Maybe I'm just a hopeless political convention junkie, but I'm fed up with the stories that consign these quadrennial party gatherings to the bone yard. Right now, I want to say some good words for conventions, most specifically for the two this summer.
Of course, I'm not cheering for the hokum and hoopla but for the reality that conventions expose. Let's take this year's two party candidates, first of all.
Ronald Reagan has been hard to get a handle on, what with that cheery countenance, disarming toss of the head and the ready flow of one-liners. What we saw on the tube coming from Detroit, however, was no fire-breathing clone of Barry Goldwater and 1964, as the Democrats in New York would have us believe. Instead, we saw a man whose idea of the presidency is that of a chairman of the board -- rather than that of the chief executive officer -- of a vast conglomerate, a man who believes in delegating the specific tasks, once he has laid down the general policy.
Maybe that's not the way to run the U.S. government in the 1980s and maybe much of that general policy seems unrealistic. But it does remind me of Gen. Eisenhower's approach to the Oval Office. Ike saw it very much like his old commander-in-chief's job, delegating as much as possible, demanding that agreed position papers be brought to him for final approval -- and then time off for golf.
Furthermore, Reagan comes through as a quite pragmatic fellow, able to bend or compromise and never mind yesterday's rhetoric. He showed himself to be more centrist in both thought; and action than the right-wing dominated convention that nominated him, just as President Carter came off as more frame of mind evident at Madison Square Garden. Each man in his own way finessed that part of his party that really didn't agree with him, and each indicated to us that he isn't very likely to follow, if elected, a lot of what was voted into the respective platforms.
In Carter's case, the convention, especially the final day, brought out the demagogic streak in him that so dominated his really miserable acceptance speech. And we saw as well a fawning unctuousness in his platform anxiety to have the public blessing of his defeated rival, Sen. Kennedy. It reminded me of Uriah Heap, and it was very unpresidential. Indeed, Carter was a man without grace -- even his walk is graceless -- and a man marked by a certain small-town smallness, even meanness.
The two party platforms this year, as so often, were essentially designed to be all things to all people. Still, they are sufficiently different to let voters know that one party is right of center, the other left of center, if there is any doubt. The makeup of the conventions, too -- the difference in the cast of characters in terms of sex, color and affluence -- told much about the rival party activists. The fact that the camera caught delegates asleep, bored, inattentive and all the rest simply reflected judgments of many of those watching back home, if they didn't tune out completely.
Looking back at them historically, some conventions and the fights over platforms or illuminated great struggles in the shaping of American society: issues such as slavery, the gold standard versus free silver, involvement in the League of Nations, the choice between isolationism and internationalism, Prohibition and its repeal, involvement in Vietnam, the struggle for civil rights, our national attitude toward Nazi Germany and toward the Soviet Union and a communized China, what to do about the nuclear-weapons genie and -- most recently -- whether lessening unemployment or reducing inflation should have priority.
Of course, all these and many other platform issues at conventions have been fought out in Congress and often decided there. But Congress is a different forum, chosen differently and reflective of different slices of the nation. Our democracy depends on checks and balances; one of them is the check that conventions provide on Congress as well as on presidents, the balance these provide by bringing together another quite different reflection of America.
This is a vast and heterogeneous nation, and no gathering can be fully or truly representative of all its parts, nor can any single leader reflect all its hopes, fears and aspirations. Political parties and their quadrennial conventions represent efforts to find, or build, the widest possible consensus on which to win power and then govern. At least they do if they are to succeed.
To further diminish conventions, or to abolish them, would be to deny democracy an important way to vent pent-up emotions and to make it even more difficult for the public to discern the differences between candidates and what they stand for. It would limit access to the marketplace of ideas for new thoughts and new dogmas, sensible or not.
I've been to 14 national conventions, beginning in 1940, and I, too, have come away disgusted on occasion. Seeing this year's conventions only on television renewed the disgust at the fake, the phony and the self-serving. But it also renewed the belief that this is a flawed, but indispensable piece of our democratic system.
We have had only one irreconcilable issue in our history that could be settled only by resort to arms. These conventions help us avoid the irreconcilable, not just nominate candidates for office. Who could ask for anything more?