The DNC does the Oscars

The good folks at csmonitor.com kindly gave me the opportunity to participate in one of the great political events of our time; to make my voice heard; to engage in an important act of public service. But I had already registered to vote, so instead I told them I'd write about the presidential conventions.

Their logic was unassailable: the conventions are on television, they said. You watch television. A lot of television. Why don't you give us your take on the conventions as a television watcher. I responded that as a television watcher, my take was that I wasn't going to watch them at all.

The networks, which we all know are the only true determinants of value and import (through them, for example, I've learned how vital it is to pay close attention to the thoughts of Paris Hilton and to value the contributions of crime scene investigators above almost any other job), have cut down convention coverage to three hours over four days. That seems to suggest how much attention I should pay.

Besides, I said (my voice rising slightly), it wasn't like I was going to learn anything, or see anything interesting or unexpected. What, was I going to wake up on Tuesday, and have my friends say, "Dude, you can't believe it. They nominated Al Sharpton, and you just had to see the look on Kerry's face"?

But then I thought about it: it's not like surprises are necessary to my television enjoyment. When I watch "Law and Order", I never sit on the edge of my seat wondering if this time maybe they'll dispense with the whole courtroom side of things, or if this time Gilligan and Co. are really going to get off the island. It's not about the unexpected; it's about how well the show carries off exactly what you expected.

So I agreed to do it. I sat myself down to watch the prime time coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Boston. And then I realized, of course, that as a television watcher and mass consumer of entertainment, I have to think of all television in terms of other genres or programs. You know - saying something like, this new program is "Seinfeld" set in outer space - that sort of thing.

As I watched, I became gradually aware that I had seen this show before, not in 2000, or 1996, but every year in between, and several times each year - whenever I see the Emmys, or Oscars, or Grammys, or any other of the thousands of awards shows that seem to be cluttering up the airwaves like kudzu with gift bags.

There was the interior, with the soothing primary colors, the massive set pieces, the walls of video screens. There was the somewhat awkward and always vaguely insulting salute to a particular group of distinguished people - in this case, Democratic women senators, who you'd think the Democrats could just honor as, you know, people.

There was the earnest, boring speech that you just have to sit through because they're filling time to excite you for the good stuff (in the Oscars, this role is always taken by the president of the Motion Picture Association of America; here, his part was played by Wisconsin Rep. Tammy Baldwin, whose speech on health care did the trick quite nicely.)

And there were the musical numbers of massively varying quality, from what was described simply as "a choral interlude" to the violin version of "Amazing Grace" to Patti LaBelle, who doesn't quite seem to be exactly a sign that the Democrats are looking to the future, musically speaking. (With all the connections they're supposed to have in the music industry, couldn't they have gotten the Dave Matthews Band?)

Nor should we forget to mention the annoyingly cutesy specific musical play-ins: "Georgia on My Mind" for Jimmy Carter, and "New York State of Mind" for Hillary Clinton. Yes, he's from Georgia, she's currently from New York. We get it.

Emcee Bill Richardson tried channeling Billy Crystal (though his shtick wasn't quite up to the same level). Then, there's always the risk of going over your time and being played off. (President Clinton ran slightly over his time, disappointing the literally dozens of Americans who had TiVo'd the convention coverage.)

And there was the public kiss-and-make-up by the two big figures who all the newspapers and magazines had been reporting weren't on speaking terms: Al Gore's effusive thanks to Bill Clinton was so over the top that you couldn't help imagining that they were coming out together because now they had a new product to promote - which is, I suppose, nothing more than the truth.

Clinton's speech, incidentally, was a remarkable combination of the charming self-deprecation of the rich and famous man who presents himself as being just like normal folks, and also gives the strong sense that he is in fact nothing of the sort: in short, he's just like every huge movie star who appears at one of those shows.

There was the speaker who took advantage of her forum to pitch her own projects: it's a little less annoying when Hillary Clinton talks up more post-9/11 aid to New York than when Ben Stiller comes on an awards show dressed in character from his new movie to promote it (after all, Clinton has the advantage of being absolutely right on this issue, whereas Stiller's "Starsky and Hutch" has its detractors as well as its defenders), but still.

And there was the memorial for those who have died since the last time this organization got together, in the 9/11 memorial (with Glenn Close doing the introduction, no less.)

And, most importantly, there was the honorary eminence grise, who was selected to appear for his elder stature no less than his actual qualifications, and, like in all such ceremonies, was welcomed with a tribute video. Carter, for those of us who have no real memory of him as president, came across as the statesman: a gentle, deprecating sensibility, and a little bit of Georgia goes a long way.

Though, like many eminence grises at such events, Carter used his august role to deliver the subtle knife: playing the military card heavily, even referring obliquely to the charges about Bush's absence from military leave, and his reference to a "virtually unbroken series of mistakes and miscalculations" on the part of the administration made sure that his presence would be remembered.

So, were there any differences at all between this and, say, the Oscars? Well, even though I'm sure security wouldn't have allowed a red carpet (and, if there is any justice, they wouldn't have allowed Joan Rivers either), there wouldn't have been a lot to show there: let's just say that the Democratic convention isn't quite the place for couture.

This may be the only place in the United States of America where Al Gore receives a rapturous ovation. And is there anywhere else in the country where someone, as I saw on the broadcast, would wave a Hillary Clinton doll unironically? And, somewhat unbelievably, nobody thanked their agent, not even Bill Clinton, whose literary agent deserves a thank you if anyone ever did.

But, you know, here's the big difference between the DNC and an awards show: no one actually got the award.

And three hours is a pretty long time to go with no payoff whatsoever on what is actually an award show. Especially with the current television-inspired miniscule attention span I now have. So I'm somewhat fearful about the next three days.

But I'll be sitting here watching and reporting; they've promised me a gift bag, and I'm waiting to see if they've thrown in a Hillary doll.

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