A short history of the phony political convention

The GOP's phony living-room stage is the latest twist in a history of carefully crafted, content-free spectacle

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 25, 2012 7:00PM (EDT)

Last week the New York Times published a behind-the-scenes article about the stagecraft for the upcoming Republican National Convention, which apparently will be devoted to the hopeless task of presenting Mitt Romney as a warm and accessible person. A stage set finished in dark wood that cost $2.5 million and was supposedly inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright has been bedecked with 13 high-definition video monitors, the largest of them 29 feet by 12 feet. All of this has been designed, says Romney adviser Russ Schriefer, to convey the idea “that you’re not looking at a stage, you’re looking into someone’s living room.”

Um, OK. Maybe Mitt Romney’s living room has 13 big-screen TVs and a ginormous pulpit-gallows-sarcophagus thingummy in mahogany veneer. Mine has abandoned children’s construction projects, empty DVD cases and unidentifiable stains on the sofa. But the fatuous remarks by the candidate’s messaging mavens are par for the course in this kind of puff piece, which will seem oddly familiar to anyone who follows the entertainment industry.

It’s exactly the same chatty, up-tempo “process piece” we read every year in the Times and other major media outlets about the Oscar ceremony, and it spins exactly the same narrative: New people have been brought in to revamp this meaningless ritual we’ve all seen dozens of times before, and they’ve come up with a revolutionary new approach that will make the whole thing seem different! It’s the same rhetoric fashion magazines employ, season after season, to assure their readers that while last year’s bewildered styles enslaved and oppressed women, this year's clear-sighted vision brings liberation.

That Times article launched a chain of associations that sent me to the bookshelf (both literally and virtually) to dig up a copy of Joan Didion’s 1988 essay “Insider Baseball,” which is perhaps the most famous piece of prose about an American presidential campaign that isn’t Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.” First of all, the breezy, artful constructions of Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters, along with his confident insider manner, serve as a perfect illustration of Didion’s contention that nearly all media discourse on American politics involves a set of “agreements to overlook the observable.”

In this case, almost everyone who reads Peters’ article understands that the effort to wrap Romney in “warmth, approachability and openness” is a more or less sophisticated con, an advertising campaign that has little or no relationship to the actual merits or demerits of the product. But we all agree to wink at each other about this fact and not discuss it openly because we have accepted – far more so than when Didion noticed this 24 years ago – that the election is likely to turn on some mythological population of innocent and unironic “swing voters” out there somewhere who possess no ideology and who will choose a candidate in roughly the same way they would choose a golden retriever: by what they can consciously or subconsciously glean about personality and temperament and character.

But there was another question, related but distinct, that drove me back to Didion’s essay, which originally ran in the New York Review of Books (and can now be read online in its entirety): Exactly when did political conventions stop being a venue for the actual drama of selecting candidates, hashing out platforms and so forth and become a public-relations event infused with a certain unpredictability and danger, a form of semi-scripted reality TV? I thought I remembered that Didion had something to say about this, and it turned out to be intimately connected to her thesis about overlooking the observable. Here she discusses the mainstream media’s reaction to Michael Dukakis’ 1988 acceptance speech versus what she experienced on the convention floor:

“The best speech of his life,” David Broder reported. Sandy Grady [then a well-known syndicated columnist] found it “superb,” evoking “Kennedyesque echoes” and showing “unexpected craft and fire.” Newsweek had witnessed Governor Dukakis “electrifying the convention with his intensely personal acceptance speech.” In fact the convention that evening had been electrified, not by the speech, which was the same series of nonsequential clauses Governor Dukakis had employed during the primary campaign (“My friends … it’s what the Democratic party is all about”), but because the floor had been darkened, swept with laser beams, and flooded with “Coming to America,” played at concert volume with the bass turned up.

Indeed, I suspect that the 1988 conventions – the Democrats’ in Atlanta and the subsequent Republican gathering in New Orleans that nominated George H.W. Bush – represented a watershed moment in this transformation. Both parties went into their conventions that summer with nominees locked in place, and both parties seized on the televised spectacle as a way to address their candidates’ Romney-like image problems. Bush and Dukakis were both Massachusetts natives and Ivy League graduates who were perceived – or perceived to be perceived, in the overlooking-the-observable political narrative – as aloof and cerebral and remote from the concerns of ordinary Americans. Didion’s title, in fact, alludes to the repeated spectacle of Dukakis and his aides getting out baseball mitts and playing catch on airport tarmacs before the TV cameras, an awkward ritual that everyone except her agreed to treat as evidence of the candidate’s Everyman authenticity.

Whatever David Broder’s pro-Dukakis perorations, it was the Republicans, and especially speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who seized the initiative and cemented forevermore the idea that the conventions were first and foremost a form of free television advertising, a soft-agitprop tool for penetrating an uninformed and malleable central segment of the electorate. Didion’s fascinating discussion of the reshaping of George H.W. Bush is well worth reading in full. She observes that it was precisely his Andover and Yale background, “the diffident edge of the northeastern elite,” that had allowed him to succeed amid the social-climbing atmosphere of the Texas oil industry, but all such ambiguities had to be scrubbed out in Noonan’s Steinbeckian fantasy version, with its memorable cadences and its abandonment of the first-person pronoun: “Lived in a little shotgun house, one room for the three of us. Worked in the oil business, started my own … Moved from the shotgun to a duplex apartment to a house. Lived the dream -- high school football on Friday night, Little League, neighborhood barbecue … pushing into unknown territory with kids and a dog and a car.”

