From Decisions to Impressions, in 4 Decades
By R. W. APPLE Jr.
In all probability, this is it for me, the last of 20 national
political conventions, stretching all the way back to the 1960's -
that is, unless I snag a special assignment in 2008 from Geriatric
Over the last four decades, almost everything about conventions has
changed. I started when they were all about decisions; now they are
mostly about impressions, the impressions left in the minds of the
delegates and party workers in the hall and the voters out beyond
its walls. They are Atkins conventions, stuffed with the red meat of
partisan combat but stripped of the satisfying carbohydrates of
fierce intraparty struggle. That makes them less delicious, but it
by no means robs them of significance.
Everything has been decided before the conventions open, true
enough. But everyone knows before a coronation in London who the new
king or queen will be, everyone knows before an inauguration in
Washington who the new president will be, and yet those events have
their uses: they focus a nation's attention on the transfer and who
Likewise the conventions. In Boston in July, Senator John Kerry of
Massachusetts introduced himself to the country as the Democratic
nominee, a necessary first step in readying him for battle with
President Bush. In New York this week, Mr. Bush, already on familiar
terms with the electorate thanks to incumbency, set out to convince
the American public that he had more to offer in a second term.
Neither task could have been accomplished as effectively outside a
So what are the other important changes? The makeup of the
delegations is an obvious one, if often now overlooked. Delegates of
40 years ago were overwhelmingly male, middle-aged or older, white
and long involved in politics, as either pros or semipros. The
cigar, usually cheap, often smelly, was the badge of office and
produced one of the enduring images of American politics, the smoke-
filled room (the original was Suite 404 of the Blackstone Hotel in
Chicago, where a group of senators and others agreed in June 1920
that Warren G. Harding should be the Republican nominee.)
At Madison Square Garden the last four nights, the participants were
far less homogeneous. The Republican convention was less diverse in
its makeup than the Democratic one, but still, 55 percent of the
delegates were first-timers, mostly chosen by primary voters rather
than state political kingpins; 43 percent were women; and 14 percent
were African-American, Asian or Hispanic - much lower percentages
than at the Democratic convention but historically high for the
Republicans. And no one was smoking stogies, although Matthew Dowd,
the Bush campaign's chief strategist, was seen on the convention
floor brandishing a well-chewed but unlit cigar.
What else? The parties are more corporate and less political, and
therefore more lavish and less fun. The music is electronic and up
to date, but not as reliably rousing as "Happy Days Are Here Again"
pounded out by a brass band or an organ.
The biggest changes are technological in origin. Cellphones mean
that anyone can be reached almost anywhere, as long as the caller
has the right number, a huge advantage in managing a logistical
monster like a convention. Network television has come and gone as
the dominant chronicler of convention events, replaced by cable,
with its capacity to pounce upon, explore and report an event in
minutes, then chew it over for hours. The attack-respond-attack news
cycle speeded up immeasurably.
The two greatest presidential orators of my time, John F. Kennedy
and Ronald Reagan, did their best work outside the convention hall -
in Berlin and in Normandy, at American University and at an
evangelical conference, on television, in inaugural addresses.
Looking back, I characterize most convention oratory the same way
William Gibbs McAdoo, an unsuccessful Democratic presidential
hopeful in 1920 and 1924, did the speeches of Warren G. Harding:
they "leave the impression an army of pompous phrases moving over
the landscape in search of an idea." But the exceptions, dear God,
the spine-tingling exceptions: Adlai E. Stevenson promising to "talk
sense to the American people" in 1956, Barry Goldwater asserting
that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" in 1964,
Robert F. Kennedy quoting "Romeo and Juliet" in extolling his dead
brother that same year, Barbara Jordan asking "who then will speak
for America" in 1976, Edward M. Kennedy pledging that "the dream
shall never die" in 1980, Mario M. Cuomo telling his "tale of two
cities" in 1984 and Bill Clinton assuring the nation , "I still
believe in a place called Hope" in 1992.
A single year, 1988, brought my nominees for funniest speech (Ann W.
Richards, claiming that George Bush, then the vice president, had
been "born with a silver foot in his mouth"), worst speech (Mr.
Clinton's agonizingly windy paean to Michael S. Dukakis in which the
most applauded word was "finally") and most surprising speech (the
pithy acceptance by the often-tongue-tied Bush 41, studded with
rhetorical goodies like "Read my lips, no new taxes" and "a kinder,
If the Democrats had more good convention orators on my watch, they
also had the greatest capacity for self-immolation. Walter F.
Mondale's 1984 speech urging higher taxes - c'mon, they won't hurt a
bit - outdid even Goldwater's in inflicting damage on the man who
delivered it. In 1968, they fought with rocks and fists in the
streets of Chicago and with words in the International Amphitheater,
dooming the candidacy of Hubert H. Humphrey at its outset and
consigning him to join Henry Clay in the ranks of great American
politicians who never reached the White House. Four years later, two
more fiascoes: George McGovern's bungled vice-presidential choice
and his acceptance speech, delivered when most of the country was
Although it sometimes did not seem so at the time, the conventions
provided stages not only for big personalities (winners like Richard
M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Lyndon B. Johnson, losers like Humphrey
and Nelson A. Rockefeller), but also for big ideas. Jobs, civil
rights, the Vietnam War, the cold war and now the struggle against
terrorism frame my memories of these noisy quadrennial encampments,
far more than seas of signs and balloon drops and ridiculous hats.