Conventions are no longer ‘a chess tournament disguised as a circus’

“There is something about a national convention that makes it as fascinating as a revival or a hanging. It is vulgar, it is ugly, it is stupid, it is tedious, it is hard upon both the higher cerebral centers and the gluteus maximus, and yet it is still somehow charming.” — H.L. Mencken.

They weren’t always so anti-climatic, our political conventions. They sometimes had a purpose long lost to primary election season and pre-convention candidate selection. They were, indeed, as Alistair Cook described them, “a chess tournament disguised as a circus,” where it took multiple ballots for delegates to decide their party’s standard bearer and where serious political debate took place.

The anti-war movement was in full roar when I attended my first convention as a young reporter covering the Arizona delegation to the 1972 Democratic convention in Miami Beach. I don’t recall much suspense surrounding George McGovern’s nomination, just a sense that, even though his quixotic bid would not be successful, it was a historic time when a grassroots, largely student-led movement would ultimately achieve mainstream status, end an unpopular war and force dramatic changes in our nation’s capital.

My memories are both personal and political.

It was an exciting time to be covering politics. Four years earlier, conventions had still mattered. Hubert Humphrey and Bobby Kennedy (until his assassination) were in the running, heading into the 1968 convention, after Lyndon Johnson shocked the nation with his decision not to seek re-election. On the other side, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew emerged from the GOP convention as law-and-order candidates, perhaps strengthened by street riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Oh, the irony of that particular outcome.

Arizona in 1972 was the political turf of Barry Goldwater and Mo Udall, men of very different ideological stripes who remain to this day my two favorite politicians. No staffers or party honchos could script them. Talking points and Teleprompters were out of the question, and both were unafraid to challenge the status quo, personal consequences be damned.

If either Mo or Barry ever looked at a poll for guidance, it certainly wasn’t apparent.

Spending a week in muggy Miami Beach, where I joked that a No. 2 lead pencil stuck in the ground would sprout roots and leaves by morning, was the only thing that ever made me happy to return to a Phoenix summer, where it was still 100 degrees when I deplaned from my return flight shortly after midnight.

The only thing that offered more relief was the fact I still had a job after treating my morning drive-time radio audience to one of George Carlin’s seven forbidden words in a bungled convention report that aired accidently instead of the final take.

Thirty-six years later, I’d turned down several opportunities for tickets to the Democratic convention in Denver.  Then-Mesa County party Chairwoman Mary Beth Pyle finally called to tell me there was a ticket being held in my name and I was expected to be there.

While attending the final evening was exciting and enjoyable, despite having a better view from the big screen than from our seats, by 2008 conventions had become tools of an already-decided nominee, not an essential step to the nomination.

There was no doubt Barack Obama would be the nominee in 2008. That had been decided weeks earlier when he finally vanquished Hilary Clinton. That convention, perhaps somewhat like 1972, was about contrasting the failures of a current administration with the hopes of a potential new one. It was also about a new type of campaigning where pre-Obama speakers sought text responses to campaign talking points to harvest cell phone numbers for future use.  One of several such requests brought more than 30,000 responses in just a few minutes.

We can only hope that this week’s Republican National Convention and the Democrat’s gathering next week are positive and fruitful events, not “like a nine-day plane crash” as such meetings were once described. 

“Its decisions are as irrevocable as a haircut. Yet the convention isn’t even mentioned in the Constitution or in any law passed by Congress. In this sense, it might be described as the most unofficial official (or official unofficial) gathering in politics.” — David Brinkley.


Jim Spehar may watch the Republican and Democratic conventions, but only for their entertainment value. Your comments are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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