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Convention Drama a Thing of the Past

August 12, 2008

August is a time for a pause in Presidential campaigns. A time to access where things are and adjust strategies and tactics. The national political parties are busy gearing up for their respective nominating conventions and the candidates will take some well deserved time off to be with their families before the final push begins on Labor Day.

The campaigns also hope for the so-called "bump" in the public opinion polls as a result of the upcoming televised conventions so they are spending a great deal of time making sure the conventions are "viewer friendly" with lots of videos and sidebar stories about individual delegates.

The Democrats will meet in Denver during the week of August 22 followed by the Republicans gathering in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul beginning September 1. This will be the second Democratic convention to be held in Denver and the second Republican convention held in Minneapolis-St. Paul - the first conventions having been held in those cities in 1908 and 1892, respectively.

Convention planners want the proceedings to move along as scripted but that has not always been the case. In fact it has usually been the vanquished opponents of the nominees who have provided the news and drama at past conventions.

Few can forget the ad hoc speech delivered by Ronald Reagan at the 1976 Republican convention in Kansas City. Having lost the roll call vote to President Ford, Reagan was called down to join Ford at the podium in a gesture of party unity. Reagan gave a few remarks (many thought to be a short version of what his own acceptance speech would have been) and stole the convention spotlight. Ford later lost the election to Jimmy Carter.

In 1980 it was President Carter’s turn to be upstaged by his opponent - Ted Kennedy - who delivered his famous "The Dream Shall Never Die" speech in New York’s Madison Square Garden which captured the hearts – if not the votes -- of the delegates. It turned out to be Kennedy’s convention and Carter lost the election to Ronald Reagan.

The worse case of convention planning may be the catastrophe at the 1972 Democratic convention in Miami Beach which was so out of control from bad scheduling that nominee George McGovern did not take the podium to deliver his acceptance speech until 2:48 a.m.-- long after most of the nation had gone to bed. What little chance McGovern had was lost that very night.

Much of the focus at this year’s Democratic convention will be on the appearance of Hillary Clinton. She will be given a hero’s welcome from her supporters and there could be some drama on whether her delegates officially place her name into nomination. But this, too, is reportedly being scripted so don’t expect any actual drama.

Convention planners will do their best to jazz up the proceedings with an impressive display of celebrity appearances supporting the candidates and with special effects. Voters will learn a lot about John McCain’s life as a decorated war hero and his struggle as a Prisoner of War in Viet Nam. Barrack Obama will deliver his acceptance speech in the football stadium of the Denver Broncos which seats 76,000 - a move reminiscent of the 1960 convention when John Kennedy made his acceptance speech before 80,000 at the Los Angles Coliseum.

But to capture the hearts of the voters – both candidates would do well to remember what John Kennedy said that balmy night in Los Angles 48 years ago rather than remember where he said it.

In part, Kennedy told the nation, "I think the American people expect more from us than cries of indignation and attack. The times are too grave, the challenge too urgent, the stakes too high to permit the customary passions of political debate. We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through the darkness to a safe and sane future."

He continued, "As Winston Churchill said on taking office some twenty years ago: if we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall be in danger of losing the future."

This was the first time many of the 35 million who watched that night had seen Kennedy on the television screen -- one of them was his Republican opponent Richard Nixon -- who thought it was a poor performance -- intellectually over the heads of the American people.

Two months later the voters decided it was not.