Boston, Mass.–I read the other day that one of the greatest sources of patent applications is the golf industry. Apparently, inventors are constantly coming up with new ways to make the game easier. Interestingly, the PGA rejects most of these inventions because they would make the game too easy. After all, if any technology were permitted, then we could use radio-controlled robots to hit the ball. That might create unprecedented low scores, but it would defeat the purpose of the game.
On a somewhat different note, one of my favorite stories along these lines comes from Robert Nisbet’s Prejudices. At the outset of World War II, Britain was still scrounging for any weapons adequate to the task of war. They decided to de-mothball a piece of light field artillery that dated back to the Boer War. The five-man crew they also rounded up had a curious system for firing the armament: Precisely three seconds prior to discharging the gun, two of the men would snap to attention until all was silent again. None of the experts or young officers who were consulted could deduce the point of the exercise. Finally they brought in a wizened retired artillery colonel. He watched the exercise for a moment. Then, jarred by an old memory, recognition flickered in his eyes: “I have it. They are holding the horses.”
At this point, you’re probably saying, Okay…so what? And I know the suits at National Review are reading this and asking, “We sent Goldberg to the Democratic Convention for this? We could have saved the airfare and hotel expenses and gotten those satin cocktail umbrellas for the wet bar at the executive villa like we wanted!”
Well, here’s the point. The conventions are sort of like the guys holding the horses that aren’t there anymore. As Michael Barone noted yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, the conventions were originally designed to solve a technological problem as much as anything else. The campaign managers and pols needed to physically meet delegates from around the country in one place so they could broker deals, gauge support, build coalitions, etc. Before telephones, it was almost physically impossible to do these sorts of things with much accuracy or reliability. Besides the inadvisability of putting such things on paper, it was just too hard to put together complex deals with numerous actors across a continental nation. Before polls, phones, the internet, focus groups, etc., the only way to select a candidate was to get everyone together and hash things out.
Technology has made that unnecessary. Similarly, the technology of mass communication has made the delegates into props rather than political protagonists. Sure, rewarding party activists is nice, but if it weren’t for the cameras they’d probably just send those guys a fruit basket and a signed picture of Hillary. The Democrats didn’t even announce their vice-presidential pick here this year. The biggest “news” is that Ronald Reagan “Jr.” is taking time out from doing color commentary at dog shows to exploit the memory of his dead father, and that John Kerry managed to get a picture of himself looking like he ordered the “deluxe” enema at a car wash. Oh, and his wife yelled “shove it” to a reporter. Perhaps she was actually just yelling instructions to the team working on Kerry.
This puts the press, and really the country, in a bind. On one hand there’s a very strong argument for giving the parties one shot to make their best pitch to the country. On the other hand, asking the press to cover something as if it were news when it’s really not is a problem. There are 15,000 journalists here to cover 4,000 delegates. That’s crazy. It reminds me of the time the New York Times reported that there were three rats for every resident in New York City. My Dad responded, “I want to know where my rats are.” Each delegate here could have his or her (or in the case of the Democrats’ transgendered unity, his/her) very own press buddy, and that would still leave over 10,000 journalists to cover the other “news.”
The argument for treating these infomercials as news is a compelling one for a nation with so few national civic traditions, but at the end of the day, you cannot avoid the conclusion that these conventions are a well-orchestrated lie. The balloon drops, the roll calls, the delegation signs, and nominating speeches are little more than rhetorical versions of old soldiers holding the reins of horses that aren’t there. This is the high-tech answer to the “if a tree falls in the woods” question. If the cameras weren’t there to cover them, these conventions would not be taking place. Sure, there might be speeches, but most of the rest would be like so much confetti on the floor after the party.
In golf–or any other game–you can agree on the rules in advance because games by their very nature are not real. We accept that the baseball player must run the bases in a specific order and that football players can tackle opponents but not wallop them with a mallet; and we understand that using a funny stick instead of a giant slingshot is the only acceptable way to propel a golf ball.
But in a free society in which each person is free to do what he wants (more or less)–and in which the press is obliged to tell the truth whenever it can–to demand that customs be artificially propped up by a joint effort of corporate media and the politicians who regulate it is to demand propagandistic political theater, not journalism. That’s a shame, because I think conventions are an institution worth saving. But it will take more than kitschy straw hats and free booze for journalists to keep these things from being Epcot Center democracy.