Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Conventions aren't irrelevant, they’re theater

Other than providing honest work for those who build the sets and semi-honest work for those who produce the lavish infomercials, what good are political conventions? Do they still matter?

Political conventions are different things to different people. Primarily, I see them as theater. On a Broadway stage or a Hollywood movie set none of the props are there by accident. Everything was put there for a purpose. The same goes for what the public sees of a national political convention.

You see, dear reader, I’ve been watching the political conventions since 1964, when I was a 16-year-old juvenile delinquent/would-be boy-wonder. I can vividly remember staring at a black-and-white TV and taking notes in a Spiral notebook, as I watched the Republican convention in San Francisco.

That convention took place in the days when such affairs were more fluid, much less scripted than what they‘ve become. Which meant that plenty of the best action in the hall took place in the wee hours. Eventually, Arizona’s Barry Goldwater won the nomination. His slogan was: “In your heart, you know he's right.”

My answer to the question above is, yes, conventions still matter. Beyond the predictable, meticulous polishing of the luster of the ticket, conventions still offer us a look at what both parties would like to believe are their best ideas, their most trustworthy leaders and their up-and-coming stars.

Those who watched the conventions saw what may have been Bill Clinton’s last great speech, perhaps his best ever. And, we surely saw what will be Clint Eastwood’s last appearance at a political convention. And, like all props, the now famous chair was put there for a purpose. We should expect to see the chair's encore on Saturday Night Live.

In one word descriptions, one might say the Republicans elected to present kitsch; the Democrats chose to present boilerplate.

In Tampa there was a list of Republicans who were quite conspicuous by their absence. Neither George W. Bush or Dick Cheney were there. Nor were significant players from the party’s recent past, such as Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell or even Sarah Palin (depicted above), which had to disappoint SNL's writers.

What you did have was a series of state governors who all had a personal story to tell about how they, themselves, built their own success; they had all risen up from difficult circumstances. What I took away from that collection of similar stories was that the convention’s theme -- We Built It -- was being reinforced by hungry politicians who, when given the chance, were all happy to brag about themselves.

Curiously, not much was said about Mitt Romney during this aspect of the programming, and the governors' success stories hardly rubbed off on Romney.

What did seem to be in the air was a collective sense of yearning for recapturing what was good about a previous time, certainly before Barack Obama became president. What was less clear is what period of time the Tampa Republicans actually had in mind. Clearly, it was not a call to return to the Bush presidency.

Skipping to the chase, I have to say the Republicans in Tampa were yearning to take the country back to something that never existed. What they seem to want is Ronald Reagan acting as president, but perhaps serving in the time before the start of World War I, when everyone knew their place -- including women -- and people didn't bellyache all the time about their lot in life. 

Take-the-country-back Republicans seem to have left Tampa, still dwelling on a gaudy nostalgia that represents mostly imaginary stuff. They’re still pining away for a lost world of dungeons and wizards and flying monkeys, or maybe "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

To me, this all suggests one word -- “kitsch.”

Moving on to Charlotte, viewers looking for a bold new vision for the future needed to change channels. What they got from the second convention was a thousand little ways in which Democrats are trying to solve real problems ... even if trying is about all they can do. For what it's worth, their slogan this year is "Forward."

What saved the convention for Team Donkey, and probably provided the lift in the polls Obama has received since then, was one huge factor -- the Clinton speech.

Take Clinton’s wonky but lyrical speech out of the middle of the Democratic convention and the main story coming out of Charlotte would have been about a missed opportunity. Without Clinton's words, defining what it is to be a modern Democrat, nothing said from the podium the following night would have saved the convention from being branded as a fizzler.

Still, on live television, anything can happen. So, the symbol of all the Republicans staged for primetime consumption will always be Eastwood’s empty chair. Whereas, the Democrats confab will be remembered for a flight of soaring rhetoric from a party elder.

Between now and November 6th, no amount of dark dollar TV ads can rewrite those snippets of political convention history. Too many viewers saw them unfold, so there isn't time for that much of a rewrite. Moreover, neither of those happenings would have mattered so much had they not taken place live, on stage, at the conventions.

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