Generally speaking, modern political conventions have turned into boring, week-long infomercials designed to "energize the base" of the two major parties while reinventing their respective candidates as political moderates.
Judging from the network TV ratings of the Democratic Convention in Boston last week, many voters weren't buying into what the party was selling. And the same thing will probably happen during the Republican Convention in New York City next month.
In the olden days, 30 or 40 years ago, political conventions were fun to watch because that's where presidential candidates were chosen and where party platforms were first debated in "smoke-filled rooms" and, finally, in public. I vividly remember conventions where no one knew who the candidate would be at the end of the proceedings. There was the 1960 Democratic Convention, for example, where senators John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas were contending for the presidential nomination. Kennedy narrowly won the nomination while LBJ, somewhat surprisingly, became his vice presidential running mate.
By contrast, this year's Democratic Convention was carefully choreographed to present a happy, moderate image to TV-viewers by crushing dissent and keeping notorious Bush-haters like Al Franken, Michael Moore and potty-mouthed Whoopi Goldberg off the podium. The staged event began last Monday with Bill and Hillary Clinton playing their own version of "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better," and proclaiming Bill - a gifted politician and public speaker - as the greatest American president of the 20th century. We also heard toned-down speeches from Al Gore and Howard Dean.
The extreme makeover continued Wednesday and Thursday as senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, two of the four most liberal members of the U.S. Senate, attempted to present themselves as mainstream politicians with Middle American values. If they can sell that makeover to the voters, they deserve to be elected president and vice president, respectively, in November.
In order to win, however, Kerry and Edwards will have to prove that they're as tough on defense and national security as President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. As Roger Cohen wrote in the New York Times last week, "If he (Kerry) cannot persuade Americans he will keep them safe, his chances of winning in a country transformed by the Sept. 11 terror attacks will be much diminished." I'd go even further and say Kerry's chances will be between slim and none if he fails to enunciate a clear policy on defense and national security.
"A tough foreign policy is not an easy sell for the Democrats," Cohen wrote. "They have often struggled since Vietnam to articulate a unified position or have tried to ignore the issue in favor of domestic themes." A clever "It's the economy, stupid" strategy worked for ex-President Clinton against President Bush's father in 1992 but it simply won't work this year in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
On Tuesday, I was favorably impressed by two convention speakers: Keynoter Barack Obama, a 42-year-old African-American state senator from Illinois who will be elected to the U.S. Senate in November, and Kerry's foreign-born (in Mozambique) wife, Theresa.
Obama, the new face of American politics, is the son of a black farmer from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas. On Tuesday, he talked of how his father grew up herding goats in Kenya and went to school in a tin-roof shack, and acknowledged how fortunate he was to have grown up in Hawaii. His is a very American story that demonstrates the positive benefits of legal immigration.
"There is not a liberal America or a conservative America," Obama declared in his electrifying keynote address, "but a United States of America." Amen, brother. If golf champion Tiger Woods identifies himself as a "Cablinasian," then Obama is a "Cablinafrican." But what does it matter? As he said, we're all Americans.
As for Ms. Heinz-Kerry, I liked the direct way she delivered her opinions and defended her husband. If Sen. Kerry was a straight-talker like his wife, he'd have a better chance of winning in November. She doesn't seem to sugar-coat her opinions or flip-flop on the issues, like he does all too often.
Sen. Edwards, who honed his public speaking skills as a high-powered trial lawyer, brought his audience to its feet on Wednesday with a "Hope is on the way" speech. And during a strong acceptance speech on Thursday evening, Sen. Kerry spoke much more about his heroic service in Vietnam than about his 20-year Senate career. That's because he'll spend the next three months running away from an ultra-liberal, anti-military Senate voting record.
The challenge for senators Kerry and Edwards, two privileged multi-millionaires (as are Bush and Cheney), is to convince a majority of American voters that they're tough on terrorism and really understand the hardships faced by working families. And if they can, they're going to give the Republicans a run for their money in November.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.