What a Bore We're about to Hold Political Conventions Again. Why?

Article excerpt

On Tuesday evening, 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.

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? …