What are conventions for, anyway?

The week-long event is a largely scripted, but still important, ritual.

The first party convention in United States history was held in 1831 in Baltimore by the Anti-Masons, a tiny movement dedicated to the notion that the benign fraternity of Freemasonry was in fact an insidious political cabal.

Strangely, that convention tapped as its presidential candidate a man who was himself a Mason. Some would say it has been all downhill from there.

One hundred and seventy-three years later the tradition continues, with Monday's opening of the Democratic National Convention in Boston, to be followed by its Republican counterpart next month in New York. Raucous, vulgar, vital, political conventions are democracy at its finest, except for the bits when they are democracy at its worst.

It has been many years since a convention actually picked a candidate. Shocking, isn't it?

Worse yet, much of the proceedings are stage managed to appeal to viewers on TV! Yet they remain an important way for the parties to rally their fractious faithful. And they provide journalists a quadrennial opportunity to use the word "hoopla" in their leads.

"I would argue that their theater and stagecraft are part of the point, that they're fun, and that they're intrinsic to politics," says David Greenberg, a Yale political historian.

From 1831 until the middle of the last century, the phrase "political convention" meant much more than speeches and a roll call of people wearing hats indicative of their state. Conventions were a political reform, meant to replace the congressional caucuses that picked candidates in America's early era. By gathering large numbers of people from the entire nation, they assured voters of inclusiveness. And they served as forums for debate on the great questions facing the US.

The Democratic convention of 1860 was riven by the question of slavery, for instance. Southern Democrats eventually walked out, hastening the onset of the Civil War. In 1932 the Republican convention struggled to decide whether to repeal Prohibition. In 1948 the Democrats began what would be a series of searing debates over the party's position on the need for civil rights for blacks.

Then there were the ballots. In 1880, the GOP denied former president Ulysses S. Grant a third-term nomination after 36 ballots, opting for James A. Garfield instead. In 1924, a Democratic convention at Madison Square Garden needed 103 roll calls over 17 days to nominate John W. Davis of New York.

Yet as Mr. Greenberg notes, these deadlocked conventions produced some of the worst presidents and nominees in history. And there weren't that many of them - only 10 GOP and 14 Democratic conventions have had to cast more than one presidential ballot. "We always remember the past as more dramatic, partly because we forget what was forgettable and remember the memorable," says Greenberg, author of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image."

Then came TV, which provided politicians an opportunity to showcase their party for a mass audience. Perhaps more important, the rise of primaries, themselves another generation of political reform, drained drama from the meetings. The result: today's heavily scripted conventions.

Yet keeping up the ritual remains important, argue many experts. Church weddings and cap-and-gown graduations are likewise anachronisms that persist in today's age. They imbue words with importance. They entertain. They provide a link to the past. "In a ritual you say things you think are important," says Kathleen Kendall, a visiting professor of communication at the University of Maryland. "They are very reassuring."

Do they matter? Of course. Whether they matter less than they used to, or whether they will always matter, may be items for debate.

Sure, the networks have mostly abandoned conventions. But the rise of other forms of news media have perhaps made the question "Do the networks matter?" more apropos. And for two weeks out of every four years the conventions interest at least some voters. "Of course, the conventions are all about razzmatazz and sparkle. But a little bit of substance manages always to sneak in," says Rick Shenkman, editor of George Mason University's History News Network.

Ironically, in the postwar years the nascent television industry used political conventions as marketing tools, promoting them as the reality shows of the day. Prior to the 1952 conventions, newspapers were filled with ads for televisions, notes Mr. Shenkman, author of "Presidential Ambition: Gaining Power at Any Cost."

Buy a Stromberg-Carlson "and you can see and hear more of the presidential conventions than the delegates themselves," said one ad. A GE ad said, "See History Made When They Pick Their Man For The World's Biggest Job."

In the end, the conventions may be important for another reason: they return some power from the media to political parties. "It's unhealthy in a democracy for the media to have as much power over our elections as they have accumulated," says Shenkman.

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