15 August 2008

Genres of the Convention

Although I’m not in this picture, I was somewhere in the room when it was taken.
Madison Square Garden, 1992.

There are few more reliably poignant reminders that I no longer work in broadcast news than the nominating conventions of the American political parties, which doggedly persist in taking place even though I’m not there to cover them. “Cover” is perhaps the wrong word to use, since it implies that news might actually be involved, which is only rarely and fleetingly the case. Dismayed by the mayhem of the Democratic convention in Chicago, 1968, organizers in both parties began to do their utmost to present to the nation a serenely polished spectacle in which very little would happen of interest to anyone on earth. News organizations continue to pour enormous resources into covering the conventions, however, in the fearful hope, or hopeful fear, that someone may slip up and do something significant.

The press is currently trying to drum up excitement in the Democratic convention — will Hillary sabotage it? Has she already sabotaged it? Is this Obama’s party, or Clinton’s? Don’t be fooled. By the time they get to Denver, there will be no drama for Obama, and the press knows it already. They’re simply trying to justify their expense accounts ahead of time.

Rock on. New Orleans, 1988.
I missed out on this one, actually.

I attended five conventions, three Democratic and two Republican, in 1988, 1992, and 1996. At my side on all these excursions was Dan Rather, whose roughing up in Chicago in 1968 has come to symbolize both the mayhem of that week and the last gasp of newsworthiness at any convention. By the time I arrived on the scene, technology had advanced to the point that it was no longer necessary for Dan to wear an elaborate headset like the one he’d worn on the floor of the Chicago convention — but the sight of him in any headset at all was startlingly powerful. He was a television icon, like Spock in his ears or Matt Dillon with his pistol.

He used to roam the halls, greeting delegates and reporters alike with the cheery request to “Call me if any news breaks out.” People would chuckle, but he wasn’t joking. He was likewise serious when he’d say to me, “Take a good look around. This may be the last time.” He didn’t mean the last time for me, but the last time for the networks. Covering a convention is an expensive proposition, and though it’s a gesture of good citizenship, the rewards are few. As conventions get duller, fewer people watch. During my tenure, all three major networks cut back on the hours devoted to convention coverage, and all three cut back on personnel, too. The lavishness of it, by turns circus, parade, and Roman orgy, could not survive.

I’ve written here about the summer-camp excitement of attending a nominating convention. It’s not unlike a Star Trek convention, too, for we are brought together by a passion that others do not share, and we find thereby a community. We treat as major celebrities people who are not widely known to the general public (“Look, there’s Walter Koenig/Evan Bayh!”), we boast of our knowledge of trivia while speaking arcane languages (Klingonese/policy), we are encouraged to buy overpriced memorabilia (an authentic copy of a phaser/a Pat Buchanan button), and many of the conventioneers feel the need to wear strange costumes (Wisconsin cheese-heads being but one example). Having witnessed both ladies in action, I can assure you that the appearance on the dais of Nichelle Nichols or Barbara Jordan excited a precisely equivalent frenzy among their respective audiences.

At least Star Trek conventions are colorful. At the nominating conventions, our eyes are assaulted by red, white and blue — it’s everywhere — until we get headaches, and in more severe cases, we start to see spots. Pink, purple and green ones. We have regrettably little time to get to know the cities where conventions take place, though my glimpses of Chicago and San Diego in 1996 inspired me to linger through the weekend after each convention had ended, and to return several times on my own. We can’t get into the good restaurants, because big shots like Peter Jennings and Bob Dole got there first. For fear of a security breach, we can’t afford to hook up with attractive conventioneers — but fortunately, there seldom are any. Rob Lowe may have gotten laid in Atlanta in 1988, but I didn’t.

I miss the conventions. I miss the speeches, which with only one exception (Buchanan in 1992) were incredibly, invariably dull. I miss the foolishness — I miss watching Al Gore dance “The Macarena.” I miss the skullduggery, the wariness accorded to the politicos by the press, and vice-versa, while each side feeds voraciously off the other. I miss the pomposity and audacity (“The next president of the United States, Michael Dukakis!”), the eccentricity (“The great state of Missourah nominates… ”), the pageantry, the inevitable balloons. And I’ll miss it again this year.