Now that we media-political junkies have struck our tent and are moving on to the next arena, it's time to think about redesigning our act. For both the political parties and the press, the lesson of Detroit is clear.
The political parties and the television networks, whose joint production these spectacles are, should consider the modern maxim -- less is more.
Gavel-to-gavel coverage of an event like the latest Republican National Convention is ridiculous. Worse, in a convention without real tension and suspense, an absence of genuine news creates a vacuum that waits to be filled.That's what happened Wednesday night. One spark set all that tangle of essentially dormant electronic wires pulsating, with results that created a frenzy and almost made a perception historic reality. Gerald Ford's appearance in Walter Cronkite's anchor booth showed the power of television both to be used as a political broker and as a vehicle for transforming rumor into reality.
The prospects of Ford becoming the vice presidential nominee-- and that's all they ever were -- began to have a life of their own because of the intense competitive nature of TV news, the desire of delegates for something dramatic to stir their ranks, and the basically boring convention structure that had everyone wishing for something fresh to occur.
Not that the media created the event. The idea of a former president who also had been vice president accepting a spot on a ticket headed by a strong political opponent was news by any definition. But Ford's personal round of interviews in prime time with two of the great media TV gurus, Cronkite and Barbara Walters, touched off a scene almost without parallel in convention history.
The competitive atmosphere escalated the efforts to nail down the story, to advance it, to beat the opposition with fact and conjecture. (I say this as one who pounded out an analysis of a Reagan-Ford ticket on deadline which happily never saw print and then did network commentary extolling the virtues of that ticket which, alas, aired in prime time.)
If you followed the story on TV that night, you saw an examplle of how all that elaborate equipment, talent and intense pressure combined to create something new. It was electronic gene-splicing on a national scale: Ford had accepted the position on the ticket, Ford and Reagan were heading to the hall to make a dramatic joint appearance, Ford was actually in the hall and waiting in a special room somewhere upstairs.
All this was the natural outcome of a convention process that has become an anachronism and yet somehow survives in the electronic age.
The Republicans went to Detroit fully aware their convention would be more like the renomination of a president than the picking of someone fresh to lead them. And they structured their convention schedule to put forward their most attractive public face, via national TV, which had been planning for the same event for some 18 months and was prepared to spend tens of millions of dollars on it.
But watching the GOP last week made you wonder if the Republicans realized what a tired message they were imparting to the public. The basic problem, for them as well as the networks, was in keeping the same old four-day convention format when no reason for it existed. Tuesday night's schedule was the classic example.
If you were among the minority of Americans watching then, you saw so ennervating a spectacle that even the d elegates turned away from the scene in a buzz of boredom. Speaker after speaker droned on, uttering one long-winded string of cliches after another. The sense of ennui became almost physically painful. And these dreadful speeches were scheduled in prime TV, while the most important business -- the adoption of a platform containing controversial material -- took place early in the evening and received only a few passing minutes of deliberations.
That kind of political show strengthened the conviction that the old convention form really ought to be relegated to the museums alongside the political torchlight parades of the past. And it raises even more questions about how the public will view the relevance of these types of gatherings in the future.
The problem extends beyond the GOP and Detroit. It centers around the best ways for our political parties to get their messages across to the widest possible audiences, and in that process to stimulate interest in major national issues.
On the evidence from around the country, the public reaction to the GOP was negative. The first day saw a sharp drop in the number of Americans watching the GOP as compared with four years ago. Roughly 46 out of every 100 sets turned on in prime time this year, as compared to 61 out of a 100 in Kansas City four years ago.
More telling was the reaction in the nation's largest market, New York. Given a choice between a movie about a Roman gladiator and the GOP, nearly four times as many people chose the fictional combat.
The reasons for that rejection are grounded in something more than the conventional complaints about this last convention -- lack of suspense, overblown coverage and the rest. Here it's the message that's at fault every bit as much as the media; for that you have to blame the political party even more than the press.
Conventions serve a significant purpose, for the party and the country. They are the vehicle that finally selects the national political tickets and introduces the party's views and its new leaders to the citizens. They also provide a useful function in another sense: permitting people from throughout the country to gather once every four years -- and to agree or disagree, as the case may be, on the leading issues.
But as Detroit this time demonstrated, the old ways of filling air time with stale rhetoric and giving gavel-to-gavel coverage simply turn off a majority of citizens. Two nights, crisply scheduled and tightly organized, would have done it all this time.
The American people were voting too last week, and the results showed a landslide: They turned thumbs down on that kind of convention process. With good reason. There's got to be a better way.