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From Decisions to Impressions, in 4 Decades

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  • Ram Lau
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 3 8:53 AM
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      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
      Weekly.

      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
      wields authority.

      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
      convention forum.

      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,
      gentler America.")

      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
      fast asleep.

      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.
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