Convention promises to be tightly packed series of short takes Program schedule calls for brevity, videotapes

little left to spontaneity

Campaign 1996

August 10, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer Frank Langfitt contributed to this article.

SAN DIEGO -- The platform fights have been fought. The sentimental Bob Dole story has been filmed. The scripts have been so tightly edited and streamlined that not even an MTV-bred teen-ager should feel bored.

All that's left for the Republican National Convention that begins Monday is a slick and fast-moving pre-packaged extravaganza -- more akin to a TV awards show than a political event.

Not a moment has been left to chance at what the Republican national chairman, Haley Barbour, is calling this "unconventional convention."

Seeking total control of the message and images that emerge from the convention, and aiming to persuade the TV networks to air more of their program at prime time, the organizers have put together a lively show. They will mix bite-sized speeches -- only Dole's acceptance speech is to be longer than 10 minutes -- with video presentations, including one of Ronald Reagan, and satellite feeds from all over America's heartland.

More than ever, the 1,990 delegates will be not so much participants as an exuberant studio audience -- many of them with undesirable seating.

In the narrow, oblong convention hall -- where enormous TV news booths obstruct much of the view -- many delegates will have a view no better than that of millions of Americans at home in their living rooms: They will have to watch 70-inch television screens set up throughout the hall.

Unless the unexpected happens, there will be no disruptive floor fights or debates. No surprises at the podium, as there was in 1992 when Patrick J. Buchanan set what some Republicans considered a harshly intolerant tone with his speech about a "cultural war" in America. No numbingly long treatises such as the interminable eye-glazer that propelled Arkansas governor, Bill Clinton, into the nation's consciousness when he spoke at the 1988 Democratic convention.

As a result, it is possible that there also will be no excitement.

"The very effort to sterilize the convention renders it a non-story," says ABC News political analyst Jeff Greenfield. "Sure, a lot of the Olympics was taped. But at least somebody had to get on the balance beam and maybe fall off. Here, nobody is going to fall off. And God help us if anyone wants to argue about anything. It's not on the schedule."

Gone are the days when nominees were chosen at raucous, unscripted conventions that often produced surprises. Even Dole's running mate was announced before the convention began. And Dole aides made sure that the divisive fight over abortion was waged long before the opening gavel came down.

"Conventions used to be boisterous, disorderly, chaotic, fascinating affairs for most of the 20th century," Greenfield said. "Then TV showed up."

Indeed, in response to television, conventions have become far more polished and orderly in the past few decades. The parties have worked to avoid having the nation observe any disorder within their ranks. Nor have they allowed their crucial speeches to get lost in the wee hours of the night as occurred in 1972, when George McGovern delivered his acceptance speech at 2 a.m.

This convention, says Greenfield, may offer "the last possible gasp of spontaneity and a journalisticly interesting event. It may be the last convention we cover live at all except for the acceptance speech."

Much as they did four years ago, the major networks plan to broadcast just one hour of the convention at prime time Monday through Wednesday and two hours Thursday, when Dole will deliver his acceptance speech. C-SPAN will provide gavel-to-gavel coverage. To ensure that more of its program is seen by TV viewers, the Republicans have bought time on the USA Network and Pat Robertson's Family Channel.

The Republicans even recruited Reagan's former media wizard, Michael K. Deaver, who orchestrated the successful 1984 convention at which Reagan was nominated for a second term, to help infuse the production with drama and visual appeal.

"You've got so much competition for the viewer," said Deaver, RTC explaining the made-for-TV smoothness of this convention. "We really have to compete with 100 cable channels and the networks."

But Angela "Bay" Buchanan, sister and campaign manager of Dole's Republican rival Patrick J. Buchanan, said there are potential "land mines" when a convention is as pre-packaged as this one is. For one thing, she said, there's no opportunity for divergent voices that would show the nation how inclusive the party is.

"This is a pre-packaged one-week commercial," she said.

She said it was a "major mistake" for the Dole campaign not to have invited Buchanan, who won the New Hampshire primary, to speak at the convention, and she called their offer to him to appear in a video with the other also-rans of the Republican presidential race a "bloody insult."

This convention also is making use of technology.

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