On the third night of the convention, a small fracas erupted near the Washington delegation, just below John Edwards’ podium. One of the whips — these were the radio-equipped DNC staffers in yellow net vests who fanned out each evening to supervise the floor directly — had handed out the HOPE IS ON THE WAY signs too early. Now the local whip squad desperately sought to put down an inadvertent rebellion against the EDWARDS pole banners that were the intended visibility targets at that moment in the speech.
“Hope down!” screamed one whip, looking like a startled hornet as he shuttled around in close quarters and gestured wildly. Some of the delegates were perplexed; a few seemed annoyed; most didn’t notice and waved their signs at will. “No! No! Edwards up! Hope down! Okay, now Edwards and hope — Edwards and hope together!”
Such was the fanatical attention to choreography that it was easy for the whips to forget that these eager delegates had traveled 3,000 miles not so much to join the show but to swoon en masse at the libretto. And for each delegate, there were three journalists combing that libretto for symbolism and oracular insight into the presidential horserace, making it equally easy to forget that outside the Fleet Center there were larger questions to be asked about the big week in Boston.
Like: What was the point? In an overheated wartime election, the electorate got another of the carefully managed advertisements we’ve come to expect from the national party conventions. And despite voters having much more interest in this election than in 2000, they watched only marginally more of the show. Complaining about lack of news, the networks cut their coverage to three hours. Complaining about the lack of coverage, the Democrats, who had actually made some news in the primaries, hid the few real issues on the table behind the banner of party unity. Each side blamed the other in an ongoing debate that may be just two ends of the same argument. As the convention unfolded, the only issue looming larger than whether voters cared was whether there was all that much to care about.
“I’d say the answer is yes,” said professor Thomas Patterson, a political scientist at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. I met Patterson in his office three days before the convention began. His phone had been ringing all morning because he had commissioned a poll gauging interest in the convention, and the results were just in. One of the more startling figures was the 66 percent of those surveyed who didn’t know the DNC was about to start.
Patterson explained how a lot of people will wind up seeing some of the coverage anyway, and maintained that the conventions are a vital ritual for informing the public. “Voters,” he said, “do most of their learning about the candidates in three small bursts — at the debates, in the contested primaries and during the conventions.”
If that’s the case, I asked, shouldn’t the press more rigorously vet them? Otherwise, as some news executives suggested this time around, the parties are simply getting free commercials in prime time.
Patterson’s response was that the performances of the convention were more truthful and direct than anything the media could say about them. Patterson wrote a book that touched on this topic, called Out of Order, in which he cataloged how the imperatives of the news cycle and the narrow frameworks used by the media for campaign stories distort election coverage. “The conventions provide the best sense of what a future administration will be like,” he said.
Understood properly, this thesis is a real mind-bender for journalists, who see themselves as an essential filtering system: As the campaigns spin, the press does its best to unspin, decode and read between the lines to get close to some kind of objective reality. Maybe that’s a flawed view of both the profession and human reality — journalism is not optics, after all, where one refractive lens can be corrected with another — but it’s easier to accept than the proposition that, during the convention, the media offers little besides printing speech transcripts and letting cameras roll unattended.
And that’s what Patterson is suggesting. “This is when the Democrats present themselves as they want to be seen,” he said. “Thursday night is the one chance that Kerry gets to speak directly to the American people for an hour and not have his statements mediated or interpreted. Journalists may be bored, but much of what people see of this is brand-new to them.”
Patterson said that the ratio of a candidate’s own words to those of the anchor or correspondent in a typical newscast has fallen from 1 to 1 in the early ’70s to 1 to 6 today. And he pointed out that in his survey, which asked what people most wanted to see during the convention, the very last item on the list was “journalists’ analysis.”
An understandable sentiment, in light of how the press juked, twirled and jumped to run the “Shove it” story into the end zone. Or clawed over itself to put a cork in Edwards’ bottle of sunshine — perhaps as overcompensation for the bridal shower they threw him in early July. And what about the shit fit Howard Fineman threw over Sharpton’s speech? After much protest over the convention’s excessive scripting, Sharpton’s one departure from the Teleprompter was decried as folly, despite the fact that it was Sharpton, even more than Obama, who tore the roof off the Fleet Center. Maybe Patterson’s right and the convention broadcast should have no commentary at all.
