So ABC is arranging its convention coverage around an exhibition football game. NBC is giving us just the acceptance speeches. And CBS, well, its execs would be a lot happier to lock viewers inside the Big Brother bathroom. The horror, the horror...
After all, political conventions are "democracy in action," writes Terry Golway in a lengthy article in American Heritage. "They are a major force in our democracy," insists PBS's Jim Lehrer. "They're part of our political heritage," cries Cokie Roberts. "This is the moment when the campaign becomes real," notes CNN executive vice president Gail Evans.
Don't get me wrong. As a journalist, I am bullishness itself on political conventions. I am in favor of just about any form of welfare payment to journalists, particularly those that allow us to catch up with old friends while staying in decent hotels and filling up on mountains of free food and liquor offered up by every corporation with a potential antitrust suit on its neck. Hell, Camp Monomoy was never this much fun. Given that there's little danger of actual news being committed, this schmoozapalooza goes on pretty much uninterrupted.
But I wish someone would explain what any of it has to do with "democracy." Golway gives it his best shot. Conventions, he argues, "provide an important function for party activists who regard their delegate credentials as tickets to a slice of history." Well, yes, but just about everything is a slice of history. Across town at JFK Stadium at Live Aid fifteen years ago, Mick Jagger sang on one stage with Tina Turner while Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood backed up Bob Dylan on another. This is history too, but don't expect 16,000 journalists to cover your own personal re-creation of it. Golway also quotes political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who opines, "Every four years children get to see adults talking about the political system in a serious way at the conventions. And the rest of the country gets to see their fellow citizens--the delegates--participating in the political system. That's not unimportant." Well, Mr. Sheinkopf, I'm afraid it is. Children can see adults talking about the political system nearly every minute of every day on CNN, MSNBC, FNC and C-Span, and I'm not so sure it's good for them. USA Today reported that in 1996, ABC gave the GOP convention podium only thirty-four of sixty minutes during its first night of coverage. The following night the speakers received just twenty-six minutes of sixty-six. The rest was advertising and a lot of happytalk from Peter, Sam and "the Cokester," as the Saminator likes to call her.
The fact is that political conventions, particularly as they appear on TV, have little to do with democracy. The results are in long before they take place, and the party platforms they allegedly ratify are written to be ignored. At the Republican convention in San Diego four years ago, Ralph Reed greeted the faithful at a Christian Coalition rally with the words, "Here is your Republican Party platform!" The suckers applauded like crazy. This year, even they have figured out that party platforms are not worth the ether into which they immediately disappear. The Republican platform, as Michael Kinsley points out, logically condones--by implication--the death penalty for abortion. George W. Bush has accepted this nonsense because he knows better than to waste a nanosecond arguing over it. On the Democratic side, Alan Reuther, legislative director of the UAW, didn't even bother to show up for the meeting that decided his party's position on trade. "Scheduling conflicts," he said.
It's a cliché to point out that the conventions have become nothing more than overlong television commercials for the two major parties. Neither the networks nor the party apparat has any interest in allowing any unscripted surprises to muck up its schedule. The former must worry about forfeited commercial opportunities and the latter about costly mistakes. What is rarely pointed out, however, is how misleading and ultimately irrelevant these commercials have become. Of what value was it four years ago to hear Liddy Dole strolling the floor, Oprah-style, waxing for nearly ten minutes on the subject of her husband's war wounds? And while I'm sorry for Christopher Reeve's accident, who cares what he thinks about politics? Even the most authentic-seeming convention moments now turn out to be bullshit these days. Recalling his late sister's lung cancer, Al Gore offered up what Jeff Greenfield oddly termed "the most emotional speech any of us have ever heard about the death of a sister" in 1996. I was moved too--until Gore went on to hire Big Tobacco's savvy apologist Carter Eskew as his campaign's top spin doctor in the current contest.
Given the Philadelphia police's commitment to surveillance of protest groups and LA Mayor Richard Riordan's vow not to "tolerate" even nonviolent civil disobedience, we may see some action after all, but it won't be inside either hall. (Whatever substance is offered will likely come from the shadow conventions. Tune in to www.shadowconventions.com in case the media aren't paying attention.) But frankly, if we were genuinely to witness our "democracy in action," the networks would place twenty-four-hour Big Brother-style cameras inside the luxurious five-car hospitality train in which Tom DeLay is hosting Republican fat-cat donors with secret money donated by unnamed contributors. There, with golf carts to shuttle them the 600 feet to and from the convention center and round-the-clock concierge service, the real business of our "democracy" will take place. Deals will be done. Promises will be made (and kept). Legislation will be written, and checks with plentiful numbers of zeros will change hands. It won't be pretty, but don't worry. It won't be televised. The networks can handle only so much Reality TV.
* * *
But Enough About You. Stormin' Norman Podhoretz, author of Making It (a memoir of Podhoretz's life), Breaking Ranks (a memoir of Podhoretz's life) and Ex-Friends (a memoir of Podhoretz's life), has a new book out called My Love Affair With America. Bet you can't guess what this one's about!