to CNN staff, but if you’re a V.I.P. (or just have a friend who works there, as in my case) they’ll wave you in. Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and CNN anchor Paula Zahn sat together at the counter. Democratic strategist and CNN analyst Donna Brazile was installed in a booth, drinking what looked like a Captain Morgan and chatting amiably with conservative columnist Joel Mowbray. (“Donna is so cool,” Mowbray later told me). CNN anchor Bill Hemmer, and Eason Jordan, the network’s managing editor, were making the rounds.

Peter Beinart, the editor of The New Republic, came in with a friend, and for a time appeared to be the only one in the place taking an interest in Rudy Giuliani’s speech, which was being broadcast on monitors overhead. Even Beinart soon grew distracted, and began gazing around the room a little warily, as if trying to make sense of what he had stumbled into.

National Review’s Mowbray wandered over and pressed his card into my hand. Having taken some advantage of the open bar, he began telling me about a friend who, he said, had once interned in an office associated with the Israeli government. Years later, he said, the internship was dug up by bureaucratic opponents as evidence of the friend’s “questionable dual loyalties.” “Why aren’t the Arabists in the State Department questioned for their dual loyalties?” he asked, then answered his own question: “I think there’s a lot of latent anti-Semitism.” That got him started on “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Outside, Harlem’s Democratic congressman, Charlie Rangel, having just emerged from the diner, bumped into former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey, another Democrat. There was a lot of guffawing and mutual back-patting — interrupted when a woman with a bicycle and a “Kerry-Edwards” button walked by, shook Rangel’s hand, and told him, “It’s so nice to see a Democrat.”

Then both pols simultaneously said, “good to see you” to each other, and went their separate ways.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.