Last week, John Kerry managed the kind of parlay few candidates will hope to replicate. By suggesting that he might delay accepting the Democratic presidential nomination until after the party's convention in July so that he could raise more campaign money, he made himself vulnerable to accusations that he was trying to manipulate the system. Then, by deciding against it after all, he gave up the extra money.
The idea of delaying his acceptance speech was legal and even legitimate, considering the heroic measures required to match the Bush-Cheney money machine. But anyone who imagines that there's a popular demand for manipulative politicians hasn't been listening to the voters. The idea was dumb enough that it may be years before we learn its parentage -- maybe the same guy who put Michael Dukakis in that infamous tank in 1988?
Nonetheless, there has been at least one positive result from Kerry's folly. The anguish among his fellow Democrats about possibly losing an acceptance speech at Boston makes it clear just how sterile these national party conventions have become. And it raises an obvious question about whether the television networks are justified in their apparent determination to cut their convention coverage to the bone and shunt the events to cable channels for political junkies and policy wonks.
If the cynosure of a four-day convention is nothing more than a speech, it's no wonder so many Americans who might once have been glued to their TVs during the conventions now click to an old movie or a ballgame instead. But politicians love rituals, even empty ones. They are gregarious people who see their conventions as opportunities to put their best foot forward and gain a lot of free television exposure. So, many Democrats continue to cherish the picture -- superannuated though it may be -- of the stirring acceptance speech that will draw a huge television audience and send the party faithful out of the Fleet Center presumably brimming with optimism.
On the face of it, the whole notion of a controversy over a national convention seems anachronistic. The last time there was anything that would qualify as a significant story at one of these events was 20 years ago when Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate just as Democrats were gathering in San Francisco. As Ferraro herself put it herself, "What a gas."
Indeed, the 1984 convention, although nominating a candidate with little or no chance of unseating President Ronald Reagan, had several noteworthy moments -- the speeches of Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson, and black delegates booing Andrew Young, apparently on what-have-you-done-for-us-lately grounds.
Most often, however, conventions have become little more than television commercials, lacking intellectual or even political nutritive value. I have covered every convention since 1960, but the "coverage" of the last four or five cycles has been a sham, yielding stories or columns I might have written sitting on my porch and watching the birds on the Shenandoah. Although we political reporters don't want to say so, we know that nothing truly significant happens at these shindigs anymore.
The keynote speeches are reviewed as theatrical exercises, but the presidential campaign managers -- who control every syllable -- don't allow the speakers to offer anything but predictable praise for the penetrating ideas and scintillating personalities of the candidates on the ticket. The party platforms are quickly forgotten compendiums of the items necessary to satisfy each party's core constituencies. The Republicans always feel obliged to promise to nominate judges who will oppose the abortion rights that the Democrats are just as determined to protect.
And these days, the vice presidential nominee is always chosen in advance to avoid any possibility of an unhappy surprise. No Democrat has forgotten George McGovern's hasty, and soon regretted, choice in 1972 of a senator (Tom Eagleton of Missouri) who had been treated for emotional illness with electroshock therapy. No Republican wants to replicate the 1988 experience of the first George Bush, who chose a senator (Dan Quayle of Indiana) whose bumbling performance as a candidate made him the center of a campaign-long media feeding frenzy.
Changes in party rules that promoted presidential primaries beginning in 1968 and 1972 are largely responsible for the geldings that are today's political conventions. By 1980, primaries and, in a few states, caucuses were choosing the vast majority of the delegates, and thus the nominee, long before the convention, killing most of the suspense. But a second factor draining the life out of conventions is the influence of television, which has warped politics in so many ways. The professional strategists who now direct presidential campaigns and script conventions learned the hard way that TV coverage can make what the press considers "a good story" into a very bad story for the party ticket.
The ultimate example was, of course, the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, which a subsequent study commission described as a "police riot." The city was overrun by thousands of young people demonstrating against the Vietnam War and against the party that was about to nominate Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who supported President Lyndon Johnson's policies.
