It’s no wonder the television networks opted to cut back their coverage of the party conventions. These days they’re so scripted that one might mistake them for infomercials.
Still, there are those occasional unscripted moments, like the Clint Eastwood episode at the Republican National Convention. Bizarre is a good word to describe it, and sadly entertaining. I doubt it did the Romney-Ryan ticket much good.
I’m a big Eastwood fan — not the “Dirty Harry” Eastwood but the moviemaker Eastwood. But that doesn’t qualify him as any sort of expert on politics. His performance in Tampa was a good reminder that celebrity status brings nothing of substance to a political stage.
Besides, if you placed his empty chair routine up against the Democratic convention’s use of Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” song after President Obama’s speech, the Boss wins it hands down.
Former President Bill Clinton was so well scripted that he appeared to be speaking off the cuff. Of course, he wasn’t. He had a well-crafted, preapproved speech, and he skillfully sounded as if he were speaking from a stump instead of the convention podium. If every speaker at the conventions had his oratory skills, maybe it all wouldn’t seem so sanitized.
Of course, the Democrats are as bad as the Republicans at scripting their convention to fit their message, but I think they’ve had to work harder at it through the years. It’s a more diverse party, so it’s harder to get everyone marching in lockstep. This year, however, it was the Republicans who struggled to stay on message. I think it was because of an overall lack of enthusiasm for Mitt Romney. A lot of Republicans had to “settle” with this year’s nominee.
Have you ever noticed that the GOP nominee is almost always the second-place finisher four or eight years earlier? In the race for the Republican nomination, Romney came in second behind John McCain four years ago, and McCain won the nomination only after coming in behind George W. Bush eight years earlier. “Dubya,” however, was an exception, having won the nomination (and the election) on his first try in 2000. Before that, however, the Republicans put up Bob Dole in 1996 (second to George H.W. Bush in 1988), “Bush the First” in 1988 (second to Ronald Reagan in 1980), and Reagan in ‘80 after he’d nipped at Gerald Ford’s heels in 1976.
On the Democratic side, there’s no such pattern — I mean, who expected Barack Obama in 2008 or Bill Clinton in 1992? It’s more of a free-for-all with the Democrats.
The fact is, nominating conventions used to be organizational in nature; now they’re message machines. Once, official platforms were put through the ringer. Now, it’s all a part of a campaign’s spin cycle. And the national media, dang ‘em, gleefully play along.
In 1996, I got to cover a national convention. Yes, it too was carefully choreographed, but I remember it fondly anyway.
I wasn’t working for a big-time newspaper; I was a general assignment reporter at the Log Cabin Democrat, a daily in Conway, Ark. Normally a paper that size wouldn’t send anyone to such a national show, but since Clinton was a favorite son for the state, I was able to talk my publisher into sending me. After promising to file a story and a column every day, and to live off a barebones per diem, I was off to Chicago for a week.
It was hard work but loads of fun. The fun was mostly when I went “off-script” — drinking at a bar with fellow journalists, getting a tour of the Chicago Tribune by a cousin who worked there. Those were fun diversions indeed.
I also remember Jesse Jackson’s thundering speech as I sat, against the rules, about 10 feet in front of him on the convention floor, and another day when I crossed the barricades to interview protesters being kept at bay by Chicago police.
Writing the usual stories about the convention itself, however, wasn’t so great. It was, well, too scripted. As a result, I don’t remember writing anything particularly insightful for my readers back home (though I was proud of my column about the protesters).
Of course, my one great ambition at the convention was to get an interview with President Clinton himself, hoping against hope that he’d grant a fellow homeboy five minutes of his time. I pushed for the interview by way of a couple of his old friends who were Arkansas delegates, but even they had a hard time gaining access to the President of the United States.
Seems he’d outgrown our small and intimate state and just didn’t have the time. Besides, I wasn’t in the script.
Tom McDonald is editor and publisher of the Optic. He may be reached at 505-425-6796, ext. 237, or email@example.com