Friday, August 15, 2008

There’s a very good reason I always call political conventions “pep rallies”

For me, the essence of what a presidential nominating convention is all about can be personified by the performance of actor Edward James Olmos when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention of 1996.

You remember that convention – the first held in Chicago since the police riot-filled political bash of 1968 and since late mayor Richard J. Daley declared after the 1972 convention (the year that the Chicago delegates were dumped for a more liberal collection of officials led by Rev. Jesse Jackson) that he would NEVER again allow the Democrats to use his city for their preeminent political event.

SINCE IT WAS a foregone conclusion that the Democrats were going to give Bill Clinton a chance at a second term in office, the real story that year was less about the politics and more about the Second City. Would some Abbie Hoffman pretender try to spark some trouble with protests?

It didn’t happen. The convention itself was fairly uneventful (most people remember Vice President Al Gore’s speech, where he stood stiff as a board, then told the crowd of Democratic partisans that that was his take on the Macarena dance craze).

Self-deprecation. That is what Chicago ’96 is remembered for by many.

But not by me.

I WAS A reporter-type for United Press International at that convention, and on the first day I was on the United Center floor with hundreds of other delegates when one of the first speakers was Olmos.

He gave a brief speech about the need of the Democratic Party to take into account the needs of the United States’ growing Latino population.

Actually, I should say he TRIED to give a brief speech.

What he actually did was worked himself into a frenzy unsuccessfully trying to gain the attention of the crowd of Democratic delegates. Most of the delegates were ignoring Olmos, either milling around the floor of the United Center or engaging in their own little conversations throughout the arena.

“LISTEN TO ME!!!,” he would screech repeatedly, while trying to accentuate his speech with a shrill, piercing whistle.

It didn’t work. Nobody cared about anything that was being said that early in the show. After all, knowledgeable political people knew that the only people who were worth listening to were the ones who got speaking slots in prime time (which is the punch line behind Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s repeated jokes that he will speak at the convention hall men’s room at 4:30 a.m.).

The sad part was that nobody let Olmos in on this fact. He thought he was going to say something legitimate to inspire the nation. It didn’t happen.

These people in attendance at the convention knew that the rest of the rhetoric was nothing more than an excuse to make it appear as though the political parties are putting on complete shows to properly display their presidential nominees.

FOR THAT, ULTIMATELY, is what the presidential nominating conventions have become – a show.

In private, political party officials will be the first to admit that the primary purpose of the nominating conventions these days is to get all the delegates (who are mostly party leaders in the counties across the country) excited enough to care about winning the “Big Game” (a.k.a., the Nov. 4 elections for president).

It’s really little more than a bunch of speeches to the party faithful from the “coach” telling the “team” to win “the big game” – think the cinematic version of Knute Rockne telling Notre Dame’s gridders to, “win one for the Gipper.” Both events are about equally as legitimate.

All these local political bigwigs whose names mean absolutely nothing outside of their home counties get their chance to travel to some far-off city and live it up in semi-luxurious hotels, while also partying it up at special late-night events (I still remember in 1996, the Democrats from California held an event at Buddy Guy’s Legends blues club that was closed to anybody from outside of California).

FOR THE PEOPLE who come from the home states of Minnesota (for the GOP) or Colorado (for the Democrats), they get a chance to puff up their chests and let their egos run amok that their home gets to be shown off to the political geeks from across the U.S. of A.

All of this is done in the name of getting the party faithful enthused enough about the presidential candidates that they go back home and get their neighbors worked up into a frenzy as well.

Now how much of this is really news? Not much, I’ll admit.

Newsgathering organizations tend to be willing to spend some money to cover this “event” because it creates the perception that they are covering something of great public significance.

IT IS ONE of the few times that television stations will be willing to devote significant airtime to broadcasting the nominating conventions live. Various publications will make a point of having several reporter-types grind out as much copy as they can every day – so as to create the appearance that they gave “thorough” coverage to the “historic” event.

Yet the simple fact is that August will end with Barack Obama officially chosen by Democrats as the nominee for president. A couple of weeks later, the Republicans will follow suit and officially crush any hopes that Mike Huckabee had of becoming president, when they nominate John McCain.

In all likelihood, both men will have made their choices for vice presidential running mates just before their respective conventions.

So that is somewhat newsworthy, in that the would-be second-in-commands will get their first significant public exposure at the conventions. But that only becomes real news if one of the running mates succumbs to the innate ability of saying something stupid.

THAT IS ABOUT the only chance that real news will be made in Denver or St. Paul, unless a Rob Lowe wannabe decides to show up in either city and pull off something equally as scandalous as the actor’s behavior in 1988 with underage girls at the Democratic convention in Atlanta.

In fact, I’d argue that the “real” news related to the nominating conventions doesn’t affect the world of politics as much as it does the world of professional sports – specifically, that of baseball.

The Minnesota Twins, who are engaged in a tight pennant race with the Chicago White Sox and who have a tradition of playing significantly better in their home stadium in Minneapolis than they do on the road, are being forced into a 14-day/14-game road trip at the end of August/beginning of September.

Baseball schedulers shifted so many Twins games to the road at that time of year so that officials in the Twin Cities could focus on preparing for the convention. Twins game grounds will not be subjected to fighting their way through the throngs of Republicans who will converge on St. Paul to express their “man crush” for John McCain.

IF IT TURNS out that the White Sox manage to beat out the Twins for the division title this season by only a game or two, having so many late-season road games will certainly be a factor.

In that case, then perhaps Obama (who is a White Sox fan) ought to give a bit of thanks to the GOP bigwigs for staging their McCain pep rally in such a way as to muck up the Twins’ chances.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Slate media critic Jack Shafer may be a cantankerous sort, but he’s not wrong ( when he writes that the news media would be better off letting C-SPAN handle the actual broadcasting of the presidential nominating conventions.

The real news of 2008 for Democrats could be if the Clintons (Hillary & Bill) manage to outshine ( Barack Obama at his coronation, er, uh, nomination.

Are the political parties going too far to try to control the expression of opposition thought ( at the nominating conventions?

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