Not Just Balloons and Funny Hats

Is there a public institution in America more reviled than our national political conventions? (Picking on Congress doesn’t count.) Every four years the punditry class informs us that conventions are little more than glorified political commercials, which enlightened people ought to avoid for fear of slipping into a boredom-induced coma. What the pundits don’t tell you, of course, is that they will be at the conventions en masse, bemoaning the lack of drama and spontaneity while eating, drinking and making merry at their employers’ expense. It’s a tough job, but...well, you know the rest.

As a non-grizzled (as of yet) veteran of convention coverage, I beg to differ with my colleagues. While it’s true that conventions no longer decide on the party’s nominee for president, they still have an important place and indeed an honored role in this country’s ongoing experiment in popular democracy. Besides, those who look back at the days when presidential nominees actually were chosen at national conventions apparently have forgotten how silly, exclusionary and even corrupt the old ways were. The phrase smoke-filled room entered the American lexicon during the Republican convention in 1920, when a bunch of well-connected, politically powerful, all-male, all-white bosses got together, smoked some cigars and decided that Warren Harding would be a good nominee. After all, with his white hair and noble face he looked like a president.

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So much for the golden era of American political conventions.

As the Republicans meet in Philadelphia and the Democrats get ready for their turn in Los Angeles, bear in mind that some 6,000 of your fellow Americans are among the happiest people on earth. They are the delegates to these affairs, the people you’ll see on the convention floor sitting in folding chairs. Some no doubt will be wearing funny hats or clutching signs. Very few are known beyond their neighborhoods. But they are the lifeblood of our political system, and if conventions exist for no other reason than as a some-expenses-paid reward for their labors, well, they’re worth the time and trouble.

Critics of modern conventions complain about the bland oratory (they’re generally right about that), the overblown productions (ditto) and the lack of debate over party platforms (ditto again). But that’s a top-down view. If some of the 15,000 journalists at the two conventionsyes, that’s nearly three journalists for every delegatespent more time with the people in funny hats and less time with the people delivering unfunny speeches, they just might come away with a less jaded view of the proceedings.

The six conventions I’ve covered all have lacked the drama of yore, but each was memorable, for me at least, because of the time I spent with some of the delegates. Some were local elected officials, but many were anonymous party stalwarts who performed the unglamorous chores of democracy. They licked envelopes, they organized phone banks, they solicited petition signatures, they distributed campaign literature. A place on the convention floor was their reward, and they loved it. Now such people do not make good copy for many of our modern observers. They tend to be unfashionably earnest about politics and civic life, and they do not pepper their conversation with knowing references to the media elite’s favorite television shows. So we will hear little about them, except when they are spoken of collectively as the herd responding to the prodding of their handlers.

Should you defy the warnings of the cable-television talkers and actually tune in to a session or two, bear in mind that thousands of people are listening to those boring, scripted speeches and loving every minute of it. We owe them a good deal more than our jaded contempt, for without them political parties would cease to exist. And for all our sophistication, we haven’t quite figured out what might take their place.

Remember, too, that in a thousand ways, some seen and some unseen, reputations will be made or lost during the conventions. Somebody may give an unexpectedly good speech, and suddenly the assembled elders will begin speculating on the speaker’s brilliant future. Some star may give a poor performance, and the wise men and women will decide to look elsewhere for politicians with a future.

The rise and fall of convention performers are the untold but dramatic stories that take place at every convention, no matter how uneventful they may seem. John Glenn never really got over a disastrous speech several conventions ago; Bill Clinton, however, did. (I was in the room for his keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic conventionnot for the last time did I decide that this young guy from Arkansas wasn’t going anywhere.) Bill Bradley had several chances to make an impression with his convention oratory. He never did. But Mario Cuomo became a star with a single speech in 1984. And George Bush probably won the 1988 election by giving a good acceptance speech, courtesy of Peggy Noonan.

So pay no attention to the cynics and the world-weary, and remember that their bosses are paying good money so that they may eat well after expressing their complete and utter boredom. Conventions may have changed; but they remain, in the words of Walter Cronkite a generation ago, a national civics lesson.

Do they still teach civics, or have we become too jaded for that kind of instruction?

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