Gaudy spectacle, yes, and a civic affirmation

An unconventional view of America's conventions from a past poet laureate.

In the last couple of days here in Philadelphia, I have had little American flags waved at me by greeters, one of them dressed in an elephant costume and another one in an American eagle suit. I have seen many thousands of computers and pizzas, millions of miles of cable, and a great army of journalists, engineers, sound persons, security persons, and hospitality persons.

On the floor of the great hall named after a very large bank, under lights seemingly brighter than daylight, I have seen the Philadelphia Boys' Choir wait patiently for their cue and sing the opening four bars of "The Star-Spangled Banner," over and over.

I have seen a mountain of sneakers, A show, but with civic substance

loafers, and Mary Janes said to belong to American children killed by firearms, a demonstration mounted to protest the Bush-Cheney policy on gun control.

I have seen a television journalist, rehearsing, gesture toward empty seats and observe that the Michigan delegates look happy because the attempt by small states like Rhode Island and Delaware to have their ballots counted first has been defeated. I have heard her laugh afterwards, and ask her engineer, "How boring was that?"

In short, I have seen the preparations for a show on a large scale.

Somewhat to my surprise, these preparations have made me a little less cynical about the national conventions, not more so. A non-event that is large enough becomes an event. The fact that nothing is likely to happen here or in Los Angeles, in the realm of reality, emphasizes the conventions' importance in the world of imagination: that is, as rituals.

A modern political convention is the opposite of another kind of civic occasion: jury duty. People try to avoid jury duty; they fight to come to the conventions. (One of the few Republican disputes involves angry McCain supporters from Michigan who were selected in the primary, but have been supplanted by Bush supporters, by fiat of the state Republican organization.) After we serve on a jury, at best the jurors feel awed by how carefully we worked with our peers, often different from ourselves, to reach an important decision. Differences are aired and defined in detail. After the convention, at best the delegates feel enthused, eager to be united behind the ticket of individuals meant to represent a unanimous will. Differences about abortion rights, taxes, medical care, whatever, are submerged.

Jury duty, I have found, restores a faith not only in the processes of law and government, but in ourselves as a serious community. Quite aside from the jury system's practical value (which has been questioned) it serves that social purpose, as a ritual of earnestness. Something like what Yeats calls "the ceremony of innocence."

What is the parallel, ritual purpose of the national political convention? One standard answer is that the convention is a commercial: an elaborate political advertisement. Possibly so. But that is not a sufficient explanation for the televised civic event - including the Shadow Convention, the Protest Convention. The convention, like the jury trial, is a civic ritual as well as a practical gathering.

The meaning of such rituals is partly nostalgic. On the one hand, the parties have bleached away the possibility of anything like Eisenhower's surprise defeat of Taft, the drama of Ribicoff denouncing Daley, the spectacle of Rockefeller being booed. That's why most of us will be watching something else on television. But on another level, the level of cultural need - which has its own reality - the folderol of a convention asserts that we care about these things as much as ever. In the phrase that the Boys' Choir kept repeating, we proudly hail the 49 percent of eligible voters who register and vote.

I find myself proudly hailing the Republican delegates, and their drama here (also the Shadowers and Protesters), even while I don't respond well to their ticket. In the entry area of the arena is a heroic-sized black-and-white photograph of Mr. Bush smiling or smirking, depending on how you look at it. Is it the face of the most liked boy in the fraternity house? Or is it a face that epitomizes the unwitting arrogance of unmerited privilege? The two conventions will be devoted to creating the impression of a certain, emphatic answer to such ambiguous questions.

I was raised in New Jersey by New Deal Democrats. In a way I know very little about this country - after years in Ron Dellums' district, I moved into Barney Frank's. But I recognize and even accept the underlying meaning of the photograph, the choir, the railroad car waiting outside the arena, the media armies, the bands, and the mascot costumes. Better, I recognize the meaning of the police line that stood aside for the demonstrators - their cause an obscure one - who marched up to the arena, a court order in hand.

This many-sided drama, for all of its baloney - in a way because of its baloney - embodies something like civic piety, an important symbolic action. As someone who has spent a lifetime regarding the symbolic action in works of art, I may not like the speeches, but I am impressed by the show.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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