Conventions Need Less Talk, More Time to Gawk

Posted July 28, 2004 at 11:22am

While the Democrats’ convention managers attempted to put together a totally scripted national convention that was devoid of news, a major controversy erupted early in the week and has continued to build here in Boston. [IMGCAP(1)]

Within hours after delegates, members of the news media and guests began arriving at the Fleet Center on Monday, the Democratic National Committee was forced to reverse its position on umbrellas.

The flip-flop could well give the Republicans just the ammunition they need to erase any post-convention bounce for the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.).

On Monday morning, security personnel at the magnetometers — those pesky machines that identify the presence of metal on or about attendees — refused to allow convention attendees to bring umbrellas into the secure area that includes the Fleet Center and adjacent areas.

But later that day and according to well-placed sources, apparently after a rash of complaints about the policy, the committee reversed itself, instructing guards to allow umbrellas through the security perimeter.

On Tuesday, umbrellas were also allowed, but security personnel remained coy about the future.

On Wednesday, the DNC adopted yet a new policy. Small umbrellas without a point at the end were acceptable, while the pointed kind couldn’t get through security. What about tomorrow?

“That’s up to the DNC. We’ll do whatever they want us to do,” one guard told me. (I’m withholding the identity of the guard for two reasons. First, I’m afraid releasing his name could put his job in jeopardy. And second, I never asked him his name.)

The issue took on greater importance as the week progressed because the weather forecast for the middle of the week included heavy rain.

While Republican operatives have yet to lambaste the DNC, or Kerry, for the reversal, it is difficult to imagine the Republicans’ rapid-response team ignoring the flip-flop.

“It’s no surprise that the DNC is now on both sides of the umbrella issue,” one GOP operative undoubtedly would have told me, had I contacted him. “After all, John Kerry is on both sides of every issue.”

OK, so maybe the umbrella controversy isn’t all that dramatic. But here in Boston, controversy — and news — is about as rare as a Red Sox World Series victory. Yet reporters still search for anything resembling news, and they continue to pump out copy. After a couple of days in and around the Fleet Center, it’s clear that everything has been said — but not yet by everybody.

Which means we’ll all have to stay here until everybody says everything, and that could be another day or two.

The Democrats did a wonderful job scripting the first days of their convention. They’ve come down on the side of all that is good, wise, fair and just (and against all that other really, really bad stuff). Basically, they see this election as a fight between the forces of Light and the forces of Darkness. You can pretty much guess which one they are.

And Kerry? He’s smart, sensitive, caring, courageous, honest, fair, sensitive, tough, good and bright. He “offers hope, not fear.” He is the “right man for every tough task” and the “right leader.” He’s “a fighter,” and he believes “in a bright future.” And that’s just the beginning.

In just a few weeks, the Republicans will say that they are for all that is good, wise, fair and just, and they’ll probably use many of the same words to describe President Bush that Democrats used to describe Kerry. And, not surprisingly, they’ll present themselves as the forces of Light. I can’t wait.

OK, so I’ll state the obvious: These conventions have become unbearable as political events. A long line of speakers somehow succeed in offering a never-ending serving of platitudes and drivel. Everyone is for more jobs, better jobs, better health care, better education, unity not division, equal opportunity not discrimination, integrity not lying, and so forth and so on.

Sure, some speakers demonstrate their speaking skills by firing up the delegates. And some of the entertainment is entertaining.

But let’s admit what’s going on here, in Boston and in virtually every other recent and (probably) future convention city: People go to political conventions to party, gawk at celebrities and meet old (and new) friends. There isn’t anything wrong with that, of course, but why are we kidding ourselves with four days of speeches?

So here’s my proposal: Let’s cram all of the speeches and other convention “business” (and I use the term loosely) into a single day — on Monday.

We’ll have the keynote address, the presidential roll call, the vice president’s speech, the presidential acceptance speech, the spouse’s speech and all of the other stuff in four hours on a single day. Then, with that out of the way, the delegates, staffers and everyone else can spend the next three days partying full time, wearing silly hats or otherwise entertaining themselves, which is really what they want to do anyway.

If the parties want more media coverage, they can pay for it. Or they can make their conventions interesting and newsworthy. But as long as conventions are little more than advertisements, let’s treat them that way.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.