Detroit — It sounded the same, it looked the same, it smelled the same -- but it was not the same. Looking down from the dizzying heights of the southwest corner of the Joe Louis Arena at the Republican National Convention that is out to save the nation from the despicable Democrats, a reporter noted the jammed grandstands, the deafening music, the banners, the bunting, and the program that included the Saginairies drum and bugle corps (128 boys and girls ranging in age from 11 to 21).
Yes, everything was running true to form in one of the gaudiest folk carnivals that America has invented. The 10,000 members of the news media, including Karen Schadow and Diane Cates, who wrestle a 50-pound ABC camera and battery pack in competition with their male rivals, after days of waiting finally seemed to have something real to cover. Former President Gerald Ford was just ready to make the big speech of the opening day.
But the veteran observer of such affairs, whose experience predates the electronic-media era, found something missing.
It was not just that photographers do not use flash pans anymore and that even bulbs now are yielding to portable klieg lights; it was not that interminable candidates' parades around the hall like competitive Indian war dances are discontinued to save television time; no, it was not that convention halls are air-conditioned today, ending the inconceivable heat, smoke, and stench that made the misty upper balcony gallery crowd in Philadelphia stamping "We want Willkie" look like a distant swarm of hiving bees clinging to the rafters.
What then is lacking in Detroit?Why, nothing much -- just suspense! It is a sporting event with only one runner in the race.
In the past it has been dull like that when an incumbent president was certain to be renominated, and they had to fill in the convention crevices with make-believe. FDR's three renominations come to mind.
But in this year, in the troubled city of Detroit, with the triple dangers of unemployment, inflation, and foreign aggression agitating the nation, the mechanism of the new primary system has let us know weeks in advance that Ronald Reagan would be nominated. In the old days all those rival candidacies with different styles and panaceas would contest to the final electrifying minute on the convention floor. This year, the Republicans have skillfully husbanded their only suspenseful resource, the vice-presidency, and spread the uncertainty for as long as they can.
It is an important job; yet never have so many speculated so much over so little.
There is suspense in Detroit, but it is of a different kind. It does not lend itself to electronic media. It cannot be easily visualized.
The suspense is not one of personalities but of deeper drama. Has the United States really taken a swing to the right, as the Republican dignitaries assert? A current poll puts Reagan ahead of Carter 39 to 31 percent, with the independent, John Anderson, getting 21 percent. This will certainly change one way or another.
Walking down to the convention city from my motel, I pass a dealer's parking lot filled bumper to bumper with big, unsold Cadillacs. Detroit overstayed in the market on big cars like these, and now 1 in 3 auto workers is out of work. The city is in desperate financial straits, and the mayor has just settled a strike that had left garbage in the streets.
On the eve of the convention, Teamsters shut down the Detroit Free Press, which had spent 14 months and a million or two dollars in preparation for its opening convention edition. Ardent Democrat Douglas Fraser, head of the politically conscious United Auto Workers, has been meeting with some of the GOP dignitaries, admitting that the big domestic issue in this election is "jobs, jobs, jobs," and that the Republicans have the issue, not the Democrats.
Can the Republicans really broaden their appeal? They could not win a majority in Congress even when they elected Richard Nixon. Dwight Eisenhower, too, faced a Democratic Congress for most of his two terms. Can they reverse this now? The Republicans have shown an amazing insensitivity to blacks in their selection of delegates. Only 2.8 percent of them are black, less than in 1976.
In the theatrical performance of a presidential drama, the party has turned to a former motion-picture actor, who offers a range of surprisingly simple solutions to a series of staggeringly complex problems. He is attractive. Is his the message the nation wants to hear?
The band crashes, the bunting moves in the updraft of the splendid ventilating system, the galleries watch the delegates below, ranged before the big speakers' island across from the television towers.The oratory is the most familiar thing in the affair and the connecting link between generations of conventions.
In such a convention speech, Franklin Roosevelt nominated Al Smith, "The Happy Warrior" -- and made himself famous; in such a speech, Gen. Douglas MacArthur flopped and was not heard from politically again. On one occasion, unknown, 36-year-old William Jennings Bryan cited the "Cross of Gold" and thereafter was nominated for president himself.
On the keynote address of Rep. Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan and the acceptance speech of former Governor Reagan himself, the success of the party depends. The tension turns on whether they have guesses the mood of the country accurately in their conservative platform and right-of-center candidate. The huge crowd turns to listen again, and the TV audience watches.