Didion correctly perceived that the idea of George H.W. Bush — the scion of one of America’s most elite families, the former head of the CIA and the former United States ambassador to China — looking back on neighborhood barbecues and Little League games in west Texas as "living the dream" was hilarious. But the political-pundit class unanimously agreed not to notice that and to evaluate Bush’s theatrical performance as such – and, as such, it was superb. Didion published her article just before the November election, with no way of knowing that Noonan’s approach would be borne out, not just that year – when Bush won easily – but in every election cycle to come. There was the masterful blend of nostalgia, optimism and Horatio Alger fable in Bill Clinton’s “Man From Hope” video; the snarling triumphalism of George W. Bush’s wartime coronation in Madison Square Garden in 2004; and the penumbra of almost Christ-like destiny constructed around Barack Obama in Denver four years ago.

But if 1988 marked the beginning of a new era in political conventions in which the primary audience is out there somewhere and the delegates in the hall become “dress extras” (as Didion puts it), it was also the culmination of a long process that probably reaches back to the 1960 election, when Richard Nixon purportedly lost by looking sweaty and creepy during his televised debates with John F. Kennedy. In a recent interview, retired CNN anchorman Bernard Shaw remembers the 1968 Republican convention in Miami Beach, when Nixon recaptured the GOP’s reins and went on to the White House, as the first one that was “perfectly scripted for TV.”

It must have looked that way, anyway, compared to the notorious Democratic convention in Chicago the same year. Of course Chicago ’68 is most famous for the violent street battles between antiwar protesters and Mayor Daley’s often-vicious police force, but what happened inside the convention hall was nearly as remarkable: The nomination went to Hubert H. Humphrey, a candidate who had won (and, for that matter, entered) exactly zero primaries, accumulating all his delegates through old-school backroom deal-making with union leaders and big-city bosses.

If that convention was rightly seen as a catastrophe for Democrats, sending them to defeat in an election that should have extended their political hegemony – even after all that, the popular vote between Humphrey and Nixon was nearly even – what followed it was arguably worse, at least from the point of view of functionality and order. The now-infamous Democratic convention of 1972 is the first one I can remember personally. I was allowed to stay up late to watch it, snuggled next to my dad on a decaying horsehair sofa in a house made of quartz in the California mountains.

Indeed, one had to stay up late – sometimes all night -- to catch the fractious floor fights over the unseating of Daley’s entire Illinois delegation and the California primary’s winner-take-all rules, not to mention heated debates I did not understand about abortion rights and delegate quotas for women and minorities. I don’t specifically remember this, but Wikipedia informs me that the party platform included a mysterious clause on “the right to be different,” further explained as the right “to maintain a cultural or ethnic heritage or lifestyle, without being forced into a compelled homogeneity.” (That might be the only area where 1972 Democratic activists and today’s Tea Party would find themselves in agreement.) After a vice-presidential nomination process that included votes for Archie Bunker and Mao Zedong, the haggard-looking George McGovern did not deliver his acceptance speech until 2 in the morning, Eastern time, when nearly the entire TV audience had gone to bed.

My dad and I were absolutely thrilled, breaking only occasionally for cold Cokes and pan-fried hamburgers. This was democracy in action, he told me, a testimony to the vitality of our party and our country. He had arrived in the U.S. in 1940 and still had an immigrant’s starry-eyed view of American politics, fueled by fables of past Democratic convention battles. Maybe the epic 17-day convention of 1924, which resulted in the nomination of someone named John W. Davis, had not gone so well. But this one could also turn out like the 1932 convention, which had required four ballots and a late-night conference between Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and William Randolph Hearst to settle upon Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It did not occur to me at the time -- or, I’m quite sure, to my father -- that the message apparently sent out on TV from that 1972 convention was far different from the one we perceived. What we thought was dynamic and invigorating would be conveyed to posterity as an aberrant episode of French Revolution-style chaos in which the Democratic Party was abducted by feminists, black radicals and America-haters. As my colleague Joan Walsh remarks in her new book “What’s the Matter With White People?,” McGovern – probably the most pro-labor presidential candidate in history – was somehow converted into an enemy of working-class whites, who rushed across the aisle to support Nixon.

It took both parties a few cycles to dispense with real convention drama altogether – five out of the six party conventions between 1976 and 1984 featured significant levels of insurgency and infighting – but bureaucratic controls were established to ensure that nothing like Miami Beach in ’72 could ever happen again. We were on our way to the Michael Dukakis “Coming to America” era glimpsed by Didion in which what is said or decided at the conventions (i.e., nothing) is less important than how it is packaged and delivered. No one who witnessed Pat Buchanan's "cultural war" speech in 1992 or Sarah Palin's star-making performance in 2008 can doubt that conventions still have unexpected eruptions of cultural significance. But the medium, to coin a phrase, is now entirely the message, and the things that happen at political conventions either support the script or undermine it.

Didion in 1988 could not have imagined the explosion of political commentary into the blogosphere and the Twitterverse. At this year’s conventions, the relative effectiveness of Romney and Obama’s messaging will be evaluated by thousands upon thousands of amateur observers, not just an enclosed professional punditocracy. But we’re still playing by the rules she noticed six cycles ago. Even in an election that offers stark ideological differences between the parties on at least some issues – certainly compared with the dull centrism of both 1988 nominees -- many of us will “overlook the observable” and assume that the question of whether swing voters in Ohio or Virginia are seduced by the wood-paneled TV sets in Mitt Romney’s faux living room is crucial. Worst of all, I cannot plausibly claim it isn’t.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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