Monday, July 28, 2008

Political Conventions: Too Conventional?

I was born in the mid 1950s, and grew up on watching democratic and republic party conventions that were political knock-down, drag-out fights. In the case of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, it was a literal knock-down, drag-out fight with riots in the city. Thousands of people flooded into the city, each with their own and sometimes conflicting agendas, all which led up to fighting in the streets. This was the final insult to the injury that the party first felt when front runner Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated while on the campaign trail in California, throwing the party into turmoil.

Conventions received television coverage over a few days, sometimes very late into the evening. Of course, with only three major networks out there for many years – ABC, NBC, CBS – there wasn’t much else to watch, so captive viewers learned to find their drama and entertainment even in politics.

But, over the last few presidential elections, it seems the thrill has been sucked out of the conventions. Part of it stems from incumbent presidents running for second terms, like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. It seems that if the candidate is ordained before the convention, the convention itself just becomes a made-for TV event where each party can put their best foot forward. And now, there are many other channels to chose from if one wants to avoid convention coverage.

But while I miss the cliff-hangers of the past, I think that the old-style convention needs to stay in the past. Conventions of the 1950s and 1960s seemed to be too embattled to make any party look good. Worse yet, the political infighting and wheeling and dealing for delegates that was covered on the floor by the networks news reporters made it appear that the selection of the presidential candidates was not of the masses but of a handful of people who knew how to wield power.

The downside to more recent conventions, which I am sure will be in full force this election season, will be the sanitizing of each party’s presentations. Because the conventions are given less broadcast network time, with coverage moved to the cable news channels, each party will go all out to put their best foot forward. It is probably the best chance that the Democratic and Republican parties will have to unleash a flood of their party propaganda to a wide audience, and they have to take advantage of whatever air time they can get. They have to exercise caution, though, because their viewing audience is no longer as captive as it was in the 1950s – 1970s when there wasn’t much else to choose from.

Still, with this election involving two candidates that aren’t presidential incumbents nor have their ever been a party’s nominee, it may be more important for voters to get to know these people, and their party, better. So it’s likely that I may watch more coverage this year than I have for the last few presidential elections.

If you want to read an interesting article on the conventions of the past, check out this month’s Smithsonian Magazine (here) which provides an excellent recap of some of the more tumultuous conventions of years past. It’s been 40 years since the upheaval of the 1968 convention, hopefully, history won’t repeat itself.

Check out my blog home page for the latest information, here.

No comments: