Posted on July 31, 2000 in Washington Watch

This is the month of the Republican and Democratic parties’ national political conventions. There was a time in American history when these two events were seen as momentous and dramatic spectacles. Great decisions were made during these conventions: candidates were chosen and the platforms of the parties were hammered out in debate that was, often times, marked by historic speeches.

This will not be the case this year. Increasingly, the party conventions have become more formalistic–pro forma rituals that acknowledge decisions already made. In recent years, the conventions have become made for television productions. They are tightly scripted, overly produced and of interest to none but the party faithful.

In the beginning, the conventions were gatherings for party leaders who had been selected in each state by the party rank and file membership. These delegates to the conventions would gather for the purpose of choosing their presidential and vice –presidential nominees and crafting their political platforms for the November elections.

In many instances, when delegates arrived at the conventions, little had been decided. As a result, past conventions were often scenes of great drama and intense struggles. In balloting to determine the candidates for President and Vice President, there would often times be multiple votes required before a victorious nominee would emerge.

In the 1924 Democratic Convention, for example, delegates voted 104 rounds before a victor emerged. In 1940, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, hearing that delegates might rebel and chose another nominee, made a surprise appearance and saved his nomination for a third time. There have been, as well, numerous instances where the vice presidential votes were even more dramatic and unpredictable.

And even aside from the excitement of this selection process, there were often profound policy debates on issues of the day. The 1948 Democratic Convention, for example, featured an epoch changing debate on civil rights for African Americans, and in more recent years, there was the tremendous upheaval both inside and outside of the 1968 Democratic Convention over the war in Vietnam.

I was privileged to have been a part of two of the last dramatic conventions–the 1984 and 1988 Democratic Conventions in San Francisco and Atlanta.

I can recall vividly, just 12 years ago, mounting the speaker’s podium at the 1988 Atlanta Convention in order to lead the first-ever national political debate on Palestinian rights. As I spoke, our coalition of more than 1,200 (mainly Jesse Jackson for President delegates) demonstrated loudly on the convention floor. Banners and signs proclaiming “Palestinian Statehood Now” and “Palestinian Justice–Israeli Peace” filled the convention hall. It was a thrill to be able to bring before the nation and into the heart of the political convention this critical issue, as earlier conventions had been challenged by protest on behalf of civil rights for African Americans, in opposition to apartheid in South Africa and against the war in Vietnam.

The Israeli press reacted with predictable concern. Wrote one, “Nothing like this has happened before…. [We] went all out to keep this issue from being debated on the floor, and we were unable to prevent it.” Another noted, “Never before had so many PLO flags been seen waving on so many American TV screens.”

Despite the fact that the outcome of both of those two conventions (the 1984 and 1988 meetings) had been largely predetermined before the delegates had arrived–there was still drama. The unexpected could still occur. What, some wondered, would Jesse Jackson say? What issues would his delegates raise? How would his challenge to the Party and its platform unfold.

No such drama will occur this year. In fact, since 1992, the conventions of both parties have been quite predictable.

Party leaders and their chosen delegates from the parties’ rank and file no longer dominate the convention and determine the nominees and the outcome. As a result of the reforms in the presidntial selection process that have occurred over the past 30 years, before the conventions are held, the delegates have been elected in candidate driven primaries and the candidates have been chosen in that primary election process.

By the time the conventions meet, the nominees for president are fully in control of the process. The program of the convention is determined by the nominee as is the platform and even who speaks and what they speak about.

Conventions have been transformed from decision making political spectacles to four-day-long scripted advertisements for the nominee and the party. In this new era, even the surprises are planned. What the conventions do present are themes, symbols and a message that it is hoped will shape voter attitudes in favor of the party’s nominee.

As a result, more and more Americans are tuning out. A recent poll showed that less than 50 percent of American voters were even following the presidential elections and far fewer have any plans to watch the conventions.

In response to this disinterest, the major networks have decided to reduce their coverage of the daily convention events to a nightly one-hour summary.

In the old days, national TV and radio provided what they called gavel to gavel coverage of every convention moment and the national viewership was enormous. I can recall as a child sitting with my parents, glued to the TV, watching these political dramas unfold. We were thrilled over each vote cast, kept score on pads of paper and listened to speeches for memorable lines and moments.

Today, style has replaced substance and technique has replaced content. Exciting moments are no longer great oratory or unexpected votes or protests. Substituting for that today are Hollywood produced videos and the like.

I will still go to both conventions this year, as I have for the past two decades. I will go partly out of a sense of responsibility and partly out of a sense of history.

I will remember some of the great moments of past conventions: the late Senator Barry Goldwater’s challenge to Republicans in the 1960s, the civil rights challenges to the all white southern Democratic delegations of the same decade; the riotous events of 1968’s protests against the war; the stirring oratory of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988; and our special Palestinian protest in 1988.

There will be no such unscripted drama this year–but the conventions will still be special and, in an important regard, worth watching. The conventions will set the tone and style and define the themes and issues for both parties. And these events will provide the formal launch for the presidential campaign of two men–one of whom will be president of the United States.

For that reason alone they deserve to be closely followed. But it would still be a treat if something unpredictable were to happen, if only to remind us of what political conventions used to be.

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