THE CONVENTIONS THAT WERE
BY WALTER CRONKITE
ADVISORY: THE WALTER CRONKITE COLUMN WILL BE ENDING AUG. 19.
The Democrats are in Boston, following the carefully drawn script of their quadrennial convention. As carefully planned as have been all the presidential conventions since 1960, the Democratic National Convention expects to adjourn at week's end with its presidential ticket of Kerry and Edwards and a party platform of virtually unanimous approval.
Since 1960, the conventions of both parties have been little but great weeklong pep rallies staged for television. Organizers have planned, rigged and managed to feign a unity that seldom exists (nor should it necessarily exist) in any political organization.
The advent of television was the death knell of the wonderfully raucous old-time conventions. Television made a brief, adolescent appearance at the 1948 conventions, when few stations were on the air. By 1952, the coverage was the full gavel-to-gavel stuff, in which we network newspeople and our cameras were not only in the convention halls but in the hotel suites where the political bosses plotted to elect their nominees and gain convention approval of their plans to run the country.
These internecine debates were sometimes verified with fisticuffs as partisans on one side or the other paraded with their state banners and took an occasional swipe at others who tried to strip their posters from them.
In the years before the primary system dominated, delegates favoring one candidate or another were nominated by state conventions. They could change their minds in the middle of the convention balloting, which made the voting a period of high drama.
In those days, floor debate raged as different slates of delegates were submitted by rival factions in some states. The outcome of those floor battles could determine the presidential nominee, which was the case in the 1952 battle between the Republicans' grand old leader, Robert Taft of Ohio, and the popular newcomer, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.
The party platform as well was generally drawn up by the convention, not by a blue-ribbon committee that had met in distant cities for weeks before the convention. The platform committee met during the convention, and its proposals were the source of bitter debate, which on occasion led angry delegations to walk out of the convention.
Delegates upset about one matter or another would crowd the speaker's podium and try to wrest the microphone from the chairman. Oh, it was graphic and heady stuff, and it made a great show for the new miracle called television. Across the United States, in homes, offices and in front of television salesrooms, the public watched in fascination.
Naturally, the political-party leaders decided that this demonstration of democracy in action was not for the common people. Beginning with the 1960 conventions, they changed their parliamentary rules to wipe from the convention floor any suggestion that the party was not locked in harmonious unity.
And since then, all the important party business has been conducted by a minimum number of leaders in utter secrecy, sometimes in locations even away from the convention city. The conclusions are brought to a huge meeting hall adorned with flags and balloons and resounding frequently with a band's patriotic melodies. Speeches are cut to a minimum, with most of them delivered by politicians hopeful of high positions in Congresses or administrations to come. The public reaction to the presidential candidate's acceptance speech is perhaps the only extemporaneous headline left -- and it must await the media polls.
So much for the excitement of a political convention, 21st-century style -- except, of course, for a display of the planners' worst nightmare: a spontaneous development for which they failed to account.
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(c) 2004 Walter Cronkite
Distributed by King Features Syndicate