The Last Convention?

RICHARD REEVES

July 15, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK — New York--The 1992 Democratic National Convention is like a Mafia funeral. The people gathered here, politicians and press, killed the thing, and now they talk about how great it was in the old days.

''I think the convention is still very important . . .'' is a standard conversational opener here.

''Because it's very important that the rank and file of the party go back to their states charged up about this ticket,'' is the way it was put by Roger Altman, an investment banker who would probably be in a Clinton cabinet.

''Pep rally,'' is the shorthand for that thought, particularly among newspaper people explaining why it is important for them to be here. You have to say something to publishers and editors to get them to spring for New York-sized expense accounts. Publishers and other bosses like to come to New York, too. It's a great place to visit.

More truth: Conventions are dead and the killers are in town, beginning with George McGovern, a bloody knife hidden behind his back, and ending with the television executives who knew the happenings here are too dull to fill even the smallest screen.

This is what happened: The 1960s liberal wing of the Democratic Party killed conventions in a deliberate rage when party leaders pushed through the nomination of Hubert Humphrey after the murder of Robert Kennedy and cavalierly dismissed Eugene McCarthy as some kind of anti-war zealot.

Perhaps it was bound to happen. Conventions lost their value to the networks after both institutions had prospered together for a while.

What the networks needed, when coaxial cable made it possible for the cool fire to go national in the 1950s, was a single event that brought the country together and persuaded Americans of their patriotic duty to buy television sets.

Convention action peaked at the Democratic gala and riots of 1968, inside and outside the hall but all on television, perfectly timed to sell the nation on the need to run out and buy the new colored TV sets.

Soon enough, politics as entertainment began to fade. The competition on television was too tough. Super Bowls, the Academy Awards, the Olympics and all sorts of specials proved more entertaining than plain old politics.

What works on television now is primary elections, the new electronic convention. Perfect! All the real action, counting the votes, is contained in a couple of tense hours after prime time, so there is no loss in the continuity, audience or commercials on prime-time series.

Cellular telephones could stand as the tombstone for the conventions. In the good old days, the chairman of the convention and his fellow bosses had switches on the lectern to turn off microphones and lights if the action was going to look bad in living rooms. Once the aisles were jammed, bosses were the only people who could communicate with each other.

Now, everyone has cellular phones. The old wires are an anachronism, and so are the conventions.

It's over. Bill Clinton is like a cellular telephone. He began with no wires and not many contacts, but he had the first, great qualification of modern presidential politics: He wanted the job.

Supply-side politics. American presidents are self-selected now. Conventions have nothing to do with it.

Bill Clinton began running for president when he was about 12 years old. My guess is that at any given moment, 20,000 Americans are running for president, some of them campaigning right now for sophomore class office or state assembly whip, and by a process of elimination, the field will be cut to a half-dozen or so by the year 2018.

I don't know if we're ever going to see all this again. Television wants out. Candidates may want out, too. Why should Mr. Clinton give Jerry Brown, Jesse Jackson, Mario Cuomo and the rest of the used-to-be's television time to accentuate his negatives and eliminate his positives?

All that's left here for most of the delegates -- there are three journalists per delegate this year -- is the chance to get together and talk a little politics, look for a better job and show a few baby pictures.

And nostalgia. I suspect that if the conventions were not financed, partly by public funds, this one would be the last. Enjoy!

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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