July 25, 2004
This week, the Democrats will convene in Boston for three days to present their candidate for president of the United States.
G ood luck finding it, though. ABC and CBS will offer sporadic coverage midweek. NBC sticks its head in for an hour or two on Thursday. The rest will be splattered across a few cable networks. Conventions used to draw families to the TV for a chance to witness history. Now, if John Kerry wants early exposure on NBC, he’ll have to crawl through maggots like everyone else on "Fear Factor."
You can blame television for creating this weird universe, where politics ranks behind surgical makeovers and every third person is Jessica Simpson. But television has always been . . . television.
Conventions, on the other hand, were once something. They were the anvil where party policy was pounded out, and sparks often flew: 49 voting calls were exhausted before the 1852 Democratic convention named Franklin Pierce as its candidate. The 1880 Republican convention stole momentum from former President Ulysses S. Grant and anointed future President James Garfield, who didn’t want to run. The 1924 Democratic convention became known as a "snarling rough house" over a platform plank condemning the Ku Klux Klan. Conventions were ugly, uneven, thrilling, boring, inspiring, ridiculous and always different.
What happened? In 1948, CBS began airing the conventions on television. Soon, everyone had TVs. Craven for the vast exposure this new technology offered, both parties slowly turned their conventions into television shows: Long policy speeches? Don’t play well on camera. Issues aren’t "visual," so the party platform should take a back seat to the candidate’s face (it helps if the candidate is telegenic). And those messy floor debates don’t convey the unified image the party desires. Coverage has gone from blurry kinescopes of bickering, buzz-cut delegates to tracking shots of Bill Clinton’s entrance. The podium is now dwarfed by a massive video screen, where George W. drives across his ranch to a rousing orchestral score.
Conventions have squeezed out all conflict and spontaneity, in order to groom themselves for television. And now television hates them. Because they’re too scripted. What’s a convention without conflict? "An infomercial," which is what Ted Koppel called the ’96 Republican affair. He’s right, too. Is the outcome of either convention any more in doubt than the winner of Miller’s "President of Beers" campaign?
Some say conventions are a fossil from the days when a central gathering point was needed so folks as far away as California could have a say in their party’s future. Now, candidates are determined in the primaries. Even their running mates are locked down. That means, with troops in harm’s way and our economy limping, each party will spend three days gunning for catchy sound bytes ("Where’s the beef ?" "Read my lips" "Bush was born with a silver foot in his mouth"). Some of these are funny. Most are not. None will have any bearing on our future.
If conventions want to be television shows, let them be the reality shows they once were. Let’s see a hairy, openended floor debate on No Child Left Behind. Or how about a delegation refusing to sit until the speaker addresses our future in Iraq? It would be more like "Jerry Springer" and less like "The Swan." But a passionate, unscripted debate on issues might energize more people about the political process — instead of boring them with another smooth-talking commercial about a product they won’t buy.