For a long time, I’ve wondered why news organizations, such as they are, bother sending reporters to political conventions. If all you’re doing is assessing performance for its own sake, then you should send critics and only critics. Theater, film, music – it doesn’t matter. The most seasoned professional spectators have keen, highly-cultivated senses of how a show is coming across to the rest of the audience. The best convention reports of the last century were filed by H. L. Mencken and Norman Mailer, who were, among many other things, first-rate critics. Imagine how better served the last few conventions would have been if writers as diverse and idiosyncratic as Pauline Kael or Lester Bangs had been allowed to review them as they would any bloated blockbuster or overhyped concert.
I’m afraid, though, even they would be challenged by this year’s product and the mass media knows it. There’s no sign anywhere of prime-time network coverage of this week’s Republican National Convention. Just reruns and “reality” programming. Who can blame them? I know I should be incensed about this blithe transgression of civic duty in favor of NCIS repeats, except that I’ve become one of those people who would just as soon watch Mark Harmon and his posse find another sailor’s mutilated corpse on the Anacosta River Basin (even when I already know who put it there) than listen to one speaker after another question Democrats’ patriotism. And lest you accuse me of bias (of which I’m otherwise guilty-as-charged), if next week offers a choice between a Modern Family rerun and another wonky stem-winder about saving Medicare from the clammy clutches of GOP Voldemorts, I’d just as soon enjoy another half-hour watching Dunphys humiliate each other.
There’s no joy or smugness here. Just the opposite. I used to love watching political conventions, even after they became little more than four-day infomercials for their respective parties. (Or do I have that last clause backwards?) Given the choice, when I was 12 years old, of watching a baseball game in person or witnessing a live platform-adopting session of a nominating convention, I would have immediately chosen the latter. Being so much older then and younger than that now, I’m now looking for ball games to go for the next couple of weeks. Doesn’t matter what kind of ball: rugby, lacrosse, mixed-doubles squash…Anything to avoid watching whatever happens in Tampa or Charlotte besides weather updates or NFC South scouting reports.
Only there is no “whatever happens” with conventions any more. And there really hasn’t been since…since…Well, I remember my late, lamented Newsday colleague Murray Kempton telling me that not since 1952 have there been political conventions whose outcome was far from certain. That year, it was true for both parties as Robert Taft and what was then the Republican paleo-conservative wing were still in position to hold off Dwight Eisenhower and his Eastern Establishment backers while everything was so up in the air for the Democrats that the now-forgotten Estes Kefaufer was holding off the likes of Dick Russell and Averill Harriman until Harry Truman reached into his hat and pulled out Adlai Stevenson. As I was still in utero that summer, I never got to see or hear any of these hi-jinks.
So why was I so hyped about this stuff in1964? Well, because it was the sixties and there was so much stuff happening all the time back then, most of it on live TV, that you were afraid you’d miss something if you weren’t looking. So I stared at the Republicans assembling in San Francisco that July as Bill Scranton, the Eastern Establishment’s pride-and-joy was about to get crushed by the locomotive momentum of the conservative’s newest hero Barry Goldwater. I actually watched the Democratic coronation in Atlantic City a month later as Lyndon Johnson toyed with Hubert Humphrey’s neediness for the vice-presidency the way a cat tweaks a mouse.
(What I didn’t know until many years later was that LBJ, who for some unfathomable reason was paranoid about losing southern states in an election that was already being forecast as his own private landslide, forced Humphrey to tell a renegade Mississippi delegation of black and white civil-rights activists to go home and give way to the segregationist regulars. If poor Hubert didn’t do it, it’s been said, Johnson would have tapped someone else for the ticket. No Dunphy went through as humiliating a hazing as Humphrey did by telling such courageous people as Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses that they’d come all the way to the Jersey Shore for nothing. And you wonder what would have happened to Humphrey if he’d simply told Johnson that the vice-presidency wasn’t worth it. He and the rest of us might have all been better off in the long run, maybe… Anyhow, I digress here to explain how even the backstage stuff of conventions was more interesting in days long past.)
When the nominees were foregone conclusions, there was always something that leaped out of the corners, a breakout speech, an unexpected switch in the program. I remember when Gerald Ford was supposedly all wrapped up to be Ronald Reagan’s running mate in 1980 when just before Reagan’s nomination-night appearance, CBS’s Lesley Stahl broke the news that the deal with Ford was off and George H.W. Bush would be the running mate. (“Walter!” she said. “It’s Bush! It’s Bush!”) This year, I was secretly hoping Newt Gingrich would ramrod his delusions of grandeur all the way to convention time if only for comedy’s sake. He seemed to hate Mitt Romney enough to go through with it. But as with much else about Newt, this was empty bluster stoked by antediluvian romanticism.
Some sentimentalists believe that someday, somehow, there will be a presidential nominating race that wont be settled by the primaries. But there have now been at least three generations who have no idea why being “nominated on the first ballot” is such a big deal. And if we’ve gone this long without that happening, then the next question is, besides sentiment (and, of course, the local diversions), why bother having conventions in the first place? I never thought I’d ask such a question. But it’s going to be a loooong couple weeks of me holding the remote, grazing for true enlightenment.