Cash and Kerry
By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, May 25, 2004; Page A17
I have appeared in two films -- "The Seduction of Joe Tynan" and "You've Got Mail." In both, I had (very!) brief speaking parts. Aside from those two movies, classics both, the rest of my life in the visual arts has been spent as an extra, appearing as a prop, a backdrop, something to add color and verisimilitude for television. This, to a degree that astounds even the cynical, is precisely the role John F. Kerry is considering for me and others at the Democratic National Convention. In Boston he may choose to delay accepting the nomination.
Of course, the decision to delay his official acceptance would be nothing but a formality -- but so is the nominating convention itself. In this case, the acceptance may be postponed a month so that Kerry can continue to spend and raise his own money. After he officially accepts, federal spending guidelines kick in and Kerry will be limited to $75 million. It's not nothing, but George Bush, who will not be nominated until the beginning of September, will have an extra month in which to raise and spend his own money.
So be it. But why I and my several thousand colleagues should dutifully report to Boston to act as a backdrop for a convention that will not nominate anyone is, even for a jaded hack such as myself, something I cannot figure out. To tell you the truth, I was already wondering about the Boston and New York conventions. Why go? We already know the GOP ticket -- Bush and Dick Cheney. As for the platform, it will contain the usual paeans to God and country, God and penal institutions, God in the schools, and the determination to bestow God's gift of democracy wherever it ain't particularly wanted. Also, single-sex marriage will be condemned because, among other things, God doesn't approve, and all fetuses will be registered in the GOP.
The Democrats, on the other hand, have a real issue to settle, and it is one about which God has so far been silent: the vice presidency. At the moment, Kerry is interviewing all Democrats over the age of 18, pretending they all have an equal chance. The name of Sen. John McCain has been floated, although he is inconveniently a Republican -- and opposed to abortion at that. Some Democrats might object, and that could produce a real fight, but it's not likely to happen. Conventions nowadays are determined not to make news.
That leaves . . . who cares? I don't mean to disparage whoever the nominee might be -- why not Colin Powell, and give him a second chance to implement a foreign policy? -- but the fact is that the bottom of the ticket means little to the average voter. The issue is the presidency, not the vice presidency, and while the choice is supposed to say something telling about the presidential nominee himself, so is everything else -- including his spouse, how his kids have turned out and, not to be too fussy, a 19-year record in the Senate. In fact, the process of choosing a vice presidential nominee has become such a studied, laborious affair -- polls, focus groups, interviewing committees, astrological charts (why not?) -- that it may say nothing about the head of the ticket. George H.W. Bush chose Dan Quayle to show that he was not as predictable as once believed. He was, though. Read his lips.
The way things are going, journalists such as myself will be dutifully reporting from New York and Boston for about the same reason Pavlov's dog salivated when it heard a bell sound. It is a conditioned reflex. We have been trained to think something will happen when in fact nothing will happen. Still, we will struggle heroically to make a story of it, doing our parts as extras and bit players so that the thing looks good on television. What television itself will do has not yet been decided. The networks would much prefer to air reality shows, since they draw larger audiences and, most important, have unpredictable outcomes.
Clearly, the campaign finance laws are now driving almost the entire political process. That's absurd. Clearly, too, the accelerated primary and caucus calendar means that the nominee is known sometime around Groundhog Day. Taken together, the primaries and the financing system have made the conventions an anachronism. A one-day gathering would suffice, ending with the major speech in which the nominee accepts the nomination. Whatever the case, the political convention is going the way of the telephone booth. I hear its distant ring, but the cell phone in my pocket tells me the call cannot be for me.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company