TV show in San Diego Controlled convention: Excitement gone as handlers fashion everything for the tube.

August 14, 1996

IT HAS BEEN 20 YEARS since the last small hint of a presidential contest (between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan) enlivened a national convention and 36 years since delegates assembled in an aura of uncertainty about who the nominee (John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson) would be.

Now all pretense is at an end. The Republican extravaganza in San Diego is unapologetically controlled, censored, scripted, timed, stage-designed and choreographed for what it is: a TV show for an American audience conditioned and couch-potatoed by the tube.

History buffs can shed a tear for something precious that has vanished from "the great game of politics." Exactly a century ago, William Jennings Bryan captured the Democratic convention with his "Cross of Gold speech." At the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore in 1912, there were 46 roll calls before sweltering delegates chose Woodrow Wilson. Who can forget the fervent chants of "We Want Willkie" at the 1940 GOP convention or the Goldwaterites shouting down Nelson Rockefeller in 1964?

This transformation of the election process directly parallels the rise of television from the grainy black and white images of the early postwar years to the glitzy, mobile, cabled, insatiable, intrusive monster it is today. Delegates are stage props who no longer have a say in who will be president of the United States. Print press reporters, to their humiliation, often have to follow the proceedings on TV. And the networks, spiders caught in their own web, feel co-opted by political parties using techniques the television industry itself has developed.

The civics-lesson question in all this is whether national political conventions in their current format serve any useful purpose.

To be sure, they write platforms, but even the nominees don't bother to read them. They serve as a gathering place for big-money contributors, but at the cost of mocking campaign-reform rhetoric. However, they do provide a showcase for party luminaries, both the heroes of yesteryear and eager aspirants for a future. And, most important, they give top-of-the-ticket candidates their only real chance to define themselves before they face the ordeal of televised (here we go again) debates.

So, yes, there probably is a need for national conventions even though they parody the Oscar Awards without the tension of opening the envelopes. And who knows? There still could be an occasion when no inevitable nominee emerges. Then, to the country's delight, there could be a return to the excitement of 1896, or 1912, or 1940, or 1960. What a nice thought!

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