Tom Shales's column in the July 27 Style section incorrectly said that Haleema Salie, a speaker at the Democratic National Convention, lost family members on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Salie's family members were on American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center. (Published 7/28/04)
Searching for a way to describe Hillary Clinton's popularity with Democrats, ABC News anchor Peter Jennings said last night, as the crowd at the FleetCenter in Boston cheered her, "Senator Clinton is a rock star."
Maybe so, but guess who was about to come out there and set the Democratic National Convention on its ear: a veritable combination of Elvis, the Beatles, James Brown and Bruce Springsteen put together. There he was, huger than life: Bill Clinton, who after his introduction by his wife raced breathlessly through what seemed a 40-minute speech crammed into about 25 and got the 2004 presidential race roaringly underway. He was just plain magnificent.
Lots of us complained about the length of his speeches during his eight years as president, but confined by the arrogant networks to a small space last night -- the mandate reportedly was to finish by 11 p.m. Eastern time or be pulled off the air -- Clinton was Speed Racer and Capt. Commando and maybe even Spider-Man. He was, even Brit Hume had to admit on the Republican-loving Fox News Channel, "as full of his skills as ever."
Mara Liasson, part of the panel Fox had put together to comment, said the former president had made the case for presumed presidential candidate John Kerry better than Kerry had ever made it for himself. Bill Clinton was back in town, bygones were bygones (the bad ones, that is, of which there are many) and the nation could thrill to the still-real excitement of a speech delivered with passion and skill and brilliance.
In terms of content, the speech given earlier by former president Jimmy Carter was more volatile but, of course, Carter could yell "fire" in a crowded theater and make it sound like a folksy howdy-do. The networks decided not to carry Carter's speech, Nobel Prize winner or not, and to limit opening-night convention coverage to one hour. One hour. The cable networks supposedly take up the slack but it's a system that still bespeaks irresponsibility and shirking of civic duty by the broadcast networks.
They're busy, of course, with their trifling, noisy, violent, demeaning, crass, corny and meaningless summer reruns. The networks complain that the conventions have become repetitious and predictable; and their own programming isn't? The summer fight every four years has really become one not between two political parties -- they aren't really fighting in earnest until Labor Day -- but between the parties and the networks, with the networks -- owned by bigger and bigger corporations each time the parties meet in convention -- arrogantly flaunting their power.
Dan Rather, the most distinguished of the big three anchors, looked peeved about the whole situation and was surprisingly terse during CBS's coverage. But then he had his doubts about the built-in drama of the story: "About the last thing you will find here . . . is suspense," he told viewers. On NBC, Tom Brokaw abdicated as he often does to political expert and "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert.
The cable networks' coverage tended to be feistier and most entertaining, if not more enlightening, than the grudging stuff on the broadcast networks. Chris Matthews convened a special edition of his "Hardball" show from the convention with Andrea Mitchell, Joe Scarborough, Willie Brown ("Bill Clinton genuinely loves people," he said) and others who would drop by and be shouted at. But MSNBC producers had the good sense to cut away from cacophony for a moving speech from the vast convention stage by Haleema Salie, who lost a pregnant daughter and son-in-law in the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
Fox missed some of that, though, because it was belatedly rerunning Jimmy Carter, perhaps having decided he was newsworthy after all. Anchor Hume was joined by the scratchily crotchety Susan Estrich, who in her advancing years is beginning to sound exactly like Carol Channing. Back down on the stage, another moving moment of peaceful contemplation: 16-year-old violinist Gabe Lefkowitz playing "Amazing Grace" in memoriam.
People in the crowded hall held up lights or candles or matches. This all made a mockery of Fox anchor Neal Cavuto's imbecilic statement earlier in the day, as he sat in the foreground of the hall, that "there's a lot of hatred in this room behind me." He said the convention would be "predictably partisan." Gosh! Does that mean the Democrats wouldn't give equal time to Republicans? Heaven help us if the November elections are partisan, too.
"Some of the prime-time lineup appears to be very partisan," CNN pretty-boy Bill Hemmer told commentator Jeff Greenfield on the network's morning show. Insights like these are so dazzling you really have to step back from the set to avoid having your eyebrows singed.
During the day, the cable networks reported predictably how predictable the convention was sure to be. Everybody likened it to an "infomercial," a comparison that people have been making for years now and is meaningless. Yes, the role of the political convention has changed, and television changed it years and years ago, and no, it's not likely major decisions will be made on live TV in front of the American people. But we've got enough "reality TV" now. How about letting the parties put on their shows and sitting back to see which one does the better job? Like there's some insidious harm or danger in that or something.
In addition to all the stories about how conventions aren't like they were in 1860, everybody had to do a story on the popularity of doughnuts in Boston, proving how investigative and enterprising those crafty networks can be. Wait, wait, this just in: TV conventions aren't really conventions any more. They're more like -- hang onto your sweat bands now -- infomercials! You heard it here for the 400th time.