Everyone agrees. The story is that there is no story. The candidates have already been chosen. The platform has been written to avoid controversy. That’s why the early focus has been on the sideshows (since everyone knows that politicians get booed at baseball games, was it wise of Kerry to throw that first ball? What will Teresa Heinz Kerry say next?).
So here’s the story behind the story.
There are, first of all, the delegates, who this year are virtually all voting the way they are told to vote (and for the most part want to vote, because they want to beat Bush). Then there are the 15,000 mainstream journalists who outnumber the delegates three to one, who are, as the phrase goes, stenographers to power. Both these groups are partakers of the conventional convention wisdom: that because polls show Kerry does better among those who know him, the goal of this convention is to tell his story. (And, his group of a dozen political strategists who meet daily would add, in the words of consultant John Martilla, “to make sure that prominent in the narrative is his ability to handle issues of national security.”)
Next are the sponsors–Union Pacific, MassMutual, Edison International, BellSouth and all the rest, including the liquor and food companies–who pay for the countless receptions, at which delegates and the press consume gallons of booze and tons of sumptuous hors d’oeuvres as they talk to one another about the evil influence of big money on politics. I myself consumed more than my share of such complimentaries at the moving reception honoring Senator George McGovern (attended by former candidates Mondale and Dukakis), courtesy of Ocean Spray Products.
And finally there are the dissenters, and they are where they are–at the center of what should be the debate but on the fringes of the convention.
In the absence of any official joining of such issues as the war on Iraq, globalization, the death penalty and media concentration, all these player-constituencies carry on doing what they do best.
My sense, for example, is that in almost every state delegation a mini drama is being played out over the transfer of power to the next generation. In New York, if Attorney General Eliot Spitzer runs for governor, Mark Green, Andrew Cuomo and perhaps Robert Kennedy Jr., among others, are in line to run for attorney general. When I asked Mark about this and what sort of politicking one could do at the convention, all he said was, “Look and you will see any number of us taking down names of people to talk to later. We’re keeping lists like a prosecutor at a Mafia wedding.”
On Monday I went to an ADA lunch, where one of the speakers was Representative Barney Frank, as outrageously witty as ever (“If my Hebrew was better, I’d say Kaddish for moderate Republicanism”) and as on-message as everyone else: There were, he said, two models for transforming the Democratic Party in a progressive direction–the Nader-outsider model (many boos) and the Jesse-Jackson-enter-the-Democratic-primary model. He explained that “our role is to carry on that fight, and the way to get there is to follow the Jesse model.” But the backstory to Frank’s convention was that if Kerry wins the presidency, Barney (along with Edward Markey and a half-dozen others) will be running for the Senate. Go Barney!
The big-shot journos, having not that much to say about the politicos, did have some interesting things to say about each other. At this year’s Shorenstein Center brunch, anchors Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, along with PBS’s Jim Lehrer and CNN’s Judy Woodruff, got in a set-to about whether it was a good or a bad thing that the Big Three networks were limiting coverage of this year’s convention to an hour a night. To me, the most interesting moment came when Nolan Bowie, a Shorenstein fellow, asked why they thought so many young people say they get their news from Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show rather than network nightly news. The panel mistakenly used the question as a jumping-off point to speculate on whether the kids knew the difference between satire and the real thing and how the nightly news could be adjusted to appeal to the younger viewers.
I thought the panel missed the point. Kids watch Stewart because he is very funny but also because he openly frames the news and shows his contempt for hypocrisy, sham and cant, whereas the anchors, in thrall to the convention of narrative neutrality (which confuses moderation of tone with objectivity), pretend to have no views of their own. There was much talk about bias and the “L” (for liberal) word but no talk about the “A” (for authenticity) word.
And finally, there was the convention outside the convention–in the streets and in various venues around town. At one of these events, I ran into the Reverend Jackson, and since I had just seen his picture on various front pages smiling alongside George W. Bush, I asked him what that was all about. He told me, “I asked the President one question: Did he intend to enforce the law so that every vote counted? And he said he’d get back to me.” Jesse said he’d heard nothing and that he’d get me a copy of his follow-up letter–which he did when I ran into him the next afternoon at a forum (“The Case for a Right-to-Vote Constitutional Amendment”) co-sponsored by The Nation and moderated by John Nichols. The letter requested a meeting with the President to discuss guaranteeing the “integrity and protection” of the voting process. At the forum, Jesse’s son, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., spoke eloquently: “If I had a big piece of yellow ribbon, I would wrap it around the state of Florida and declare it a crime scene.”
So maybe the story behind the story of this convention has to do with the next generation after all. And I haven’t even mentioned Barack Obama, the US Senate candidate from Illinois who electrified the convention Tuesday night (and whom Studs Terkel thinks may one day be President).