Conventional wisdom: the armchair view

It was time for this old-timer to sit comfortably at home watching the national political convention on TV. I've been at 24 conventions since I covered the 1956 Democratic conclave in Chicago that nominated Adlai Stevenson for president.

Being on the scene provides a feel of what is going on that one can't get from television. Yet I'm convinced that TV watching gives a detachment and a perspective that enables one to assess what goes on without being swept away by the oratory and the applause.

From this perspective I concluded: The Democrats put on quite a convention, with several stirring speeches - notably from Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, and both John Edwards and John Kerry - turning the convention hall into a wildly applauding sea of enthusiastic delegates.

But I kept asking my seatmate this question: Although Senator Kerry obviously did extremely well there in Boston, how did all this play around the country?

I commented that The New York Times (certainly not a George W. Bush fan) had implored Kerry in an editorial the Thursday morning before his big speech to clarify his position on Iraq - but that this didn't come out in his speech that night. It seemed to me that a candidate who was less than clear on the war would have difficulty winning the hearts and minds of undecided voters.

Yes, I still thought Kerry would get a bounce in public support, but a smaller one than might be expected from a convention that, on the surface, seemed to be going so well. But even with this less-than-bullish expectation, I still was astounded when a few days later I saw the USA Today-Gallup poll that showed Kerry getting no bounce at all, comparing it to the McGovern convention of 1972. Other polls showed Kerry getting a little bump, but not much. All polls showed the race remaining tight after the convention.

Now the Democratic rationale for the convention's failure to give Kerry a real boost is that there couldn't be a good bounce for him because there's a polarized public today with most voters having already made up their minds.

OK, maybe so. But we'll have a wonderful opportunity to test that theory at the GOP convention in New York. The theory calls for little or no bounce for the president after the hoopla and his convention speech has been made. We shall see.

As we sat through hours of speechmaking at the Democratic Convention, my wife and I noted more than once that "nothing really was happening," commenting that except for the speeches, there was little else going on. There was a platform that didn't really mirror the views of the delegates. But beyond that, there were no new developments.

That's the way it will be in New York, too. In fact, that's the way it's been since the late 1960s and early 1970s when the selection of candidates was turned over to delegates who, in primaries or caucuses, are able to select the nominee before the convention. The reform is good; but it saps the convention of suspense and, yes, much of its reason for being.

Oh yes, we fully enjoyed watching the convention on TV. The Democrats put on a show that kept us glued to our set. But since for many years I had been setting up Monitor breakfasts with public figures at these conventions, I must confess that I did miss being part of the get-togethers held with notables at the Boston convention. I am, as they say, "taking it easy" these days. And it feels so good to know that my old breakfast-hosting job is in the hands of such a capable fellow, Washington bureau chief David Cook.

These breakfasts - a unique way in which the Monitor participates in these political conventions - started in 1976. Just before the Democratic Convention that year in New York, the party's chairman, Robert Strauss, met with the breakfast group in Washington, and, as we ended our session, he said: "Let's meet again at the convention." So we did. And it went so well I began setting up breakfasts, and lunches, too, during each of the conventions every four years. David Cook put together a number of valuable press breakfasts and lunches in Boston. Way to go, David! Now on to New York.

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