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Scripted insignificance

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000


PHILADELPHIA -- What a pity actor Mel Gibson couldn't make it to the Republican National Convention.

Just as Gibson starred in a summer movie blockbuster, The Patriot, that offered an historically specious, soap opera version of the American Revolution, he would have been a perfect character to play a leading role at a GOP gathering that only vaguely resembles a real national political convention.

To be sure, Gibson was invited, along with hundreds of other movie actors, rock stars and fresh political faces whose presence is supposed to encourage television viewers to watch what plainly is a political meeting without a purpose.

As both the Republican and Democratic parties prepare to hold their quadrennial conventions -- the GOP beginning Monday here in the cradle of American independence, and the Democrats out in Los Angeles, where democracy met the television age, starting Aug. 14 -- the question arises: Why bother?

All of the major functions that once occupied these gatherings -- choosing a presidential nominee, choosing a vice presidential nominee, writing a party platform -- are no longer performed at the conventions. Instead, each party will spend millions of dollars, some of it straight out of the U.S. Treasury, in a losing battle for TV ratings.

Political scientists and historians will tell you that conventions still serve a purpose -- albeit a less obvious one. Donald A. Ritchie, associate U.S. Senate historian, says the conventions offer an opportunity for the two major parties to coalesce behind their nominee.

"Our two major parties have many divisions within them," Ritchie notes. "The conventions give them an opportunity for these various groups to find common ground. There is a point at which "the big tent' has to come together and the conventions serve that purpose. It's a unifying event."

Ritchie, by the way, is not attending either convention this year. That makes him a reliable source. He is not just expounding on the virtues of the convention to justify a hefty expense account. That's what many journalists, consultants and lobbyists will be doing after all the red, white and blue balloons have burst and the convention halls have been swept clean of the crepe paper debris that is a byproduct of democratic decisionmaking.

Another oft-stated reason for continuing the tradition of political conventions into the 21st century is something known as "the bounce." This is an anticipated jump in poll ratings that presidential nominees normally experience immediately following conventions.

No one has ever explained why "the bounce" occurs if so few people are paying attention to the conventions. In recent years, the broadcast networks have severely limited their coverage of the proceedings, both responding to and hastening a lack of interest in the conventions among viewers.

Yet "the bounce" has been dependable, causing a jump in popularity of sometimes as much as 8 percentage points for a lesser-known candidate. In fact, many experts think "the bounce" was the reason that George Bush won the presidency in 1988 and Bill Clinton won in 1992. According to the National Election Studies at the University of Michigan, an average of 22 percent of voters make their choice during this period.

The key to creating "the bounce," media experts say, is a good acceptance speech by the nominee.

Even with reduced television coverage, the audience this year for the speeches by Republican nominee George W. Bush and his Democratic counterpart, Al Gore, are certain to be the largest audience either one of them will command during the entire election year. Predictably, both men have been working on their speeches for months.

Another hallowed part of the program is the now standard biographical film -- the most memorable being The Man from Hope, which was broadcast at the 1992 Democratic convention to introduce the public to Clinton.

What is not widely known is that these biographical films are now produced largely with taxpayer funds. Under the fiction that the presidential election is still funded entirely with money collected by the Internal Revenue Service from the so-called "check-off" on everyone's income tax return, the government will give each party $13.5-million this year to finance their convention.

Even though this money is not supposed to be spent on partisanship, the Federal Election Commission allows it to be spent for the purpose of making a biographical video.

Every four years, however, the notion that these are conventions paid for by the taxpayers grows a little dimmer. Public funds do not even begin to cover the cost of these extravaganzas.

To supplement public funding, the so-called "host committees" in Philadelphia and Los Angeles have persuaded many big corporations such as AT&T, Motorola and General Motors to contribute a minimum of $1-million in cash and services that do not count against the expenditure limits placed on the campaigns under federal law.

Both Bush and Gore have chosen to introduce their choice for running mate prior to the conventions this year. This is a relatively new practice designed to avoid the terrible pummeling that then-Sen. Dan Quayle, R-Ind., received when he was plucked from obscurity by future President George Bush at the 1988 GOP convention.

Ritchie says the decision announced this week by Bush's son to tap former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was clearly intended to avoid a repeat of the 1988 experience. "I'm sure that sitting around the fire on a cold winter night, George W. learned something about that from his father," he said.

Political issues will not be debated at the conventions -- at least not in prime time. Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative magazine, Weekly Standard, says Philadelphia "is going to be an issue-free zone" in the coming week. The party platforms are crafted by fiat and dissent will be hard to find under the roof of the convention halls.

There was a time when party leaders were entitled to deliver speeches of their choosing, but those days are gone too. All of the speeches are now written or heavily edited by a host of young party professionals who inhabit a warren of small temporary offices hidden underneath the platform. These are the folks who enforce "The Official Script" -- a minute-by-minute plan of events for all four days of the convention.

According to that script, each night of the convention has a designated theme.

The GOP themes are "Opportunity with a Purpose: Leave No Child Behind," "Strength and Security With a Purpose: Safe in our Homes and In the World," "Prosperity with a Purpose: Keeping America Prosperous and Protecting Retirement Security," and "President with a Purpose: A Strong Leader Who Can Unite our Country and Get Things Done."

The Democratic themes are equally expansive: "Prosperity and Progress," "New Heights: You Ain't seen Nothing Yet," "Al Gore: The Principled Fighter," and "Al Gore's Vision for the Future."

Some of the most clever political minds in American politics helped to write those phrases.

The faces that appear on the television screen during these conventions also are chosen to send a subliminal message about the tenor of the party and the nominee. Here's where Mel Gibson would have been some help to the GOP.

As Republican speakers, Sen. John McCain and former Joint Chiefs head Colin Powell were no-brainers. There will also be speakers the viewers have barely heard of, such as Condoleezza Rice, a poised African-American woman who serves as Bush's foreign policy adviser.

But don't expect to see the face of the GOP's most controversial guy, House Majority Whip Tom Delay, R-Texas, in prime time.

In Los Angeles, the star of stars will be President John F. Kennedy's glamorous daughter, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. And don't be surprised if there is a mention or two of her late brother, John F. Kennedy Jr.

Although the Official Script is intended to eliminate surprises, that does not mean there won't be a few unscripted events, both on and off the podium.

In 1996, for example, the big news that dominated the Democratic Convention in Chicago was a tabloid story about the sexual exploits of Clinton strategist Dick Morris with a high-priced call girl.

The truth is that most of the thousands of people who will attend these conventions are not going there for any high-minded purpose. Most of them seem to share the motivations of Charlie Cook, a respected political analyst who goes primarily to see old friends and meet new ones.

"In that respect," Cook wrote recently, "Philadelphia and Los Angeles won't be much different from conventions of hardware-store owners or electrical engineers: The thrill is in reliving old times, networking and learning a thing or two."

Many people attend the conventions to make a statement, but not necessarily on the podium. A group known as American Renewal, for example, will hand out bars of soap on Monday as a way of saying, "it's time for Americans to take a bath and wash away Clinton."

And there will be protesters, of course. Filmmaker John Waters was quoted as saying that he's "hoping to see some good riot fashions."

But historian Ritchie cautions us against idealizing the rough-and-tumble conventions of the past.

He recalls that during the 1952 Republican Convention, when Dwight D. Eisenhower and Robert A. Taft were vying for the nomination, the American public's attention was focused on something else they considered to be every bit as important: The birth of Ricky Jr. on I Love Lucy.

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