Richard Reeves has written a book about the 1976 Democratic National Convention which flatly contradicts what all the network commentators told us about the convention being dull.
Reeves, one of the ablest political reporters, has put together in a new book. "Convention," what amounts to a series of word pictures at an exhibition of American democracy."Convention" is one of those books that you want to read straight through without interruption. That's surprising, given the fact that you know already how the story ends.
All I kept thinking as I read it was why didn't television show me what Reeves and his six aides had gathered and reported? The network reporters and anchormen kept telling me that the Democratic convention was uneventful. Why the disparity between Reeves' view and theirs?
The networks probably would answer that they cannot take their cameras where reporters with pad and pencils can go. Well, back in 1960 or 1964 or even 1968, that argument would have some merit.
But for the past few years, the networks (as well as the local news stations) have been preening all their marvelous mini-cameras before our awestruck eyes. The latest in electronic gear can bring us everything from the surface of the moon to a tight shot of a candidate's tonsils.
Much of that equipment was used at last summer's Democratic convention. But for the most part, it was used in an attempt to generate excitement over the obvious. When that failed (it never had a chance from the start), we started to hear from the men in the booths and from the floor reporters that this was a deadly dull convention.
Reeves and his associates, however, found a rather lively and exciting convention. They did so because they did not seek out the obvious. They went off the beaten track, by day and by night.
Nighttime at a convention is usually the time when the most exciting and important developments are taking place: the small meetings in bars or hotel rooms, the moving of candidates' aides between the hotels or restaurants, the parties that are thrown by the nation's leading publishers and network executives. These are the occasions when the marvelous small moments of American nominating conventions take on a life force and pulse that make covering them sheer unadulterated joy.
I have often wondered why in this new age of light, portable electronic equipment, at least one network does not throw its programming patterns out the window and just stay on around the block, leaving the convention floor after the nightly wrap-up by the floor reports and the anchormen, and just prowl the city, looking for the small vignettes that Reeves has so beautifully detailed in "Convention."
The Democratic convention in New York would have been a perfect place to try round-the-clock programming on an experimental basis, as a kind of tune-up for the Republican convention in Kansas City. Up until the moment President Ford picked Robert Dole as his running mate, there was round-the-clock activity in Kansas City - some of it of great moment, much of it the pure carnival atmosphere that prevails at all conventions.
Would there be an audience for this kind of programming? We will never know until a network tries to find out. The point is that the entertainment and sports divisions of the networks are now throwing the scheduling rule book out the window. Both are taking chances.
It's time for the news departments to start showing the same measurement of audacity. All they have to do is read "Convention" and then start planning ahead.