The ferocity of the police pressure on the demonstrators was matched, with words if not billy clubs, by the rage inside the convention hall. I was on the press stand 30 or 40 feet away from Mayor Richard J. Daley when he shouted unprintable slurs from his seat at Sen. Abe Ribicoff of Connecticut, one of the leading voices of liberalism at that time. In the balconies above me, spectator seats were filled with sanitation workers roaring their support for Hizzoner and occasionally spitting down on reporters. A bunch of sweethearts.
Humphrey lost the general election to Richard Nixon by a whisker, and there was abundant evidence that those four days of TV images of turmoil had compromised the Democratic ticket.
But that infamous convention hasn't been the only one to place a heavy burden on a candidate. And those of us at the conventions often didn't realize at the time how they played to the public. The one at Miami Beach in 1972 was insistently democratic because the reformist McGovernites were in control, and I can remember being naive enough to get a nice warm feeling watching a debate that seemed to be a quintessential example of democracy in action. But the whole thing was so contentiously democratic that McGovern didn't deliver his acceptance speech until 2 a.m., when hardly anyone was awake to watch. Again, polls found Americans uneasy about the raucous intraparty brawl they had witnessed on their TV screens and, unsurprisingly, even less inclined to take a chance on the Democratic challenger than they otherwise might have been.
The damaging images are often more vivid than significant. At the 1980 Democratic convention in New York, Jimmy Carter was assured of the nomination for a second term after defeating Ted Kennedy in the primaries. But the most memorable pictures of that convention were those of Carter -- who was trying to achieve the usual "armpit shot" of raised hands signifying party unity -- pursuing Kennedy as the Massachusetts Democrat reeled around the platform with a gait that raised suspicions among reporters that he had been into the sauce.
The Republicans haven't escaped without wounds that failed to heal by Election Day, either. After the 1992 GOP convention in Houston, polls found party moderates and independents put off by the hard-right rhetoric of Patrick Buchanan and Marilyn Quayle -- much as an earlier generation of like-minded Republicans had been dismayed by the harsh talk of Barry Goldwater at San Francisco in 1964.
The hazard in the scripted convention, of course, is that any story that isn't planned is sure to get disproportionate attention from the hundreds of journalists who have nothing serious to do at these things but feel obliged to show up to demonstrate their bona fides as political reporters. That's why the big story for a day or two at the 1996 Democratic convention was about the consultant who had been caught nibbling a hooker's toes while talking to President Clinton on the telephone.
Juicy stuff -- or at least more interesting than the controversy at the 1992 Democratic convention over whether Jerry Brown, the former California governor who had conducted an also-ran challenge to Clinton, would be allowed to speak, as if it mattered. Look for a reprise in Boston when Al Sharpton demands prime time.
So, should the conventions be abandoned? I guess I'm not quite ready for that.
Even when totally scripted, they can be instructive. Voters watching on television can see the clear differences in the makeup of the two parties. The Republicans are more homogeneous -- most often white, affluent, small-town, suburban and, these days, religious fundamentalists from the South and Midwest. At Philadelphia in 2000, the Republican managers loaded the entertainment programs with African American and Latin singers and musicians, but, in terms of diversity, it was a Potemkin village.
Democratic conventions also reflect the party's constituencies in a sometimes laughable display of political correctness -- with just the proper proportions of women, blacks, Latinos and union members on the podium. If you look hard for a Native American up there, you'll probably find one. The contrast with the Republicans is clear.
If doctors and lawyers and grocery manufacturers can gather once a year, there's no reason politicians shouldn't do so once every four years. That Democrat from Oregon may enjoy finding some common ground with that Democrat from North Carolina. And in the end, for all their staged artificiality, political conventions deal with an important event in American life, the election of a new president, not just the price of cauliflower or malpractice insurance. As such, they deserve at least a little attention from TV, if the networks are going to pretend to be serious about covering news. There's no law that says everyone is entitled to be entertained at all times.
So as for me, as dull as the prospect may seem, I'm off to Boston to catch Kerry's speech, live and in living color.