Often predictable and often belittled, the conventions still matter

In Focus // Politics

August 24, 2008|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,paul.west@baltimoresun.com

DENVER - Presidential conventions are revving up, so it must be time to start tearing them down.

You've heard the criticism: Conventions have become meaningless. They're glorified commercials, stripped of all real suspense, choreographed more tightly than a Beijing opening ceremony. There's no real news, so why bother?

In fact, conventions still matter - just not the way they used to.

Yes, with so many chasing the same story, the coverage can get a bit derivative. The Associated Press explained the nature of modern conventions the other day by resorting to words like "choreography" and drawing comparisons with sports events such as the opening and closing ceremonies at the Olympics.

"Like a Super Bowl minus the game," wrote the AP reporter, in a clever, if not completely original, turn of phrase (its earliest known use, by CNN talk show host Larry King, was reported by a Sun correspondent back in 1996).

Some convention traditions, such as the roll call of the states for selecting a nominee, make little sense, since primary voters pick the winners now.

One unwritten rule that should never be repealed requires reporters to quote the great H.L. Mencken, still Baltimore's most famous newspaperman, despite being dead more than half a century.

Mencken didn't invent convention coverage, but he set the standard. (Frederick N. Rasmussen wrote an excellent Sun column on the subject in 2004; find it at www.baltimoresun.com/news/nation/politics/). In the process, Mencken also established himself as a model journalistic whiner.

"National conventions are almost always held in uncomfortable and filthy places," he told readers of the Sunpapers. The "food is bad and expensive ... and everyone goes home exhausted and sore."

Unair-conditioned Madison Square Garden grew swelteringly hot during the legendary 1924 convention, when Democrats needed 16 days and a record 103 ballots to pick a (losing) nominee. Mencken's coverage that summer for Maryland readers included a classic description of the convention experience, now faithfully recycled by others every four years.

"There is something about a national convention that makes it as fascinating as a revival or a hanging," he wrote from New York. "It is vulgar, it is ugly, it is stupid, it is tedious, it is hard upon both the higher cerebral centers and the gluteus maximus, and yet it is somehow charming. One sits through long sessions wishing all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell - and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour."

Mencken wouldn't recognize the shows the Democrats and Republicans plan on staging over the next two weeks. Politicians have learned a few things.

One lesson is: The more news a national convention makes, the worse things are likely to get for the party that holds it. Journalists love conflict, and disunity is disastrous in politics.

Defeat at the polls followed violence in the streets outside the Democrats' 1968 convention hall in Chicago. Ronald Reagan's convention challenge to incumbent Gerald Ford helped put the president in a hole too deep for him to dig out in 1976.

That, however, was the last time a nomination got decided at a convention. Now everything gets scripted in advance, down to the announcement of a running mate before the delegates hit town.

Why, then, do these dinosaurs matter in the 21st century? Because the country is divided evenly between the two major parties. Because millions of Americans haven't made up their minds about who they think should be the next president. Because an election hangs in the balance, with national polls showing a tight contest between Barack Obama and John McCain.

Both men will try to use their conventions to sell themselves to undecided swing voters and shore up partisan support. They'll flesh out their biographies and make their best case to the country that they've got the answers for economic problems at home and security challenges abroad.

Democratic strategist Mark Penn recently went so far as to predict that "the party that wins the battle of the conventions will likely win the election."

That might be an overstatement, but his remark suggests that there is real significance to the scenes that will play out in prime time over the next two weeks.

Even those whose minds are already made up, or are too young to vote, have reason to tune in, and not simply to their man's event. They might see something exhilarating or preposterous or, at the very least, unexpected.

Who could have known, for instance, that when they caught the keynote speech at the last Democratic convention - delivered by some guy with big ears and a strange name - they were meeting a man who might be the next president of the United States?

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