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Cover Story

Why conventions still matter (+video)

Yes, they have become costly infomercials. But political conventions can clarify – and sometimes even electrify. 

By Robert A. LehrmanCorrespondent / August 24, 2012

This is the cover story in the Aug. 20 & 27 combined issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Robert Harbison/The Christian Science Monitor/File



Can it be? Yes! They're shouting at him! "Put the microphones down! We can't see you!"

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A look at what makes a good convention speech, and some of the better ones from the past.

Harry Truman, wearing a white linen suit, peers out at the delegates. It's 1948. Two o'clock in the morning. He's trying to start his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. So far, it's been humiliating.

First, he knows he's a terrible speaker – so bad his aides now give him talking points, hoping he'll be livelier when he ad-libs.

Worse, most delegates don't like him. Truman knows they want to draft the most popular person in the country, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. Only the political bosses running their delegations have kept them in line.

And the Southern Democrats? With a civil rights plank in the platform, they've walked out, likely to form a third party, which everybody thinks will doom his chances.

Even little things backfire. Just as he got to the stage, a woman rushed up to present him with a cage containing "doves of peace." They were pigeons. They got loose, flew up to the rafters and, as an aide wrote later, "did what pigeons do."

"Watch your clothes!" delegates cried, covering their heads.

Now this! He's the president! Can't he even control the microphones?

"I can't!" Truman shouts back.

Today, 64 years later, the Republicans and Democrats are gearing up to gavel in their conventions in a way that will allow them to control every picosecond of the multiday events.

When the Republicans open their conclave on Aug. 27 in Tampa, Fla., and the Democrats a week later in Charlotte, N.C., they will try to make everyone stay on message and stick to their meticulously prepared scripts in what has become one of the most tightly controlled rituals in American politics.

But since the first Democratic convention in 1832, these quadrennial events have always been full of surprises. These may be, too.

That's not to say there's any doubt about the outcome. Longtime GOP strategist Joe Gaylord ran the rules committee for the 1976 Republican National Convention – the last convention when it wasn't clear who would be the nominee.

"That was a raucous event," says Mr. Gaylord, who went on to play major roles at five more. "Now, it's such a managed stage show."

That, he hastens to add, doesn't mean that conventions aren't worth watching.

Certainly viewers will hear about big issues. This election pits a nominee who wants to carry out the 2010 health-care act against one who wants to repeal it; one who'll work for same-sex marriage against one who'll try to keep marriage between a man and a woman; one who would repeal tax cuts for millionaires against one who would make those tax cuts permanent; one who would continue a government-run Medicare program against one who might convert it to a voucher-based system.

Washington will spend about $15 trillion in the next four years. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have different ideas about where that money should go. The conventions can highlight some of those differences.

Still, the changes in how conventions work and what they do have made people question the value of these events, which received $18 million each in federal subsidies this year, in addition to the $50 million Washington gives each host city for security. In 1996, Ted Koppel, then the popular host of "Nightline," left the Republican convention in San Diego early.

"More of an infomercial than a news event," he said, arguing that gavel-to-gavel coverage of them wasn't useful anymore.

Is that true? Does knowing who the nominees will be really mean there's no news worth reporting? How exactly have conventions changed over the years? Are they still important?

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