Show is orchestrated but the excitement is real

August 30, 1992|By JOHN LEOPOLD

It was theater with funny hats and big red, white and blue balloons. It was summer camp for political junkies. It was the culmination of the Great American Road Show, the arduous primary election campaign that ends with the coronation of the party's nominees for president and vice president of the United States.

Although this was the fifth convention I've attended as an elected delegate, it was as exciting and exhilarating as any of the others.

When you walk out on the floor of a national political convention, you know you are on a stage with an international audience. There is a palpable thrill walking into a convention hall and seeing so many people from all over the country who have the same feeling of patriotism and the same love of country and the political system.

Minor league baseball players call the major leagues "The Show." A national political convention is "The Show" to the party faithful who toil in the grass roots politics of hometown America.

Under a sea of camera lenses and the overhanging booths of the national television stations, you feel the empowering presence of the media. Most delegates, in fact, were more enamored of media personalities than with political notables. I saw more autograph seekers swarm around Katie Couric of NBC than I did around James A. Baker III, the White House chief of staff, or Marilyn Quayle, the vice president's wife.

The media, in fact, is the central element of a convention, and RTC the overriding goal of political strategists is to present the imagery that conveys the most positive messages about the candidates.

It was no accident, for example, that Arnold Schwarzenegger was visible at the convention. He conveys a message of strength and vitality, and President Bush, who recently has had to dispel unsubstantiated rumors about his failing health, wants to be seen in the company of an individual who helps to debunk those rumors. Similarly, when I saw then-Vice President Bush campaigning in Manchester, N.H. in 1988, he was accompanied by Ted Williams, the great baseball slugger, who conveyed a virile image to sports-minded New Englanders.

Sometimes the choreography gets out of hand. The youth squads that were recruited to cheer on cue at the convention occasionally would cheer too long and help push important speeches out of prime time. Several speakers, including former President Reagan, Barbara Bush and President Bush, had to gently admonish the boosters to be quiet so they could continue their speeches.

Of course, behind the orchestrated symbolism and glamour of the wide-angle shot on a television screen, there is serious business at a convention. While I have never attended a Democratic National Convention, I think it is fair to say that, generally, Republican delegates are more reserved than their Democratic counterparts.

Obviously, there are all kinds of exceptions. But the stereotype of the Republicans is true. They are upper-middle-class white Americans, and they are basically rather reserved, conservative and staid in their habits. And I saw no examples of extreme behavior.

The drafting of a party platform, while not generally read or discussed weeks after a convention, is serious business at the time of the convention.

Knowing that the Bush-Quayle campaign would present a recommended draft of the platform to the members of the Platform Committee, I met several weeks before the convention in Washington with a co-chairman of the committee, Congressman Bill McCollum of Florida, with the executive director and the editor-in-chief of the committee, as well as with the Bush-Quayle liaison to the committee, to offer a plank regarding disability law and policy.

This plank, which calls for inclusion of students with disabilities in the Bush administration's America 2000 education goals and greater support for technology to help implement the Americans With Disabilities Act, was approved by the full committee.

The most moving event of the convention was the speech given by Mary Fisher, who, as a personal witness to the growing number of women infected with HIV, the AIDS virus, personified how HIV crosses all gender, sexual, racial and socioeconomic boundaries.

There was serious discussion at the convention about responsible reductions in defense spending, and the platform calls for a "controlled defense drawdown, not a free fall."

Amid the carnival and the multi-media binge is a remarkably stable and civilized affair. Somewhat anachronistic, but always exciting, the national political convention will be a part of the American landscape for some time to come.

Mr. Leopold is a former state delegate and Senate candidate from District 31.

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