Skipping the conventions as they skimp on substance

August 27, 2008|By Ron Smith

The first and only time I went to the national political conventions was in 1996 - first to San Diego for the GOP conclave, at which the elderly U.S. senator from Kansas, Bob Dole, was nominated to run against President Bill Clinton in his re-election bid. I remember that Mr. Dole was such a boring old politician that the Republicans were thrilled that he selected Jack Kemp, the former Buffalo Bills quarterback and proponent of "supply-side" economics, as his choice for vice president. Mr. Kemp, it was thought, would bring some zest to the campaign. As you may recall, it remained remarkably zestless.

Bob Dole was the very definition of a high-level political hack. He spent most of his adult life as a "public servant," and became a multimillionaire along the way. (Since then, the Clintons have taken the concept of making money from political power to a previously unimaginable peak, with their reported $109 million in income since leaving the White House.) There came a time when Mr. Dole appeared on ABC's Sunday morning talking-head show for what I recall as the 52nd occasion, prompting me to quit watching those programs. It dawned on me that there was no need to spend precious time watching politicians arguing the margins of national policies while being questioned by moderators and panelists who were very much part of the insider game. These people all go to each other's dinner parties, so they're not really adversarial - just people playing different parts in the same production.

The whole affair in San Diego was listless, as though most of the Republicans already knew in their bones they'd have Bill Clinton to grouse about for the next four years. Little could they know that their representatives on Capitol Hill would have the opportunity to impeach the man for lying about his Oval Office sexual encounters. Now there was zest. Nor could they know that their unsuccessful candidate would go on to make even more money endorsing an erectile-dysfunction drug.

The Democratic convention that year was in Chicago. We stayed in a ramshackle hotel that brought to mind the Addams Family manse. I remember interviewing Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota (since deceased) and talking with William Kristol early in his Project for the New American Century days. Mr. Kristol had such a rosy complexion, such smooth skin, that my wife remarked to him, "You must have been a beautiful baby." His manner is as smooth as his skin, giving no indication of the bellicosity beneath.

Hillary Clinton's arrival was marked by a motorcade worthy of a pope and the stationing of Chicago Sanitation Department trucks around the perimeter of the hotel where she stayed. The idea, we were told, was to prevent a truck bomber from blowing it up. This was not that long after the tragic bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and the Praetorian Guard was fearful of another Timothy McVeigh wreaking bloody havoc.

By the end of the Democratic gathering in '96, I knew I'd never want to go to any of these things again, so there's no regret here at missing the Denver coronation ceremonies nominating Sen. Barack Obama or the anointing of Sen. John McCain by the Republicans meeting in the Twin Cities.

When the stretch run of the 2008 presidential race gets under way in September, it will be interesting to see if either of the candidates believably addresses the Big Things facing us, such as: runaway public debt - which, if one uses generally accepted accounting standards, is somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 trillion (see www.buzzflash.com/articles/alerts/105); the $400 million-a-day cost of our Iraq adventure; worsening relations with Russia; the credit market's ongoing meltdown; and the wage stagnation of the middle class faced with escalating energy and food costs. Or will the campaign and its coverage continue to focus on personalities and the ongoing myth that there is some great difference between the purveyors of power based on which party they represent in the game they play?

I'd bet on the latter if Vegas were making book on this.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and wbal.com. His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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