Notes of a 22-Time Conventioneer

After attending my 22nd national political convention, I came away with the conviction that while television may be abandoning these gatherings, they still are getting the job done.

Their main job now, as it always has been, is to select someone to carry the party's banner into the election that follows. That's it. It was never set up to be entertainment. Nor is it written in any of the party's rules that conventions are supposed to be exciting.

We are a young country and still struggling with the best way to pick political leaders who truly represent the wishes of the voters. It's my view that the closer the parties have been getting to truly representing their constituents, the tamer the conventions have become. Conventions were raucous and exciting when the party bosses - often ignoring the desires of the voters - came out of smoke-filled rooms with their decision on who the nominee would be.

But as both the Democratic and Republican parties have turned more and more to the state primaries to select their presidential nominees, this more representative process often is making it clear, well before the conventions arrive, who those nominees will be.

I admit that both conventions this year were pretty much cut and dried. But the delegates did struggle over their platforms. And while the candidates these days aren't very attentive to what their platforms say, the voters do want to know where the respective parties stand - particularly on such sensitive issues as abortion and drugs. Also, many delegates had a chance to have their say. That's important, too.

And some interesting things did happen. The choice of Jack Kemp as Bob Dole's running mate added a lot of zing to the GOP convention. Then Mrs. Dole's speech caused even the cynical TV anchor people to indicate they were being entertained.

The Democratic convention in Chicago was, indeed, something of a coronation. But is that enough for TV to continue its pout, begun at the GOP affair in San Diego, and keep declaring over and over again what a dull convention it was?

WE - and particularly the TV people - forget that we have had coronations in the past that everyone seemed to feel were worthwhile and even exciting. When Franklin Roosevelt sought the nomination again and again, we all knew it was a "done deal." The bosses in the cities and states knew they had a winner in FDR. They would see to it that nothing would stand in the way of his renomination.

Dwight Eisenhower's renomination was all set before the convention. And as the balloons went up and the cheering and marching went on and on at the convention when Ike's name was brought up, we all knew that it was choreographed to a certain extent. But we all loved watching the celebration.

Maybe the problem with conventions is a problem we all have today. Maybe we're fed so much entertainment on TV these days that we've all turned into tough critics of what we see. We demand freshness, creativity - or we turn off the program. I think we are applying this same requirement to the political conventions. And it simply isn't fair. Conventions are there to get their job done - sometimes interesting and sometimes dull and sometimes even apparently useless. And that's it.

And even with the increasing number of primaries often deciding who the nominee will be before conventions take place, this isn't always so. Remember 1976 when Ronald Reagan and President Ford were locked in a frantic bid for delegates into the GOP convention, with Mr. Ford finally beating out his adversary by only a narrow margin?

Indeed, we might see a real convention fight for the nomination four years from now. There will be a wide-open battle for the Democratic nomination. Who says Al Gore won't be involved in a convention fight for delegates? And perhaps the primaries won't settle things for the Republicans either.

Four years from now, there'll be a wide-open battle for the Democratic nomination. Who says Al Gore won't be involved?

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