Not your father’s political conventions

Published 3:48 pm Wednesday, September 10, 2008

One of the privileges of age is an assumed right to bore others with remembrances. Here are a few of mine about national political conventions.

We have just finished convention season, a grand attempt to make interesting two weeks of predictable political propaganda staged for TV. Barack Obama becomes the reincarnation of John F. Kennedy, while McCain takes on the visage of Theodore Roosevelt. Dashes of FDR, Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan are added for spice. Yes, civic education is well served by the weeks devoted to politics — and we at the Center for Politics celebrate that — but the saccharine quality leaves a disagreeable aftertaste.

It was not always so.

My own political awakening began at my father’s knee in 1960. A World War II veteran who came back to the United States with civic fire, Dad was determined to make me a good citizen. So we watched both conventions together, almost gavel to gavel. Regular programming was suspended and the three networks — the whole of TV at the time —broadcast them live. While just 7 years old, I was fascinated by the thousands of shouting adults in crazy hats, parading around the halls with placards and banners. The vote count at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles was dramatic, and John Kennedy did not go over the top until Wyoming was called at the end of the list of the states.

My next three conventions were also viewed on TV. The only parts of the 1964 gatherings that linger in my memory were Barry Goldwater’s “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” acceptance address, which sealed his fate as a candidate too far right to be considered seriously for the presidency, and Lyndon Johnson’s Atlantic City (New Jersey) convention that was dominated not by LBJ but by a retrospective film about the late John Kennedy and an emotional speech by Robert F. Kennedy eulogizing his brother’s presidency. That 1964 would have seen JFK’s triumphant re-nomination and sizeable re-election intensified the agony and the sorrow for everyone.

In 1972 both parties met in Miami Beach, and the conventions couldn’t have been more different. Democrats made a nationally televised suicide pact, choosing a weak candidate, George McGovern, in a raucous, divisive event that pushed McGovern’s acceptance address to 3 a.m. on the East Coast. By contrast, the Nixon White House — oblivious to the Watergate scandal that would end Nixon’s presidency two years hence — organized the most sterile convention in American history, utterly devoid of controversy, with every minute pre-programmed by a famous script that even determined the length of applause from the delegates. It was wildly successful for Nixon, thus setting the dismaying precedent that haunts our political conventions to this day: form over substance, harmony instead of an honest airing of differences.

All of that was gone by 1976, and conventions resumed an exciting role in the nation’s politics. Watergate created a hatred of all things Washington that spawned the presidency of a little known one-term governor from Georgia, Jimmy Carter.

The Republican convention in Kansas City was even more exciting, as unelected President Ford fought Ronald Reagan to the last delegate. Rumors kept sweeping the floor that this group or that state had defected to Reagan, but in the end Ford eked out a win.

How the tables had turned by 1980. Republicans in Detroit just knew that Ronald Reagan would be the next president, long before the polls showed it. Their energy level was quasar-like, and the excitement reached fever-pitch when the news that Reagan and his old rival, Gerald Ford, were considering forming a ticket. The hall was in bedlam before Reagan and Ford wisely decided that the proposed divvying up of the presidency would never work. George H.W. Bush was the second-place substitute, a fateful decision that launched two separate Bush presidencies in time.

Most readers recall the more recent conventions, or at least the identity of the nominees, so I will spare you additional memories. Truth is, there aren’t many that matter. In 1996, 2000, and 2004 the conventions on both sides were about as dull and uninspiring as any I have ever witnessed. The 1972 Nixon model has become universal. Nothing is left to chance, everything is sweetness and light, and the special effects and balloon drops are spectacular but sterile. Security is understandably stifling, and the numbers of media people covering these non-events has created gridlock in and out of the hall. Once in a blue moon, a fine speech is delivered, but a couple of days after the convention’s adjournment, nothing comes to mind except the identity of the Veep and a line or two from the presidential nominee’s address.

Maybe one day we’ll go back to the future. As we’ve seen already this year, that’s not likely to happen. Hope springs eternal.