August 31, 2012

Tennessee Gov. Frank G. Clement delivered a rousing keynote address at the 1956 Democratic convention in Chicago that electrified the delegates and mesmerized a national television audience, including this revved-up 17-year-old.

Weeks later, the party’s nominee, Adlai Stevenson, lost in a landslide, for a second time, to Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Ronald Reagan’s famous 1964 “A Time for Choosing” speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater’s candidacy was a powerful call to arms that did little to help the Arizona senator; he was crushed at the polls by President Lyndon Johnson.

And who can forget Mario Cuomo’s sensational keynote address at the 1984 Democratic convention in July — and how little good it did Democratic standard-bearer Walter Mondale in November?

Conventions can be memorable events. They’ve been known to energize the party faithful. They can convert never-heard-ofs (say, Barack Obama) into celebrities.

Modern-day political conventions produce a steady stream of infomercials during prime time, all without paying for the coverage.

Conventions also have their pitfalls.

These quadrennial affairs have, on occasion, slipped off-message, producing sometimes-unanticipated adverse events. The violent clashes between police and protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention nearly overshadowed the political roughhousing on the convention floor.

Word of this week’s incident in Tampa in which two Republican guests reportedly threw peanuts at a black CNN camerawoman, saying, “This is how we feed animals,” is spreading like wildfire among African Americans and other minorities, obliterating the diversity message Republicans delivered on stage.

Then there was Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech, most striking in the brazenness of its falsehoods. The address revealed a Republican vice presidential candidate without a sense of shame. To stand before a national audience and speak what he must have known was not the truth requires a hardiness of heart that is beyond the capacity and understanding of most honest people. Ryan pleased the party loyalists, but his cavalier treatment of the truth was chilling. This man a heartbeat from the presidency? Good Lord.

But conventions don’t determine election outcomes.

That is true for the just-concluded GOP conclave and the Democratic convention next week.

The speech of New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, as with the address San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro is scheduled to deliver, will fade with Labor Day memories.

So will images of Republican and Democratic conventioneers with their funny hats, goofy lapel pins and faces contorted with anger or cheering.

What follows the conventions is different. All the Hollywood producers and entertainment executives in the world can’t dress up what is about to take place over the next two months.

The political ads will portray the presidential election as a no-holds-barred duel between the forces of good and the wily devil. Attack ads in this most expensive presidential campaign in U.S. history will continue to lie, distort and hit below the belt. But this year brings added wrinkles.

Republican attempts to suppress black and Hispanic voters are startling in 21st-century America.

There was Texas’s requirement that voters show photo identification and purchase such ID if they don’t have it — a burden that would fall more heavily on the poor, many of whom are brown and black. Thankfully, a U.S. appeals court panel in Washington blocked the Texas law on Thursday. But suppression of nonwhite voters continues in Pennsylvania and Florida.

That notwithstanding, this year’s election will come down to what presidential elections are always about: one-on-one contests.

The real business at hand is to decide whether the nation should remain under the stewardship of President Obama or be handed to Mitt Romney.

The economy, debt, jobs and foreign policy will be familiar campaign fare, with much to be heard from commercials and surrogates.

But the real test is of the two individuals on the ballot. That is where questions of intelligence, character, integrity and trustworthiness come in.

This is the time for America to take the measure of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

My take: The McCarthyite patriotism issue, slyly insinuated against Obama for the past four years, is pure bunk. So, too, are suggestions that he is irresolute. Talk about having been dealt a bad hand: Obama faced a congressional Republican opposition determined to undermine his presidency from Day One.

Four years on, Obama is the most experienced, best-grounded, most honest and decent leader to take the country through the challenges that face us.

On the other hand, years of Romney watching reveal him to be a first-class poseur. His famous flip-flops, dodges and especially the pandering on display Thursday night show that he will pretend to be and say whatever he thinks is necessary to get elected.

Conventions mask none of that.

kingc@washpost.com