The Corner

What Conventions Tell Us

 I am spending this GOP convention in upstate New York, without a television. It will be one of the rare conventions of my life that I will not experience in real time, either live or televised.

My list of all-time low moments would include: Guy vander Jagt’s keynote (GOP 1980); Bill Clinton’s keynote (if that’s what it was — it was both awful and eternal, Dems 1988); Libby Dole prowling the arena (GOP 1996); the tribute to Ron Brown (Dems 1996 — complete with Kenny G).

Highlights: the Texas delegation cheering Viva! Ole! over and over for Ronald Reagan (GOP 1976); Mario Cuomo’s keynote (Dems 1984 — overpraised for content, but peerless for delivery: almost alone among politicians he did not stop for applause).

Note: I heard Barry Goldwater in 1964 but was too young to appreciate him, and missed Sarah Palin in 2008.

Special favorites: the roll-calls. “Guam — where America’s day begins!” “New Mexico–land of enchantment!”

All-time favorite: a Libertarian Party convention whose year I forget: “West Virginia, the free enterprise state — we sold ourselves to Jay Rockefeller for $12 million!”

Departed favorite: the cacophony of simultaneous unsynchronized bands. At the Dems in 1988 I heard three from one spot. It was as glorious as Ives’ Fourth Symphony. Now when every note is scored and pumped through mega-Dolbys, a breath of life is lost.

Historical note: The honor of the first presidential nominating convention belongs to the Anti-Masonic Party which met in 1831 to rally for the following year. John Calhoun, Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams all sought their nod, and Chief Justice John Marshall actually attended to check them out, even though he was a Mason himself. The point was to run down Andrew Jackson, also a Mason. The party contested only one election, in which they managed to carry only one state (Vermont). But in addition to the convention ritual, they gave America two useful politicians, William Seward and Thurlow Weed, who later helped break the slave power.

Conventions have long lacked any drama. But I argued in my first book, The Outside Story, that the most important activity of an election year happens in public, in the arguments and appeals that candidates and parties make to the voters. Conventions are thus invaluable opportunities for studying Republicans and Democrats as they wish to be seen.