Bring Back the Good Old Days!

Time was that political conventions throbbed with excitement and uncertainty. Political activists from across the nation would jam themselves into damp meeting halls and argue endlessly about which candidates ought to carry the party banner into a presidential election; they also wrangled furiously over what policies their party ought to advocate.

Unfortunately, those traditions began to wither away a half-century ago, and now, they’re d-e-a-d. The last faint whiffs of back-room electioneering faded in 1980, when Ronald Reagan reportedly was wooing former president Gerald Ford as a running mate. There wasn’t much to the rumor, but the talk of a Reagan-Ford ticket created a certain stir in Detroit, where Republicans had gathered to coronate the man who would become the most consequential Republican president since Abraham Lincoln.

By the same token, the last big fight over policy took place in 1988, when Republicans gathered in New Orleans. That platform battle, which I covered in excruciating detail, featured one notable fight. Delegates to the convention wanted to advocate term limits for members of Congress. Needless to say, members of Congress weren’t so crazy about the idea. So they debated. Rep. Guy Molinari argued patiently and somewhat patronizingly that Republicans needed to build strength in the House of Representatives – they hadn’t run the place in decades – and that “seasoned” politicians knew how to get things done. Uppity delegates had different ideas, however, and they let the poor guy have it. He got hammered by housewives and lawyers wearing monogrammed shirts; he took live fire from farmers and captains of industry. When the clerk placed the motion before the committee, 98 Republicans voted for term limits. Only Guy Molinari and one other member of Congress voted nay. It was priceless.

Unfortunately, we won’t get any fireworks here in Boston – or in New York, where the GOP will meet next month. Both parties have picked their vice-presidential candidates. Both have given up on platforms – or, more precisely, they have chosen to write copy so tepid that no sane person would bother to read it. This leaves conventioneers in the weird position of having to mark time for three days just so they can attend the one newsworthy event of the entire conclave – the nominee’s acceptance speech.

The result is a gathering most notable for late night parties and soirees, which help delegates figure out where they stand in the broad scheme of things. Who got invited to Harold Ford’s hot party? How about the Clinton bash? If you want to find out what most incites Democrats’ passions, forget about John Kerry. Think Jon Bon Jovi!

And finally, there’s this: Conventions used to give gave parties a chance to subject candidates to withering and remorseless scrutiny, so party elders might avoid putting a complete idiot up for review by the American public. Now, however, conventions serve as an occasion to put on blinders – to cover up past misdeeds by the nominee and try to persuade the public that even the most flawed hack actually bears traces of greatness that would leave Washington and Lincoln themselves limp with jealous awe.

So there you have it: A bazillion journalists have hit Boston, searching desperately for a story. If it were the good old days, we wouldn’t have to worry, but now we’re forced to use each and every scrap of our imagination to find something – anything! – worthy of a bored public’s attention.

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