Watching the Big Show on the Small Screen

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday August 28, 2008 - 09:31:00 AM

We’ve taken to watching major news events on the Internet, on the biggish screen of my desktop computer. This has two advantages. The most obvious one is that we don’t currently have a working TV. I know, I deserve to have my official media membership card lifted on the spot for being dangerously out of touch.  

But really, it’s the television networks which are out of step, not me. Most of what they’ve offered for the last five years, both broadcast and cable, is dreck and more dreck. Some dramatic series are possible exceptions, but as soon as they’re over we can rent them and watch them at our leisure. There’s even a splendid little gizmo now that projects computer-generated images—even from DVDs—on any handy blank wall, making for jolly outdoor movie events of a summer’s evening. 

We just saw the circa-1935 Petrified Forest film, with Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart and an amazingly youthful Bette Davis, at the Cerrito Theater in El Cerrito, as a benefit for the Masquers’ Playhouse current production of the stage version. That big screen version was luxurious, but it would have been great at home too. Big-screen TVs are expensive and occupy a lot of space when you’re not watching them, but old movies aren’t quite right on small screens. The computer projector is the perfect compromise. 

The smaller screen of my computer is fine for political coverage, which is mostly talking heads. The second advantage of watching news on the computer, even if you own a TV, is that you can madly switch around checking out livelier websites during the dull parts, and even check your e-mail from time to time.  

If the current news is a convention, there couldn’t be a better solution. Conventions, in case you haven’t noticed, have lots of dull moments these days. That’s a bitter pill for me to swallow.  

In my family when I was growing up, conventions outranked the Olympics by a wide margin as avidly consumed periodic television spectaculars. They were loaded with drama. 

My earliest convention memory, from 1952, was of a very small round screen with a lot of people gathered around it. The Republican convention had my grandfather rooting for Robert Taft, the conservative’s conservative in the old respectable sense of the word, and everyone else in the room rooting against him for Ike. The Democrats that year featured a life-and-death struggle between the valiant coonskin-capped populist Estes Kefauver, who lost after coming into the convention far ahead in the primaries, and the suave, urbane Adlai Stevenson, who won the nomination battle but lost the war in November. Great theater. Terrific speeches. 

Today’s conventions also feature good speeches, but in between they’re padded with lots of other stuff that’s frankly dull as dishwater. Who’s the audience for a segment showing a bubble-gum band, genre unknown, and lots of oddly-hatted middle-aged ladies trying to shimmy for the cameras in time with the drum machine? (I can mock them since I’m one myself, but don’t you dare try it!) 

But the speeches, the speeches! Some could put you to sleep, but others could break your heart.  

Seeing Caroline Kennedy gave me the same pleasure I get from encountering the grown children of now-dead friends, recognizing a familiar smile or a prominent nose handed down from their parents. She’s one of Those Kennedys all right, I’d know her anywhere. 

And her Uncle Teddy, whom she introduced? The first time I saw Uncle Teddy was in a converted laundromat on Shattuck, opening the Berkeley headquarters for his brother Jack in 1960. My roommate’s boyfriend Dave skipped the event, saying “If I want to see an Irish mug like that, I can look in the mirror when I’m shaving.”  

Teddy’s Irish mug, like his Irish heart, has held up pretty well all these years, and his Irish voice was in fine fettle on Monday. Yes, OK, I admit it, I shed a few furtive tears watching him carry it on, as did my Irish daughter who wasn’t even born before his brothers died. The Irish poet Yeats said that “too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart,” but Teddy Kennedy’s heart is still beating in sympathy with everyone who needs his help. 

This week, it was Barack Obama. Sen. Edward Kennedy, presente! In case anyone at the convention doubted it, Teddy wanted to tell them himself that electing Barack Obama will be the best way to carry the work forward after the last of the older generation of fighters has gone. 

Watching the speeches on my computer had an odd third benefit. Some setting or other caused the convention image to fade every few minutes, to be replaced by my screen-saver slide show, a collection of photos, mostly of my granddaughters.  

The anticipated purpose of Michelle Obama’s speech was to place the Obamas firmly in the realm of Everyfamily, not odd or exotic, not even super-smart (though they are), but just plain folks. All that virtue on parade did seem like a bit too much of a good thing after a while, though.  

She looks like a strong, salty woman, and I’d bet that when she’s at home she’s more direct and less smarmy. But she had a job to do, and she did it well. Mimicking the current parental style, you’d have to tell her “Good job, Michelle!” Or as Dubya would have it, “Mission Accomplished.”  

Having my own girls pop up on the screen from time to time provided a nice shift of focus. Politics is more fun for some of us than sports, but politics also has, as they say, a higher purpose. For me, those kids and the world they will inherit are central to why we’re going to all this trouble, and that’s a concept Michelle Obama seems to share. 

In my on-screen slideshow, the granddaughter whose ancestors came from Africa and Asia as well as Europe wears her Cleopatra costume for Halloween. I’d hoped that she might become, if not Queen of Egypt, the first U.S. president of African descent, but it looks like Barack will beat her to it, and good for him.  

One of her cousins is shown cradling her violin, and the other is doing acrobatics in a kids’ backyard circus. I remembered when I saw them that I shook hands with Dr. Martin Luther King at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, when I was pregnant with their mother—maybe they’ve inherited some special blessing because I did. Seeing them on the screen, I hoped that their future world will have time for pleasure as well as for politics, that it will be filled with song, not burdened with strife. 

The dialogue featuring the Obama girls at the end of Michelle’s speech reminded me once again of my own grandkids. The older one, Malia, has inherited her father’s million-dollar smile and her mother’s regal poise, and like my oldest granddaughter she seems conscious of the expectations adults have for her. Seven-year-old Sasha, playfully milking her moment of microphone access to the fullest, could have been a dark-skinned clone of my roguish blonde diva granddaughter of the same age, always ready for the spotlight.  

Corny? Sure. Staged? Maybe. So what?  

All in all, a pretty good show. Not as exciting as the 1952 floor fights, but it had its moments. At our house, we loved it.  

And then there was Hillary. No one could ask for more than she gave in her speech on Tuesday. There were no obvious punches pulled, no wink-wink nudge-nudge.  

She showed herself to be a real, 100 percent gold-plated trooper, not a quiver in her stiff upper lip as she touted Barack Obama. But then, she’d have to be tough, wouldn’t she, to put up with philandering Bill all these years?  

He was shown on camera from time to time as she talked, mugging and rolling his eyes. Bill’s own moment in the sun was scheduled for Wednesday, after the Planet’s deadline. Let’s hope he behaved himself.