WHENEVER Democrats gather to pick a presidential nominee, two conventions take place -- the one in the hall and the other in the streets. The one in the street is the one worth watching -- and the one that usually costs the party of the people the White House.
Television follows the action. When the gasbags in the meeting hall crank up the oratory, television tunes out, turns off and takes to the streets where the parliament of squeaky wheels and the free-lance loonies assemble to make their points.
In 1968, police brutalized peace demonstrators on Chicago's Michigan Avenue and turned the Democratic National Convention into a horror show.
Mayor Richard Daley, taking his orders from Lyndon B. Johnson's White House, virtually immobilized the city by allowing public transportation and telephone systems to be shut down by strikes. But the demonstrators came anyway, and the result was a cult movie, "Medium Cool," about television's influence on the public agenda. And the Democrats were suckered right into Richard M. Nixon's "law and order" campaign theme.
In 1972, George McGovern spent more time meeting with anti-war demonstrators outside his Miami hotel than he did calming angry delegates inside the convention hall. Under the new rules, the 1972 assemblage was to have been the most egalitarian political convention ever. But the disproportionate number of college graduates made a mockery of participatory democracy.
Democrats left Miami deeply divided, and they haven't recovered yet. Backers of Henry "Scoop" Jackson, Hubert Humphrey and Edmund S. Muskie broke away from Mr. McGovern and a Democratic Party that was veering to the left. They were the first of those who would come to be known as "Reagan Democrats."
Television always aims high. In 1984, TV cameras found their common denominator. They showed almost as much footage of the transvestite nun parading around San Francisco's convention center as they did of the party nominee, Walter Mondale.
But 1984 was also the first year Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition forced themselves on the Democratic Party, deeply dividing it over the issue of special interests and further alienating mainstream Democrats.
Thanks to television, those are the lasting images of recent Democratic conventions. Very few people remember the stilted oratory or the number of delegates who attend conventions (4,288) or the number of votes it takes to win the nomination (2,170) or even where the conventions are held.
So next week, when Democrats gather in New York for the half-hearted nomination of Gov. Bill Clinton, there'll be ample opportunities for mischief. New York is not only the television capital of the world; it's also home of the country's punchiest tabloids -- as Mr. Clinton discovered during the primary.
For openers, Madison Square Garden has already been fenced off to protect conventioneers from the homeless. Republicans must love the rival party's convention location, and they've got to be counting on television coverage of the Democrats as part of their overall strategy.
New York City is viewed by middle America as emblematic of the nation's sick city syndrome -- crime, filth, drugs, the homeless, AIDS, financial ruin, urban decay, graffiti, bloated municipal payrolls, subways that reek. With a city like that going for them during the year's most sultry weather, the Republicans don't need Willie Horton.
For the gods bumbled when they sent Democrats to New York and Republicans to Houston. It should have been the other way around. Republicans should be in New York to toast their gallery of Wall Street heroes, great Americans like Donald Trump, Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, Carl Icahn and the bond traders at Salomon Brothers.
But it will be the Democrats in Manhattan. And while the the party regulars play let's pretend inside Madison Square Garden, the many causes and interests will converge outside in a huge, multi-colored people's convention.
You can bet Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition will be there, with Mr. Jackson laying down some heavy Baptist soul for the cameras outside while he's inside shaking down the Democrats for a visible role in party affairs. Come next the militant feminists, the marchers for the homeless, the gay and lesbian rights demonstrators and the supplicants for AIDS research money, the pro-choice lobby, the welfare queens, the anti-nuclear power plant posse, the acid rain protesters, Nader's raiders, the ozone layerettes, the environmentalist groupies, the Japan bashers and traders, the drug-legalization brigade, the Hispanics, the African Americans, the Filipinos, the teachers and the save-the-snail-darter crowd.
Bringing up the rear will be the greatest showman of them all, that wonderful Democrat, the Rev. Al Sharpton, there to help shape the party's platform and to denounce Mr. Clinton for his attack on Sister Souljah and Ice T. and to demand justice for Tawana Brawley. Is this a great country, or what?
It's a shame democracy is so one-sided. Nobody really picks on the white-bread Republicans; it's a waste of time. It's only the Democrats who respond to the penny-whistle pleas of the people who have to parade in public because they can't afford to press their causes in fancy restaurants and airborne offices.
So next Monday, when the Democratic convention begins, don't rent a movie. Instead, watch the convention, the one in the streets. It'll be a better show than the one in the Garden.
In my last column I incorrectly identified Baltimore City as tied for 26th in a list of the nation's 50 largest financially stable subdivisions. I was wrong. That honor goes to Baltimore County.
Frank A. DeFilippo writes every other week on Maryland politics.