Haley Barbour unapologetically refers to the modern convention as "mostly a big TV show." Or an infomercial, as it turns out. In a troubling development that further blurs the line between real news and the ersatz stuff, the Republicans were bold enough to find a friendly corporation (Amway) that would cough up $1.3 million so the party could air its version of the 1996 convention, complete with the party's own announcers, on the Family Channel each night.
There's a certain Catch 22 (and 1984) quality to all of this. The Republicans are producing their own broadcast, at least in part, because the major networks no longer are willing to surrender four nights' worth of prime time to the proceedings, as they once did. (The networks do plan some coverage each night. Broadcasters are understandably squeamish about dropping the conventions altogether, since their free use of the public airwaves depends upon the continued goodwill of the same Washington politicians who are gathered inside the convention hall.)
Every so often, some insider floats a sensible proposal to revamp the conventions. In 1992, longtime Democratic national committeeman Don Fowler wrote a memo proposing to compress his party's convention into one weekend, instead of the usual Monday-to-Thursday run. He was ignored.
Now Fowler is the national Democratic chairman, but his plan hasn't gotten anywhere. The party is following the same old format. And the media will dutifully overcover it, even though chances are extremely remote that anything truly unexpected will happen inside the hall (or outside, for that matter, given Mayor Richard Daley's determination to clear his family's name by keeping any demonstrators safely away from the convention area). This year's Democratic delegates aren't even a cross-section of their party; they were chosen mainly for their proven loyalty to Bill Clinton.
Why, then, do we in the press continue to go along with this charade? Maybe because political conventions are our conventions, too, a chance for thousands of media types to get together with friends and colleagues from around the country.
And the politicians, bless their hearts, work hard to show us a good time. After all, catering to the press makes eminent good sense. Consider what happened at the Olympics when the assembled journalists became cranky over the low quality of bus transportation for reporters and athletes. The result was a furious worldwide media bashing that damaged Atlanta's image far worse than anything General Sherman did.
So don't look for big changes at the conventions any time soon. As Democratic Chairman Fowler cheerily admits, "We'll continue have it, as long as you keep covering it."
Paul West is The Sun's Washington bureau chief. Before joining the paper in 1985, he was a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution and Dallas Times Herald. He will be covering his fifth set of national conventions this year.