You win some, you lose some…
“For there is something about a national convention that makes it as fascinating as a revival or a hanging. It is vulgar. 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 heartily that all the delegators and alternates were dead and in hell and then 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.”
These words, by The Sage of Baltimore, the Baltimore Sun’s immortal H.L. Mencken, were written about the 1924 Democratic presidential convention. Taking place in New York, in sweltering heat in July of that year, it went on for 16 days and took 103 ballots to produce a (losing) nominee.
The last time a party’s presidential nomination was decided on the convention floor was in 1976 here in Kansas City.
Ronald Reagan and incumbent Gerald Ford had battled it out in a series of inclusive primaries and state caucuses. Both sides arrived at Kemper Arena a few votes shy of the majority needed for a first ballot victory but each was convinced they would prevail.
I was a member of the Kansas delegation, elected at the Douglas County caucus, a selection that had to be ratified by the State Convention. I was also a delegate to the 1996 convention in San Diego, where Bob Dole was nominated.
I helped with the selection of novelist Mark Helprin, a friend of mine, as Dole’s speech writer. Dole’s acceptance speech was hailed as “majestic and soaring” by no less than the New York Times, not noted for fulsome praise of GOP campaigns. I remember watching the tracking poll numbers later that night and we actually caught up with Bill Clinton for a few brief, shining moments! (Unfortunately the rest of the campaign was down hill!)
I was also a delegate to the Republic Convention in Philadelphia in 2000, which had a happier ultimate result, i.e. the election of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. (That year I spent a lot of time in the Philip Morris hospitality suite, a unique feature of Republican conventions!)
As a grizzled veteran of three national political conventions, let me make a few observations. Generally, the conventions themselves have declined in importance. This is reflected by how their length has been cut back. It used to be that delegates came in to a convention city on a Sunday and left the following Sunday.
Now the conventions have been cut to three or four days, with a lot of pressure to cut them back to two days. The reason is that the primary schedules are front-loaded, i.e. the Iowa caucuses, and the New Hampshire and Florida primaries have been moved up earlier and earlier. It’s rare for the nomination in either party to only be resolved in June’s Super Tuesday of big state primaries, as it was until the 1980’s, let alone to have to go to the July or August conventions.
The network television coverage, which was always “gavel-to-gavel,” when I was growing up, has been cut back accordingly. (The other factor is the decline in importance of national party platforms. No one gets excited anymore about what “plank” is or is not included.)
The main function of the two major parties national convention now is to; 1) broadcast the presidential nominee’s acceptance speech, 2) serve as a vehicle for the airing of propaganda films promoting the world view of that particular party. (The 1992 Clinton biopic, “The Man from Hope”,was the masterpiece of this genre.) That and pump up the sales tax revenues of the host city.
Leawood mayor Peggy Dunn shook the tambourine as head honcho of the committee to raise the $50 million it would take to bring the GOP to town. KC Mayor Sly James belted out the KC Jazz favorites (which he is uniquely qualified to do as the only former Husch, Blackwell partner who can look and sound like Muddy Waters)
Hey, it was fun while it lasted!