Archive for Sunday, July 30, 2000

Political conventions still matter

July 30, 2000


Like many Americans, I became hooked on political conventions in the 1950s by listening and watching as first radio and then television captured the color and the drama of the quadrennial political spectaculars.

I can still recall the mellifluous tones of the late Illinois Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen, invoking the sounds of the ocean waves at Maine's Old Orchard Beach at the 1952 Republican National Convention, and Adlai Stevenson's promise that year to talk sense to the American people.

The parties have exacerbated this by presenting a highly homogenized, sometimes misleading product

In 1956, I was in the convention hall to hear Tennessee Gov. Frank Clement denounce golf-playing President Dwight D. Eisenhower for looking down "the green fairways of indifference."

Later, I covered the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where tension within the hall reflected disorder without, and the unruly 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami Beach, where platform deliberations lasted until dawn and George McGovern gave an acceptance speech well past midnight.

That convention gave these political extravaganzas a bad name and prompted the Democrats under national chairman Bob Strauss to clean them up.

By the time Jimmy Carter was nominated four years later, dissent had been banished to the sidelines in the name of displaying party unity. Every four years since, there has been more effort to control the picture the parties present to the public.

The sanitization of the proceedings has prompted the television networks to cut their coverage on grounds there isn't any real news. The Alliance for Better Campaigns estimates the three major networks will devote just 25 hours to the two conventions this year, one-fourth of the total just 20 years ago.

Even before they cut back, they increasingly used their political coverage to feature the aggressive questioning of their correspondents rather than the actual sessions. No wonder, many viewers turned them off.

With even the selection of running mates taking place before the sessions begin, not only the networks but newspapers have reduced their convention space.

In a sense, this creates a vicious cycle: news organizations, correctly claiming reduced public interest in politics, cut the coverage. That in turn contributes to the belief that politics doesn't matter much.

The parties have exacerbated this by presenting a highly homogenized, sometimes misleading product during the few prime-time viewing hours.

The face the GOP plans to present may give the impression that, except for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and John McCain, most top party leaders are women or minorities. The Democrats may showcase more actors than senators. One reason they can do this is because the networks only show an hour on most nights.

Still, an argument can be made that the Republican and Democratic conventions are important and will show Americans where the two major parties are headed.

It is as important that Republicans under Mr. Bush present a revised platform that vows to strengthen, not dismantle, the Education Department as it is that they reiterate their opposition to abortion. It is important that, despite some grumbling from organized labor, the Democrats under Al Gore firmly back the concept of expanded global trade.

And despite the efforts to downplay dissent, tensions in both parties are likely to remain visible beneath a tranquil surface, fanned by the competitive instincts of the three 24-hour cable news networks.

Mr. McCain will be in the Philadelphia spotlight, trying to reconcile twin roles as a loyal Republican supporting Mr. Bush and as a reform advocate ready to run in 2004 if this year's nominee is defeated.

Liberals who decry the centrist Democratic course of Bill Clinton and Al Gore will be present in Los Angeles, and the cameras of CNN, MSNBC, Fox and C-Span will undoubtedly find them, as will newspaper reporters.

Conventions also spotlight future leaders.

Republicans will showcase Gen. Colin Powell, a likely secretary of state in a Bush administration, and Democrats will feature Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, whose father was nominated at their last convention in Los Angeles 40 years ago.

Conventions take place for one week every four years. The candidates and the parties will be making promises that, contrary to widespread belief, they'll actually try to keep if elected.

So what's said and done at the two conventions will signal how our top public officials plan to deal with the issues that will affect our lives.

For those who care, it will all be available on cable; the rest can watch "Survivor," "Big Brother," "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and the reruns of last winter's sitcoms.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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