In only a few hours the circus becomes a carnival. Two presidential nominees whose identities have been known for months, along with running mates whose names will be no mystery, already are streaming into Southern cities for sweet tea and the sweet serenades of the faithful.
We call it a national political convention. I call it a waste of time and money.
This of course is treason to my tribe, political writers who love these quadrennial assemblies. And in truth, I enjoyed them in my years as a political correspondent, a time when the phrase “social media” meant the opening-night press party, which, by the way, usually was full of twits, not tweets.
But not one decision of consequence was made in the 11 conventions I covered, though plenty of good meals were consumed, especially in Chicago, host to 26 of them, including Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose convention 100 years ago this month. My guess is that the same will occur in Tampa this week, where massive quantities of the regional classic Sopa de Garbanzo will be gulped down.
But before I launch into my quadrennial ritual, arguing that the conventional convention needs to be overhauled if not junked, let me concede that modern conventions did have some important moments, though they were mostly speeches by people who were not, not yet, or no longer candidates for president.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s 1980 vow that “the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die” remains one of the great rallying cries of liberalism. Gov. Mario M. Cuomo’s 1984 exhortation that America was more a “Tale of Two Cities” than a “Shining City on a Hill” is an expression of conscience that haunts us still. Barack Obama’s 2004 statement that “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America” helped catapult him to the presidency. And Gov. Sarah Palin’s 2008 trumpet summons to conservatism still echoes across the country.
But these are just a few moments — in truth, just a few sentences — in a cascade of words and showmanship that these events produce every political cycle. That’s not counting Barry Goldwater’s “extremism in the defense of liberty” remark in 1964, which pretty much ended his campaign right there in San Francisco’s old Cow Palace.
The original purpose of conventions was to nominate a president, construct a platform, provide a forum for the faithful to meet, exchange views, and send the party nominee off to the general election on an emotional and rhetorical high.
Just TV shows
But increasingly these events have become television shows, and not particularly riveting ones. Because this year’s nominees are especially accomplished control freaks, don’t expect any spontaneity — and (caveat emptor) be suspicious that any outburst of spontaneity you see on the platform is itself scripted. Yes, they are that cynical.
I’m trying to think of an actual moment of suspense at a modern political convention, and I’ve come up with only two, both momentous in 1980 but barely historical asterisks today: Would Ronald Reagan invite former President Gerald R. Ford to join him on the GOP ticket as kind of a co-president? Would, a few weeks later, Ted Kennedy, defeated in his challenge of a sitting president, hold his hand aloft with President Jimmy Carter after the latter’s acceptance speech?
The truth is that there has been more mystery in the last 32 days of the National League Central Division race than there has been in the last 32 years of national political conventions. The only attraction for this week: Rep. Paul Ryan’s national television debut.
There used to be drama
There was a time, of course, when a political convention was the very opposite of what we will see the Republicans do this week and the Democrats next week. It was only 60 years ago that a party gathered with no real idea of its nominee and eventually needed more than one ballot to decide.
But hold it: I actually just typed, without apparent shame, the phrase “only 60 years ago,” in reference to the three ballots it required the Democrats to deliver their 1952 presidential nomination to Adlai Stevenson. What other institution besides American politics has made a meaningless process the centerpiece of its activity for six decades?
To be sure, presidential candidates have used national political conventions to introduce big concepts. Franklin D. Roosevelt did that in 1932 with the New Deal, and John F. Kennedy did it in 1960 with the New Frontier. That was 80 years ago and 52 years ago, respectively. Is Ford still selling the Model B? Is General Motors still pushing the Chevrolet Bel Air four-door sedan?
The bureaucrats need to release their stranglehold on the conventions and to recognize that the portraits in faux unity that these events project alienate rather than allure viewers. (They need, too, to answer one of the fundamental, enduring questions in American politics: Why do people wear stupid hats at conventions?)
Ritual has value
That said, there may be some redeeming features of these events, and one of them is a fast-disappearing feature of American life: the ritual.
“Individuals have always used ceremonies to mark significant passages in their lives: christenings, bar mitzvahs, graduations, weddings, funerals,” the Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley wrote in an essay about the meaning of political conventions. “Nations need ceremonies to mark the course of their lives too. And conventions are among the few ceremonies Americans have ever had (perhaps the only one they have now) to celebrate the process of politics and to make it seem an activity worthy of attention and concern.”
Fair enough. The convention remains part of our politics because there always is the chance that no candidate will be the clear winner of the primary and caucus process and a means of adjudicating an impasse may be necessary. And an acceptance speech is one of the established set pieces of American democracy, a chance (almost always foregone, but a chance nonetheless) to shape the American conversation.
Those may be enough to make the political convention deserve to survive. But if these conventions are worth salvaging, then surely they are worth changing. The year 2016 would be a good time to start. Happy days will then be here again.