Lights, cameras, cue the politicos

Conventions: The four-day political marketing events will be the antithesis of reality television.

July 23, 2000|By Leonard Steinhorn

From late July to mid-August, millions of Americans are about to tune in to two of the most ambitious and elaborate TV infomercials ever produced. These are not your ordinary infomercials -- they won't be about dieting or hair loss, and they'll air in prime time, not the middle of the night. Nor will their sponsors call them infomercials, claiming instead a high-minded purpose involving democracy. But if they look like infomercials and act like infomercials, then they must be the upcoming Republican and Democratic political conventions.

Welcome to the four-day political extravaganzas where the parties will meet to market George W. Bush and Al Gore as our next president. But they are political conventions in name only. Like much of politics today, they will be little more than focus-group-tested Hollywood productions designed for consumer consumption, slick and sophisticated sales pitches aimed at the unwitting voter. The delegates and speakers are mere props for the real event, the one that airs in our homes.

It used to be that conventions reflected the raw spirit of democracy, where parties wrestled with issues and candidates engaged in spirited debate. They were contentious, messy and disorderly affairs, and while they tried to put the best face on the nominees, they still reflected an unruly democratic passion that encouraged candidates to dig deep into their beliefs and embrace issues, not run from them.

But what the parties learned from the feisty conventions of old is that political friction doesn't go over well in the age of television. Though disagreement is the stuff of democracy, what it communicates on television is the image of a political party out of control. Vivid are the memories of Humphrey, McGovern, Ford, Carter, Dukakis and Bush undone by the televised dissension at their conventions.

Television as a medium exaggerates anger and magnifies discontent in whatever it covers, whether a political convention or a school board debate. A public that sees disagreement wonders whether a party that can't manage its own ranks would be able to govern the nation. Because television has turned us from voters to viewers, we prefer dazzling visuals and happy endings instead. Today's convention managers know this and it's what they'll give us this year.

Within each party are sharp divisions on such controversial issues as abortion, trade, gun control, affirmative action, health care, campaign reform, the death penalty and the Supreme Court -- divisions that should be aired in public. But we'll hear little of them because the parties will sand their rough edges and smooth over hurt feelings behind closed doors, before the conventions begin. For TV, what they want is the look of unity filled with feel-good images and generalities.

Precisely because of this scripting and sanitizing, Ted Koppel took his "Nightline" crew home midway through the Republican Convention four years ago, calling it "more of an infomercial than a news event."

Koppel's frustration is shared by others at the networks, who have limited convention coverage this year to a few hours per night. But the convention masterminds care little about offending the likes of Koppel. Their sole audience is the viewing public that will tune in each evening -- and it's a public so habituated to image-making and advertising that they won't find anything unusual about these contrived events.

Thus the majority of Americans who pay only scant attention to politics will walk away from these conventions thinking both parties equally support education, the environment, families, health care, Social Security, lower taxes, ethnic diversity, opportunity for women and a strong defense.

The Republicans, for example, will address concerns that their party is intolerant and captive to the religious right not by proposing new ideas and initiatives, but by manipulating the television image to create the illusion of an inclusive party. They'll keep the camera focused on the handful of minorities attending the convention, have the candidate say a few words in Spanish, and highlight the nominee's nephew, George P. Bush, whose Hispanic heritage and dark good looks have already made him a media darling.

The Democrats will likewise make Al Gore more appealing to suburban women, a key swing vote, by choosing women as convention speakers, showing videos about families helped by Democratic policies, featuring the effervescent Tipper Gore, and scripting all speakers with focus-group-tested lines about working parents, education and health care.

The parties also know they have to heighten the excitement and keep the press engaged, so they will manufacture some made-for-TV drama and faux suspense -- perhaps by sending up trial balloons about Cabinet appointments or leaking a "bold" theme or two from the acceptance speech, or tempting us with staged surprises such as the nominee's "unscripted" visit to the convention.

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