The unpredictable's out Conventions: This year's conventions were a far cry from the unorchestrated, suspenseful political dramas of the past.

Democratic Convention

Campaign 1996

August 30, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CHICAGO -- When construction workers strike the set of the Democratic National Convention today, they will also be striking the last remnants of traditional political gatherings as we have known them for the last 150 years.

As this year's no-mess, no-fuss gabfests in San Diego and Chicago demonstrated, political parties have discovered a new route to the general election. Suspense has been replaced by scripts. The lusty rhetorical and ideological tangos of yesteryear have been replaced by the mindless Macarena.

Such a transformation is likely to change everything from the duration to the format to the coverage of political conventions.

"The ground has shifted, obviously," said the Democratic Party chairman, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut.

This year's twin conventions had little in common with their forerunners, the political get-togethers -- the first seven of which were held in Baltimore -- where parties sometimes took 30 or as many as 103 ballots to anoint their nominee, and brokered deals in the legendary smoke-filled rooms.

Now, says CNN talk show host Larry King, "It's like going to a Super Bowl with no game."

At this week's proceedings, party VIPs were seldom found on the floor, but instead, up in private Camden Yards-type skyboxes or in TV booths providing spin for national or local audiences.

On Tuesday, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening squeezed 27 events into his schedule -- including satellite links with Baltimore TV stations and radio shows in Hagerstown and Salisbury -- by merely walking down a hall to media studios set up in the convention center. He chatted on the Internet, receiving 800 responses in two hours.

"Increasingly in the future, conventions will be dominated by technology, will be more multimedia and much more condensed," said Glendening, watching from the Democratic Governors Association skybox.

"The public part of it may well come down to one or two days. It's got to change. And the parties that change best will be the parties with the edge in terms of the future outcomes of elections."

Many believe the public may have just witnessed the last four-day convention.

This year, Democratic Party officials discussed trimming their convention back to three days, but Chicago's business community protested, said convention chair William M. Daley.

Host cities, which raise about $25 million in private money and state matching funds for such political affairs, resist talk of shorter conventions. They need the thousands of delegates and journalists to stick around long enough to pour money back into their towns.

Dodd has proposed holding both parties' conventions back-to-back in one city as a way to address such considerations.

Others, such as former Rep. Timothy J. Penny of Minnesota, say the conventions should be dramatically cut back, if only to save taxpayer money. More than $37 million from taxpayers and corporate donors was spent on this week's convention.

"I hope it's the end of public financing for the conventions. I don't think the public gets any value out of them," Penny said.

Others disagree, arguing that there is value that goes beyond nominating a candidate and adopting a platform.

"For Americans to get an hour of politics, unedited, for four days every four years -- what's wrong with that?" asked GOP pollster Frank Luntz, in town with other Republicans to offer counter-spin.

The 1972 Democratic nominee, George McGovern, in his fourth decade of attending his party's get-togethers, conceded that a lot of the value is merely "symbolic."

But, he said, "There's something about this ritual that I do think brings the party together and sends us all out with zipped-up energy to get behind the candidate. They do serve a function. It's not as important as it was 25, 30 years ago. But I'll wager there's a pretty good audience out there still watching."

This year, the TV audience was sparse enough to prompt NBC to air a "Seinfeld" rerun instead of Republican Jack Kemp's acceptance speech. With no real news to report, ABC's Ted Koppel packed up and left San Diego early and didn't even come to Chicago.

Many TV executives and journalists believe network coverage, which ended its gavel to gavel broadcasts in 1980, will be pared back even further, with the networks covering only the acceptance speeches.

But ABC's Peter Jennings said he doesn't think the networks will want to forfeit coverage to competitors like CNN or C-SPAN, and thinks they will continue their one to two hours of air time a night.

Clearly, the burden is falling on the parties to find ways to infuse news into a political institution that some argue has become an anachronism. Ironically, the parties have spent the last two decades trying to do the opposite -- make sure the ranks are unified before the convention begins.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.