Editorial: Analyzing the Conventional Wisdom by Becky O’Malley

Friday August 06, 2004

One last convention retrospective, and then we’ll get down to business again. Many of the publications we read, including this one, have devoted a lot of space to analyzing the effect of the recent Democratic gathering on the political landscape. We have, however, missed getting a comment from the one person whose opinion would be most relevant: our theater critic. So I’ll just usurp her job for a moment and take a quick look at the spectacle formerly known as the Democratic National Convention. 

The Romans had a formula for keeping the masses in line: bread and circuses. Here in Northern California we’re definitely fixated on getting the best possible bread, and many of us love our circuses too. Circuses, though, have changed. The rowdy and raw circu ses of my youth, under canvas with pick-up bands, have become slickly choreographed productions with nary a hair out of place. The ultimate high-production-values circuses like Cirque du Soleil and Cavalia have substituted oohs and aahs at the lovely cost umes and elegant lighting for gasps of anxiety over apparent near misses on the high wire. Or at least that’s what I hear, because I’ve never been motivated to spend the time or money to see these events, after I took in the sanitized Ringling show at the Coliseum and was bored to tears.  

The new conventions are in the same category. The choreography is smoother every time, and for those who enjoy seeing flawless execution of well-done scripts they are probably entertaining. Las Vegas still draws big cro wds of seemingly admiring people for its shows. But I remember the days when conventions were more like sporting events, with winners and losers, and you didn’t know which was which until they were all over. Now that was exciting. 

Pundits have been shaking their heads over the big networks’ decision to run only three hours of the spectacle conventions, but who can blame them? No matter how flawless the execution, it’s still a show, after all, not a horse race. And as a show it’s notably lacking in plot. 

Much is being made in some quarters over the failure of Kerry to get any post-convention “bounce” in his poll numbers, but why should he? In the past, the sports-event conventions attracted a new audience which had previously not thought much about presi dential politics. Today’s voters, in unusual numbers, have mostly made up their minds—the Democrats weren’t about to change anyone’s vote with what went on at their convention, and the Republicans won’t either.  

In my childhood, everyone, kids and adults, gathered around the radio or the tiny television set for both conventions. In 1952 there were still some Republicans in my family, and I remember a lot of excitement surrounding the contest between Taft and Eisenhower. By the time I was old enough to vo te in 1964 the Democratic nominee was a foregone conclusion, but there was excitement generated by the efforts of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats to be seated at the convention. We went to Atlantic City for a day to support them. I saw Martin Luther Kin g having lunch in a restaurant, and went over to his table and shook his hand. In those pre-security days, we snuck onto the floor and chatted up the official delegates. The Mississippi delegates didn’t make it, and perhaps they never had a chance, even i n those days. 

I do enjoy a good speech, and this year’s Democratic convention had plenty of those. I also enjoy ballet, though it lacks the thrill of the high wire acts in the old shaky circuses. But the Democrats’ Boston ballet didn’t change many hearts and minds, and no reason it should have. Kerry’s built-in support in his natural constituency, thanks to his opponent, is already so high there’s not much room for bounce. 

How high is it? Well, ask the kids to find out. My three-and-a-half year old granddaughter was watching the convention with her mother when John Kerry came on. “He’s funny-looking,” she said. “I don’t like him. What’s he doing?” Her mother said he’s trying to beat George Bush. “Then I do like him,” said the child. 

And that’s not all. I was minding another granddaughter, just past 2 years old, and was looking at a newspaper’s convention coverage. “So,” I said, making small talk. “Who’s going to be president, do you think?” She picked up the paper and flipped through it to find the pic ture she wanted. “He is,” she said pointing. “Who’s he?” I said. “John Kerry!” she said, in a tone of what seemed like thinly veiled contempt at my ignorance. Of course, these girls move in restricted political circles, and can’t be taken as predictors of the final vote count.  

Their grandfather has always claimed that he remembers supporting Wendell Wilkie for president in 1940, when he was not yet 3, because his grandfather did. His grandfather, who was born during the Civil War, was one of the last of the old time real Republicans—he stuck with the Grand Old Party because he was a staunch anti-slavery man, which is what the party stood for in his youth.  

We’re still strongly anti-slavery, but no one on either side of our family has voted for a Republ ican presidential candidate for at least 40 years. The final outcome in November won’t be much affected by politicized families like ours, the ones who still watch part of the conventions for nostalgia’s sake. Because the lines in the sand are so deeply drawn, the race will probably be determined by the choice of a small number of people who don’t pay much attention to politics most of the time, and who probably won’t have watched either convention. And who knows how people like that make up their minds? 


—Becky O’Malley