The Conventions

Sign of the times

Though now largely formalities, the quadrennial political gatherings still matter, some experts argue.

July 18, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

What if they gave a political convention and nobody watched?

Would it matter?

Once, such questions would have been ridiculous. Political conventions were not there to please an audience. They were about the work of the parties, to choose candidates for president and vice president. There was drama and tension in those packed halls as decisions were made.

That is no longer the case. This year follows the standard form. The nominees have been known for months. The convention is a mere formality. The idea is to put on a decent television show.

But interest in the show is shrinking. The days of the big three television networks proudly offering "gavel-to-gavel" coverage are long gone. This year, each convention gets three hours.

So why bother? Why all the expense and the fuss and the security and the disruption to keep alive the vestigial remnant of a defunct creature?

"It's like a marriage," says Kathleen E. Kendall, a professor in the communication department at the University of Maryland.

"People can be married by a justice of the peace," she says. "But a large percentage of people choose to do it in a more lavish way with a lot of people coming.

"Ritual is important," she says. "You go through the ritual which conveys values and messages. There is still importance to the ritualistic value in the speeches and events at the conventions."

The Anti-Masonic Party's 1831 convention in Baltimore is seen as the precursor to the national conventions that would become a quadrennial staple of the political scene.

Ted Widmer, a history professor at Washington College in Chestertown, says the Democrats took note of the Anti-Masonic convention and got the idea to hold their own in Baltimore in 1832 before the second term of Andrew Jackson.

"Every four years, they got back together in Baltimore, right up to the Civil War," says Widmer. "Baltimore was the convention capital of the United States."

Initially, conventions were seen as a progressive move, taking the nominating process out of the hands of a closed caucus of party leaders and opening it up to a broad swath of the party from across the country.

But by the beginning of the 20th century, Kendall says, there were already complaints about the "smoke-filled back rooms" at the conventions where deals were made that thwarted the desires of the electorate.

She points to the attempt by Theodore Roosevelt - who declined to run for president in 1908 - to regain the Republican nomination from incumbent William Howard Taft in 1912.

Roosevelt dominated the few primaries held then but did not get the nomination. Arguing that the will of the people had been denied, he ran as a third-party candidate under the Bull Moose label. That helped give the presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who had been nominated in Baltimore after voting that lasted 46 ballots.

Primaries multiply

Influenced also by reform-minded Robert La Follette of Wisconsin - who ran for president as the Progressive Party candidate in 1924 - more and more states began to adopt primaries.

"By 1972, there were about 16 primaries," says Kendall, author of Communication in the Presidential Primaries: Candidates and the Media, 1912-2000.

But most of the delegates were still selected by the party leadership. Primaries were not used to choose the candidates, but more to test how they would perform with a particular group of voters. In 1960, John F. Kennedy proved to the party bosses that he could win a Protestant state by taking the West Virginia primary, and that he was popular in the Midwest by winning Wisconsin.

The chaos at the 1968 Democratic convention - with the withdrawal of President Lyndon B. Johnson from the race, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and the divisiveness over the Vietnam War causing turmoil inside and outside the arena in Chicago - led the party to make substantial changes that echoed the calls made by Roosevelt and La Follette.

"Many people in the Democratic party felt the grassroots had no say in the nominee," Kendall says.

The new rules led most states to adopt primaries.

The Democratic gathering that nominated George McGovern in 1972 helped push conventions along the road that led to today's made-for-TV productions.

That year, both parties met in Miami Beach. The Republicans re-nominated Richard Nixon in a tightly scripted affair that hit every mark. The Democratic convention verged on chaos. Arguments over the party platform delayed McGovern's acceptance speech until 3 a.m.

Though it could be said that the Democrats held a more authentic convention, as it allowed the party members to participate, the party was ridiculed for its inability to put on a good TV show. Neither party would make that mistake again.

TV had been enamored of the political conventions since the medium first appeared. These were exotic affairs most Americans had just heard about, never actually seen. And they took place in a confined space, perfect for TV cameras. The 1952 conventions were the first broadcast nationally.

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