Correction: An earlier version of this commentary incorrectly described the sentence that begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . ,” as the “opening words” of the Declaration of Independence. It is actually the second sentence of the Declaration. The following version has been updated.
Chris Matthews is host of “Hardball with Chris Matthews” on MSNBC.
I will never forget the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Working as a busboy in nearby Ocean City, I managed to worm my way into a big fundraiser at the Shelburne Hotel. There I shook hands with some of the political stars of the day: Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson and the Minnesota senator who would become my anti-Vietnam War hero, Eugene McCarthy.
Even as a teenager I was heavily into politics, and getting to meet these people, even for a minute, was huge. Besides, they just don’t stage political conventions like they did back then.
Rhode Island Sen. John Pastore’s keynote address was pure Cold War rock-’em-sock-’em. President Lyndon B. Johnson milked his selection of running mate Humphrey for all it was worth. When Bobby Kennedy went up on the podium to salute his dead brother, the delegates applauded for 22 minutes without stopping. On the convention’s final night, LBJ stood in glory high above the famed boardwalk with fireworks lighting up the sky. It was a true celebration of a president who weeks before had pushed through and signed the historic Civil Rights Act.
How can the Democrats, a half-century later, match such great conventions of the past? More to the point, how can they juice this thing up, given that we are likely to know the presidential nominee’s name long beforehand, just as we did in ’64?
One word: Philadelphia.
When I was growing up in that city, my mother took my brothers and me to see the Liberty Bell, then still in Independence Hall. She also took us to Carpenter’s Hall, colonial Elfreth’s Alley and, of course, Betsy Ross’s house. She wanted her children to know the history of our city, which was so vital to the beginnings of our country.
These historic sites are within quick walking distance of Philadelphia’s convention center. When Democratic delegates from all over the country arrive in July 2016 they could visit much of their country’s revolutionary history without leaving Market Street.
But the greater opportunity is what a 2016 Philadelphia convention could do on television. Consider the themes at the heart of the current national debate over voting rights, marriage equality and pay equity.
Now consider the opening words of our founding document.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The four nights of the Democratic convention could highlight these powerful words and phrases of the Declaration of Independence.
An African American could speak proudly of the election of Barack Obama and of the continued struggle against voter suppression.
A gay couple could talk about marriage equality and their right to the pursuit of happiness.
A female delegate could make the case for equal treatment — and pay — in the workplace.
By gathering in iconic Philadelphia, Democrats could lay claim to not just the flag but what it stands for. A week there, sparkling with American values, could produce the kind of inspiring national convention we’ve missed in recent years.
Let’s admit the role of stagecraft in these quadrennial conventions. Am I the only one who realizes the Republican advantage here? Why is it that the GOP is so much better at the simple mechanics? Time after time, their balloons drop from the ceiling right on time, all at once. With the Democrats, most of them get caught in the rigging. I suppose it’s one competition the Democrats will never win.
So if the D’s can’t match the R’s with the balloon drop, why not try beating them this time with the message?