With the candidates in the bag, and no hope of drama, the Democratic and Republican conventions can be fairly judged only as extended advertisements for the parties that staged them. Just as Mel Gibson’s recent cross-and-sandal epic succeeds as Passion play and disappoints as conventional movie narrative, the goal of the undertaking is disconnected from that of the critic. The convention mix of carefully orchestrated speechifying, recorded campaign ads and tributes, and live entertainment adds up to something not quite sport, not quite news and not quite commercial–it is a pageant without a competition.
The floor at the Republican event was like the set of some giant multicamera movie production, with attendant EPK (Electronic Press Kit–those behind-the-scenes movie promo things you see on Entertainment Tonight) crews and celeb-stalking reporters. There were the stars–John McCain and Rudy and Arnold and Laura and Dick and W in his many incarnations; the supporting and bit players–each speaker demographically chosen to hammer home a specific point; and the extras: the delegates.
To keep the extras happy and energized for their onscreen duties, they must be informed, fed and entertained. They are not, however, your target audience–if they have even a moderately miserable time, they will still go to see your picture (vote for your candidate) because they had a role in it. The scene–the picture that you send out into the world–remains the goal.
Entertainment at the convention came in two categories–that meant to inform, excite and influence the viewing audience and that meant just to keep the extras from getting restless between setups. The appointment of Frank Breeden, former head of the Gospel Music Association, to coordinate this aspect of the pageant suggested a religious bent to the performances that did not pan out. With celebrities of various luminance like Ron Silver, the Gobernator, reality-show Survivor Elisabeth Hasselbeck, football favorites Lynn Swann and Jason Sehorn and Miss America taking the platform to speak, the thin line between politics and entertainment was faintly drawn. The house band–New York professionals dressed usually in a neutral black–filled gaps and generated pep-rally energy with a supply of upbeat R&B standards: “Knock on Wood,” “Dancin’ in the Streets,” “Soul Man,” “I Feel Good”–the stuff you hear canned during timeouts at professional sporting events and that seems to have become, since Animal House, a locus of frat-boy nostalgia. With little rehearsal time, their Big Apple chops were impressive–if anybody’s got a wedding reception planned, I’m sure the RNC can help you track them down.
Though a Broadway medley by more black-clad New Yorkers the first night seemed a bit showbizzy, the bulk of the acts were well performed and well integrated into the proceedings. Notable exceptions were the lame skit featuring Karl Rove and Barney the dog, who should both stick to their day jobs, and the self-conscious awards-presenter routine written for the Bush twins. They were not initially announced to appear, but perhaps the rumor that the girls were not ready for prime time spurred the planners into throwing something together on short notice. The ditzy teenage patter seemed more a parody of the Hilton sisters or Beavis and Butthead (that nervous giggling) than a heartwarming peek into the First Family. And the CJs (“convention jockeys”), mostly young female press secretaries stalking the floor to anchor pseudospontaneous Q and A’s with the rank and file, were overcoached in their enthusiasm, shrieking hyperbolically into their microphones (one fronting a fireman’s local in Milwaukee seemed on the verge of orgasm) even when their interview subjects were relatively low-key. This sort of MC brio is common on E! and MTV shows dealing with wet T-shirts and chugging beer, but here it verged on the hysterical, and by the second night somebody had either slipped the bunch some Valium or told them to back off. The pop-culture references included a Saturday Night Live intro parody and a slew of George and Laura spots with all the trappings–dewy-eyed orchestral music, slow dissolves, inspirational voiceovers–of the pharmaceutical ads seen on the Adult Incontinence channels. A few of the rock acts seemed a little lost–nobody I asked in the Texas delegation knew who Dexter Freebish was (though somebody thought he might be running for Congress in a swing state), and the Austin band, which seemed to harken from a very clean garage, garnered mostly polite applause. Daize Shayne, surfer-star turned singer, jumping around in front of some funky-looking backup players, brought a whiff of open-mic night to the floor.