Monday, August 27, 2012

Political Conventions Past and Present

Even if Hurricane Isaac hadn’t pre-empted it, I doubt I would have clicked my TV remote tonight to the start of this week’s political commercial in Tampa. There was once a time, however, when I would have looked at it very differently – back when a convention’s outcome was not always foreordained and when actual news was being made in and around the convention hall.

My earliest convention memory is seeing President Eisenhower standing in his open car being adulated by the crowds as he arrived at the 1956 convention in Chicago. Of either party’s actual convention that year (which I was undoubtedly still too young to stay up to watch), I recall nothing. 1960, however, was another story entirely. Nixon’s nomination by the Republicans was already really wrapped up (although some real news was still made at that convention). The big story that year was the Democratic Convention in LA at which JFK arrived a front-runner but not yet a winner. I remember the caucus “debate” between him and LBJ, the wild “spontaneous demonstration” for Adlai Stevenson, watching Wyoming casting the decisive vote during the roll call, Kennedy’s impromptu unofficial acceptance that night, and his formal acceptance speech later at which the “New Frontier” was introduced.

I was more engaged in the process in 1964, following with interest the internecine fight within the Republican party between the Goldwater republicans and the Rockefeller republicans that culminated in Goldwater’s famous “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” speech. On the Democratic side that year, the only suspense was who would be VP, which LBJ made the most of; but the emotional highpoint was the convention’s 22 minutes of applause in tribute to the murdered JFK, and his Robert Kennedy’s quoting of Romeo and Juliet: “When he shall die, take him and cut him out into the stars, and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.”

Night fell big-time on the Democrats in 1968, however. I had been distracted during the rather boring Republican Convention by the death and funeral of a friend, but was riveted (like much of the country) by the televised images of the chaotic and violent Democratic Convention, at which the old New Deal coalition quite visibly unraveled for all to see. 1968 was also, I believe, the last time the Democratic standard bearer was nominated without having competed in a single primary. Four years later, the new McGovern rules had effectively replaced the old blue-collar base of the party with the collage of interest groups that still dominate and control it – with predictable consequences. That week I went to party at a friend’s lower East Side apartment to celebrate McGovern’s nomination – a celebration famously delayed until an unconscionably late hour by the delegates’ amazingly self-indulgent carrying on. McGovern’s nomination had actually been sealed already by his victory in the California primary – perhaps the last time that late primary played a decisive role in a campaign.

1976 saw the down-to-the-wire fight between President Gerald Ford and challenger Ronald Reagan and the latter’s memorable speech detracting from Ford’s ostensible victory. The Democrats nominated Jimmy Carter – an “outsider” who actually bragged he had never met a Democratic President – and ended the convention with a Martin Luther King, Sr., love-feast. Four years later, however, having lost his challenge to Carter, Ted Kennedy gave the most memorable speech of the convention and then notably avoided linking arms with Carter – a gesture of support Carter clearly desired and needed.  The Republicans meanwhile followed their hearts and finally nominated Regan.

After that, conventions quickly became less and less relevant – and a lot less interesting. By the 1992 conventions, the Democrats had solidified their identity as the abortion party and the Republicans as the “culture war” party. Bill Clinton celebrated his win with Fleetwood Mack in 1992; Al Gore danced with and kissed tipper in 2000; and Barack Obama gave a classy acceptance speech in 2008. But by then it was all for show. No one now expects a convention actually to decide anything anymore. And, if the candidates and their handlers are successful, no non-weather-related news will be made there either.

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