National Civics Lesson

We have reached that stage of the election cycle when travel-weary commentators direct their ire at a hardy artifact of the old millennium, the national political convention. As thousands of delegates prepare for a few days of around-the-clock socializing and caucusing, their Boswells in the political press will scowl and grumble as they, too, book passage for Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul, sites of this year’s nominating conventions. Judging by the bad press the conventions have had over the last couple of decades, you would think these meetings were devoid of drama, tension and relevance.

Well, for the most part, those criticisms happen to be true. But that does not mean that these quadrennial gatherings have outlived their usefulness. In fact, two words ought to persuade all but the jaded that conventions still matter. Those words are Barack Obama.

The Democratic nominee became the unlikeliest of household names thanks to his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. He was a candidate for the Senate that year, and party leaders were looking to give him a little free exposure as he prepared for the fall campaign.

Obama’s speech four years ago transformed him into a political superstar. Without that speech, without that convention, without the national spotlight that these gatherings offered, it would be hard to imagine Obama’s meteoric rise from political unknown in 2004 to presidential nominee in 2008.

Despite what you’ll be reading and hearing from Denver and Minnesota, national political conventions still matter. That is an argument I have made here and elsewhere in the past, and every time I do it, I am told I’m living in the past. Sure, I understand that conventions have outlived their original intent, and they no longer produce the kind of drama and back-room dealing that inspired the prose of H. L. Mencken back in the day. But as the Democratic convention in 2004 demonstrated, what happens at the podium still matters, for better and for worse.

Murray Kempton, the great columnist who as a young man worked as Mencken’s copy boy, once wrote that it was hard to maintain faith in human nature after attending a political convention. I return from any long car ride in New Jersey with a similarly dyspeptic view of humanity, but that doesn’t mean I’ll give up my car anytime soon, nor do I believe we ought to revoke the licenses of most of my fellow Garden Staters, although it is a tempting thought.

As a veteran of just a half-dozen conventions—a puny résumé that ought to result in the revocation of my claim to political punditry—I have seen more than my share of folly at these gatherings. I’ve seen delegates act like college students on spring break. I’ve seen favor-seekers sucking up to minor officeholders, lobbyists sucking up to major officeholders (there is a hierarchy of foolishness at these events), and members of the media cheerfully taking advantage of hospitality suites without wondering what ethical boundaries they might have crossed.

What I have not seen during my convention assignments will confirm the skepticism of those who believe conventions are mere artifacts, and dusty ones at that. I have not seen drama over the choice of a candidate. The last time there was any such question about the convention’s choice was in 1976, when neither the incumbent Gerald Ford nor the challenger Ronald Reagan won enough votes in the primaries to guarantee a first-ballot victory. (Ford, of course, won the nomination after some old-fashioned back-room negotiations.)

I have not seen great ideological battles over party platforms. I haven’t seen public displays of disunity. I haven’t seen nearly enough good, never mind great, orators. What I have seen all too often resembled a carefully crafted political commercial.

But then again, I have also witnessed soaring speeches by Mario Cuomo, Barbara Jordan and Ronald Reagan. As a print journalist, I’ve covered small state delegation meetings where debates have occasionally broken out. I’ve been a fly on the wall for conversations about strategy, about issues and, yes, about the nation’s future. I’ve seen party members separated by geography and more come together to talk about what they had in common, and what still divided them.

It surely is true that the convention, as a form, can seem as relevant to the 21st century as a newspaper—and how it pains me to make what I consider to be an altogether fair comparison. Party activists no longer need to travel thousands of miles to learn more about one another. They have e-mail for that. That’s why they blog. And, truth be told, save for Obama’s electrifying speech of four years ago (to be followed, no doubt, by another such speech in Denver), convention oratory is not what it was as recently as 1984.

Even so, I think it remains possible to think of conventions as national civics lessons, as Walter Cronkite used to call them. Even if most of the oratory is trite, even if convention managers are more concerned with imagery than words, even if the Menckens and Kemptons of today have lost interest or, more likely, have moved on to a more stable line of work, conventions still offer the nation a chance to think about and perhaps even become engaged by politics, that once great national pastime that has become more of a cable-television cult in recent years.

Yes, the days of ballot fights and back-room deals are over. But as Barack Obama demonstrated four years ago, conventions have not lost their ability to surprise us.

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