Between 1988 and 2008, I attended many of the Democratic and
Republican national conventions. Their outcome was not in
doubt, but for a journalist with credentials it was a very good
time indeed, especially if you were a collector of political
buttons, lapel pins, bumper stickers and other campaign
paraphernalia. Most important for a journalist, there was easy
access to political figures for interviews and quotes.
For delegates and other attendees there was an endless array
of policy meetings, social occasions, as well as free food and
drink, There was also a unique opportunity to meet and make
friends with other political activists from across the nation.
Finally, although there was little suspense at these recent
conventions, there were the convention floor programs
designed as spectacles to whip up excitement and enthusiasm
for the party’s ticket in November.
I have many stories to tell from the conventions I attended.
Here’s just a few.
At my very first convention, the Democratic meeting in Atlanta
in 1988, I did not go to the convention floor the first few days
because I was so diverted by the events outside the convention
proceedings, but finally I made it to the hall just as Michael
Dukakis was being nominated. To my surprise, many of the
delegates were booing the speaker. When I asked someone
what was going on, I was told that the nominator was the
young governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who had decided to
speak interminably, and the delegates wanted him to finish.
The incident made him a national laughing stock. Only four
years later, despite many other controversies, he was the
Democratic nominee in New York City. Just before he was
introduced, they showed a video of his life. It wasn’t that
remarkable until a short clip appeared with President John
Kennedy greeting a delegation of teenagers from Boys
Nation a the White House in the early 1960s. Suddenly, from
the crowd, emerged a teen-age Bill Clinton to shake Kennedy’s
hand. Few present had seen his clip before. The crowd gasped,
and then broke into cheers. A few moments later, Clinton
came on stage to a huge ovation.
At that same convention in New York in 1992, I walked into
the very large media center on the last day, expecting to have
a quiet snack. As I walked in, however, hundreds of press
colleagues turned to me and began applauding! I was totally
mystified until someone came over to me and explained that a
video of me describing my interview with Governor Jerry
Brown in Iowa earlier that summer had just been played on
the media lounge screens. What had happened was that a few
days before, I had met two cheeky students from Dartmouth
who had wangled media credentials,and were making an
irreverent video of the convention by interviewing famous
politicians and media stars with off-the-wall questions. I
liked their spunk, and told them a few off-beat stories of my
own, including the one about my odd Jerry Brown interview
in a Mexican restaurant in Iowa. Two nights later, I ran into
them, video cameras in hand, and although I was exhausted,
I let them tape me telling my Jerry Brown story. Trust me,
I’m no comedian, but I was so tired, it somehow came off
as very wry and funny.
That same year, at the Republican convention in Houston,
I happened to use my convention floor privileges during Pat
Buchanan’s notorious speech. While I was on the floor, I ran
into someone I had met several years before when he was
visiting Minneapolis. It was George W. Bush, then a private
citizen and working for his father at the convention. We shook
hands, and from his few words and the look on his face, I knew
he knew the Buchanan speech was bad news for his father’s
re-election. Only eight years later, I attended the convention in
Philadelphia that nominated him.
In 2008, the Republican convention was in St. Paul. It was a
home town experience. My visiting friend and editor Tony
Blankley and I went to so many convention parties, we
stopped counting. Main downtown streets were blocked, but
of course I knew alternative routes. Many events, most of
them quite lavish, took place near where I lived and also
near Tony’s hotel. I even threw a party, an ice cream social at
a legendary local ice cream parlor outside downtown, with a
political celebrity guest list. (Some still talk about it.) I
watched Sara Palin's famous speech from the convention
floor. My political memorabilia collection peaked.....
By 2012, the appeal of a national convention, even as a social
occasion, appeared more diminished, and this continued to
2016. Nevertheless, plans were made for traditional
conventions in 2020 by both major parties. Indeed, for a time
the Democratic nominating contest seemed like it could be
undecided until its convention at Milwaukee in July.
Then the pandemic occurred, and profound changes in the
2020 political campaign season took place.
As I write this, current convention plans remain provisional.
The Democrats are still meeting in Milwaukee, but it isn’t yet
clear how many will attend in person. Program plans are
incomplete, although Joe Biden has announced he will accept
his nomination in Milwaukee. The original date was moved
from July to August.
After the North Carolina officials refused to lift certain
restrictions, the Republicans decided to move the main part
of their convention to Jacksonville. Its program and who
will attend in person are also undecided.
What is clear is that the national convention experience will
be very different in 2020. The need to kick off the campaign
and excite the base remains, but how to do it is up in the air.
Even veteran entertainment promoter Donald Trump is
challenged by this environment.
Media coverage of the conventions will also be changed.
I doubt that thousands of print and broadcast journalists
from around the world (as usually happens) will show up,
and that the typical huge lavish media centers will host
and feed them. How much coverage of the daily programs
will be broadcast by the networks is also uncertain. By
August, many now at home could be back to work, and
unlikely to be watching a virtual political convention.
But there will be conventions. Two national tickets will be
nominated. A campaign, however unprecedented, will
follow. On November 3, votes will be counted.
The show must go on.
Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.