Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Conventional Wisdom

Two incidents come to mind when I recall the dawn of the television age in America.

My first encounter with TV came shortly after a neighbor got the first set on the block. I raced to their house one Saturday morning anxious to see the first major league baseball game of my young life.

Until then, big league baseball on the West Coast was a fairy tale, a mystical game sometimes heard but never seen played by larger than life heroes in a faraway land.

I plunked down in front of the set along with the other neighborhood kids only to be required by the lady of the house to stand at stiff attention, salute and sing the National Anthem for those in the living room while some organist 2500 miles away played in an octive out of my reach.

Fortunately, my parents bought a set shortly thereafter so I was able to watch baseball and keep my dignity intact at the same time.

My other memory involves watching a political convention for the first time.

I won't claim to have been a political junky at the age of 10 but there was high drama taking place in Chicago in 1952 as Dwight Eisenhower and Robert Taft competed to be the Republican Party standardbearer.

Funny hats, fiery speeches, bands, demonstrations, roll calls punctuated by drama and humor. It beat hell out of "I Love Lucy."

I was a Taft fan, probably because his name was Bob. And watching high-energy democracy in motion struck a chord in me that resonates to this day. (I don't recall the Democratic convention. My father, a staunch Republican who considered Democrats nothing more than layabouts and welfare cheats, probably would have forbade me from watching it had I wanted to. Thus, I missed the nomination of Adlai Stevenson who ran on the anti-charisma slate).

Remembering political conventions back when they actually meant something is like yearning for the days of cheap gas and penny post cards. It's hard to believe such things even existed.

But the conventions march relentlessly on as we will see when the Democrats gather in Denver next week and the Republicans meet in St. Paul the following week.

The party business is concluded long before the opening gavel drops which means the conventions become week-long pep rallies.

The day when platforms would be built plank by plank and horse trading and back room dealing would be prime time fare are long gone.

Both parties learned that while dirty laundry may be compelling viewing, it didn't do a lot for them at the ballot box. Look no farther than the ruinous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago to understand that point.

And yet there are reasons to watch this year. Both network and and cable stations know it. They are actually increasing their coverage.

In Denver, Barack Obama will conclude his selection as the party nominee with a speech at Invesco Field, the 75,000-seat home to the Denver Broncos football team. It won't be the largest crowd he has drawn but it is sure to underscore his image as a rock star, able to draw massive audiences to hear his message.

But before Obama takes center stage, there are a pair of 500-pound gorillas that will have their say.

First is Hillary Clinton, who will speak on Aug. 26. Her campaign brought her closer than any other woman in history to securing the party's nomination.

Because of that, her supporters want to stage a march through the hall, a tribute with music and balloons, or some other display to mark her achievement, according to published reports.

Clinton supporters are adament she be shown respect at the convention. You can bet that whatever Hillary wants, she'll get. Her support is too important to the Obama camp.

The other looming presence is Bill Clinton, who, as one wag wrote, is behaving more like King Lear than keynote speaker.

The former president's support of the the Obama campaign has been tepid at best and it's anybody's guess whether he will be party royalty or a royal pain.

Not only that, but he preceedes the vice president nominee on the dias. Given the Clinton proclivity for long-winded speeches, he could force the vice presidential candidate right out of prime time.

Al Gore will speak. How will the man who lost to George Bush be received?

John Edwards will not be there. His next speech may be in front of a self help group for cheating spouses.

The Republicans feature no less than the President of the United States, and Vice President Dick Cheney. Also featured will be 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, now a McCain supporter.

Our very own governor Arnold Schwarzeneger will speak despite his support of the Obama plan for properly inflated tires.

And the keynote speaker will be Rudolph Giuliani. Count the number if times he mentions 9/11.

On paper, the Republicans appears to present a more unified front but McCain's attempts to woo the convervative wing of the party won't be far off stage.

Tune in. It will be the best reality show on TV.

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