Those Were the Days, My Friends

With all the hoopla surrounding the start of the Democratic National Convention, it’s nice to be brought back to earth by a real veteran. Curtis Wilkie has covered seven presidential campaigns for The Boston Globe, and he weighed in on Sunday with what the politically correct call “institutional memory,” and everybody else calls wisdom.

Wilkie describes in wonderful detail the 1956 Democratic Convention, when party infighting over the vice presidential nominee “preempted soap operas” and “wound up with a perfect marriage of television and politics, demonstrating the power of the new medium to convey a raw, unrehearsed event to a national audience.”

But that was then and this is now, and as for 2004, writes Wilkie, “drama has been drained out of the political conventions. Instead of choosing their nominees in the combustible heat of a summer gathering of delegates, both parties rely on winter and spring primaries to decide.”

He continues: “Ironically, the dictates of the great god TV have helped rob conventions of the very spontaneity that created such wonderful theater [in 1956]. Democrats were never noted for order or punctuality, but the absence of these characteristics gave their conventions a certain je ne sais quoi. In 1972, as antiwar sentiment roiled the floor, Edward M. Kennedy and George McGovern delivered stirring speeches to their faithful at hours much closer to dawn than nightfall. It was not prime time, but it was memorable.”

And what has transpired since then?

Wilkie concludes: “It is a measure of how far conventions have fallen that the last suspenseful moment came at the 1980 Republican convention when Ronald Reagan briefly considered making Gerald Ford his running mate. And that the last memorable burst of spontaneous cheering erupted at the 1988 Democratic convention when a grown-up Bill Clinton declared that his interminable keynote address was nearing its conclusion.”

Memo to 2004 convention journalists: Read this and realize what’s missing.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.