The most conventional thing the media tend to say about conventions is we don’t need them anymore. Once a gathering of political pros who brokered and bickered to decide who got what, up to and including the party’s nomination as president, modern conventions have pretty much become four superfluous days of advertising for the party’s nominee, who since 1972 has arrived already ordained by voters in primaries and caucuses. The Republicans have lost all sense of reason, but both parties have lost all raison d’être for their conventions.
So goes the conventional wisdom.
Me, I love conventions. That may be because my introduction to them came at the famous, or rather, infamous, Chicago convention of 1968, which I attended as a lowly staffer for Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war campaign, on the cusp of my freshman year at college. Carrying messages of no particular importance to McCarthy delegates on the convention floor, I heard the impassioned debate over the Vietnam War platform plank (which the LBJ-Hubert Humphrey side won, of course). Then, after the convention’s final night, during a long goodbye to fellow staffers on the 15th floor of the Conrad Hilton Hotel, I was clubbed around 3 a.m. by Chicago cops, who, having run out of people to clobber in the parks and on the streets and sidewalks, filled their inner void by descending on us McCarthy commies and hippies with swinging nightsticks.
After that, how could I not love a convention?
More from Harold Meyerson
In the 1980s, as an activist, I attended several Democratic conventions due to my work for left-wing platform efforts. In 1980, I heard Ted Kennedy’s “The Dream Shall Never Die” speech in Madison Square Garden, which unleashed about 20 times the ovation that President Carter’s own speech attracted the following night. (Bad sign for Carter.) In 1984, in San Francisco’s Moscone Center, I saw South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings mistakenly stumble into a rather small caucus of delegates who were socialists (that is, DSA members) for an amusing several-minute exchange. And since 1992, as a journalist, I’ve covered every Democratic convention and most Republican ones.
What I like about conventions is the sheer density of the politics—both electoral and movement; conventions have plenty of both. Go to the state caucuses and you’ll see which factions and movements are waxing and which waning in different regions of the country. Go to the labor delegate caucuses and you’ll see which unions are enthused, which resigned, which want to go in a different direction, and which are plain fed up. And so on. All in a small number of big rooms in the convention center or largely contiguous hotels; all eminently navigable with low if any transportation costs to my employer.
At Democratic conventions, there’s usually some action in the streets, though nothing that’s surpassed Chicago ’68, of course. At Republican conventions, I usually spend some of the time at the hotel the party has set aside for its finance committee and assorted big-money guys, which means I’ll encounter fewer religious nutcases, more high-quality drinks and hors d’oeuvres, and the occasional lulu of a quote from a fat, happy Republican donor.
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I also see my buddies in the press corps, often performing heroic feats of writing on deadline. In the pre-digital age, when the nominee’s speech concluded at 11 p.m., you didn’t have a lot of time to compose your story for the morning paper, and in digital times, you have even less. As Donald Trump was wrapping up his “I alone can fix it” speech at the 2016 Republican convention, the guy sitting next to me (name’s Dionne, works for the Post) was finishing up his speech-assessment column, which he’d written (in real time, as Trump was speaking) on his cellphone—not a laptop, not an iPad, a goddamn cellphone. We fail to appreciate the hand-eye coordination that goes into some of today’s best journalism.
I’ll be writing at 11 p.m. every convention night this week and the next (on my laptop, thank you), but they will be convention nights minus the conventions. They will demand a different kind of oratory from the speakers. Absent the crowd, there will be no one-liners. (I remember former Texas Gov. Ann Richards at the 1988 Democratic convention mocking Republican nominee George H.W. Bush: “Poor George. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”) There will be no oratorical crescendos in the introduction of the nominee, a task at which Ted Kennedy excelled. (Kennedy had a voice so booming he could be heard across an arena even without a mic.) There won’t likely be breakthrough performances by second-tier speakers, such as the one that then-state Sen. Barack Obama delivered in 2004.
That said, the talks that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris delivered last Wednesday, at a podium but into the camera in a crowdless room, were the most effective either has given in this campaign, maybe in their political lifetimes—each a powerful embrace of this radical anti-racist moment, yet interpreting it as all-American. They are walking a line between the public’s need for a return to something like normalcy and the political economy’s need for transformation.
Not just the candidates but the speechwriters have obviously been recalibrating how to be rousing when there’s no one else in the room, working to craft a socially distanced hybrid, a cross between a declaration of principles and a fireside chat. We’re in the age of the Keynote Whisperer.
Lord only knows how this will all play out, but however it does, I’ll be writing about it in this space for the next two weeks, endeavoring, for the Democrats, to distinguish the new from the warmed-over, what’s left concealed as centrist from what’s just plain centrist, and for the Republicans, sorting the racism from the fascism and the big lies from the small.