Summer camp for political junkies

August 25, 1996|By John R. Leopold

It was theater with funny hats and red, white and blue balloons.

It was shaking hands with Bob Dole as he made his way to the podium to accept his nomination and reaffirm a career of pragmatic compromise.

It was schmoozing with Henry Kissinger, Marilyn Quayle, Steve Forbes, Jack Germond, Ollie North, Norman Mailer and Merv Griffin.

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 sixth convention I have 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.

'The Show'

There's an undeniable excitement being in a place where you're making history, even when the convention is carefully controlled and tightly scripted. 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 as enamored of media personalities as they were of political notables. I saw as many autograph seekers swarm around Mary Matalin and Larry King as I did around Newt Gingrich and Susan Molinari.

The media, in fact, is the central element of a convention, and the overriding goal of political strategists is to present the imagery that conveys the most positive messages about the candidates. By this standard, the 1996 GOP convention was a huge success.

Some times, the choreography gets out of hand. The enthusiastic delegates occasionally cheered too long and pushed important speeches out of their allotted time frames. Vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp, for example, a verbal pinball machine hitched to a tornado, had to humorously admonish his boosters to be quiet so he could finish his acceptance speech on time.

Of course, behind the orchestrated symbolism and glamour of the wide-angle shot on a television screen, there is serious business at a convention.

The drafting of party rules, for example, while not generally read or discussed weeks after a convention, is serious business at the time of a convention and has significant impact on the next presidential campaign.

Knowing that the Republican National Committee would recommend the repeal of a rule that awards states an additional convention delegate if the Republican membership in either house of a state legislature increases by 25 percent or more (achieved by Maryland and eight other states in the 1994 election), I succeeded in building a coalition of Rules Committee members to reject the Republican National Committee recommendation and preserve this rule.

Later primaries

I was also able to secure majority support for a substitute amendment I offered to provide an incentive system of awarding states more delegates if they agree to hold their primary elections later in the spring. Maryland Republicans, for example, could get three additional delegates if the Republican primary election were moved from early March to late May or early June.

The convention also approved a companion rule change that grants state parties the right to set their own primary dates, even when that conflicts with a date set by state law.

A more reserved lot

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.

Only 3 percent of the San Diego convention delegates were black, Hispanic or Asian-Americans, half of the 6 percent minority participation at the 1992 convention in Houston. And while the camera lenses searched high and low for it, I saw no example of extreme behavior.

Amid the carnival, the high-tech impressionism, the monied interest receptions and the multi-media binge was 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.

The writer is vice chairman of the Anne Arundel County delegation in the Maryland House of Delegates.

Brian Sullam is off. His column will return Sept. 8.

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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