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GOP parley still news even if pols script roles

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© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000

It is fashionable to say that political conventions do not matter anymore, because we know far in advance which candidate the party is going to nominate for president.

It also is fashionable to say that there is "no news" at modern conventions because they are "staged."

Yet the Republican National Convention, which begins tonight in Philadelphia, and the Democratic National Convention next month in Los Angeles are still events of great importance. I plan to watch and hope you do, too.

"Watching" does not mean, by the way, listening to the yammering of the anchors and correspondents of the traditional networks. They think their words are more important than anything actually being said in the hall.

Besides, the networks are devoting less time than ever to conventions this year. Why reward them for abandoning their public service? Lucky for us, we also have public television, more cable networks than ever, the Internet, and not to mention, at the risk of horn-tooting, newspapers.

If you think the media are always slanting the story, then go get the story yourself. It's right at your fingertips.

This will be the sixth time our Republican friends have held their convention in Philadelphia. The first time in Philly -- and the young anti-slavery party's first ever -- was in 1856. They passed over a young guy from Illinois named Lincoln for vice president.

The last time the Grand Old Party convened in Philadelphia was in 1948. The nominee was Thomas Dewey, whom everybody figured would cream hapless Harry Truman that fall. You know how that one turned out. By the way, Dewey's running mate that year was a good Republican governor from California named . . . Earl Warren.

To get rid of "smoke-filled rooms" and party bosses, over the decades both the Republicans and the Democrats have chosen more and more of their convention delegates in primary elections. That means we have taken part of the drama away too. We all know that Gov. George W. Bush of Texas is going to be nominated.

But that still is pretty big news. Isn't the formal nomination of the Republican presidential candidate (and, if current polls hold, the next president of the United States) worth a little attention?

It will be the first time a lot of Americans will be tuned in. I have said many times, Americans are not dumb, but they are busy, and do not like to waste time listening to politicians before their time. That is the point of this week. It is getting to be time.

It has to be newsworthy that 4,132 of the nation's most active Republicans -- the delegates and alternates -- are gathered in one place to hash out their party's platform and policies. A lot of them are our governors and senators, members of Congress, county commissioners and tax collectors -- or future candidates for those offices.

Even the carefully selected speeches, which the media love to hate, are worth something. They are the public persona of the Republican Party, the party's best foot forward. They get to have their say, don't they?

I want to see Laura Bush and Colin Powell. I want to get a gander at this Condoleezza Rice, the foreign-policy adviser everybody is talking about. I definitely want to hear the speeches of John McCain, Dick Cheney and, of course, Bush on Thursday night. It'll probably be the most important speech of his life so far. 'Scuse me for wanting to see it even though it's "staged."

Besides, no matter how well-scripted the convention, something always happens to jazz it up. The prostitution arrest of Clinton adviser Dick Morris certainly added spice to Chicago in 1996. So did Pat Buchanan's fiery call for a morality war in 1992 in Houston. You never know. At any rate, since they are waging democracy in the city where the whole country got started, it seems sort of ungrateful, even unpatriotic, not to pay at least passing attention.

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