As an epistemology of politics, though, it is somewhat distressing to think that the dark art of political communication is the closest we can come to truth. Because if that’s all we know, then we really know nothing. After all, as great as Sharpton’s rhetoric was, it was still the words of a man whose words have earned due skepticism.
Which reminds me of an observation by Stephen Sherrill, a producer at Air America, who said that when people complain that the conventions no longer have action, what they’re lamenting is the loss of city bosses and brokered politics and the proverbial smoke-filled rooms. Today’s well-lit coronation ceremonies, then, express an unprecedented openness in the system. Reasonable enough. But I can’t shake the feeling that if a four-day television spectacular funded by Pfizer and Verizon is democracy, then democracy may be in trouble.
This was a fitting doubt to have in mind as Ralph Nader stepped to the podium in Hall A of the Science Center at Harvard later that day. Nader had just flown in from Alaska — a real campaign, Nader proudly said, is one that visits all 50 states — and this was his sole Boston appearance before driving to Connecticut that evening.
I voted for Nader in 2000, but won’t this time around, and not just because of the potential for another razor-thin margin. The premise of Nader’s campaign — I can cooperate with everyone else except the Democrats — seems to contradict his great legacy as a consumer advocate, which was achieved by working with Democrats in Congress. Then there’s the questionable alliance with right-wingers on ballot access. And that open letter to Michael Moore accusing him of being a fatso was just weird.
Nader remains a convincing orator, however, and his arguments are still dead-on. “We live in an age of consistently lowered expectations,” he told the overflowing audience. “‘They’re called ‘realities.’ But why should you settle for the least of the worst? Is that what the abolitionists should have done? Should they have backed off because one of the two major parties was not as bad on slavery? There is no end logic to the least-worst calculation.”
He went on to say we are losing our democracy to a corporate cosmogony where people and government are secondary to business. It’s a potent criticism. And stirring. What I’ve always liked about Nader is that he brings on the fighting mood: If they’re going to slit our throats, let’s at least not wait in line for the knife.
The more interesting speaker in the hall was Caroline Johnson, who made brief remarks before Nader arrived. Johnson, who graduated this year from Harvard, is running for state Legislature in the district that includes Cambridge. Although Johnson shares Nader’s political perspective, she’s disappointed by his approach.
“The big ideas are great,” she said when I caught her after the event. “But I’d like it if he’d talk more about solutions.” For Johnson, that means entering local elections to make things happen now. Her opponent is incumbent Alice Wolf, a Democrat who always runs unopposed. But Johnson thinks Wolf’s become complacent and chummy with the do-nothing state leadership, so Johnson’s mounting a challenge as the “Rainbow-Green” candidate. “I would like to see Nader encourage people to do what I’m doing,” she said.
But Nader seems to have lost interest in pragmatism. The reason he offers no solution like Johnson’s is that his critique now digs so deep it’s beyond politics. When he articulates the omnipotent invasions of corporate supremacy or calls George Bush “a giant corporation masquerading as a human being in the White House,” as he did that afternoon at Harvard, it’s not a political point. His is a radical socio-cultural-economic understanding of America, the world — reality even. It brings to mind the false world of the Matrix (a surrealist simile that was reinforced in Boston by the sight of Bernard-Henri Lévy wandering around the Fleet Center wearing dark, rectangular shades with his shirt unbuttoned), except that the way Nader tells it, the Matrix is inescapable. Our freedom is becoming extinct, he says. We live in a one-party state. But if, as he likes to say, the election is a choice “between King Kong and Godzilla,” the next question must be: Who’s Rodan?
Because is it any better to be a spoiler? In retrospect, the very real choice that was 2000 is painfully clear. And as much as the parties seem to converge over the summer as they play for the undecided center, a similar choice exists in 2004. Bill Clinton said it best in his tone-setting speech Monday night: “Democrats and Republicans have very different and honestly held ideas on what choices we should make.” More than anything else, today’s vote elects a worldview. And if we’re at a fork in the road, as Clinton suggested, that worldview makes the difference between a potentially bright future and a Hobbesian era of Hieronymus Bosch horror.
So in this sense there was something for voters to care about at the convention, and it may be best illustrated by the prime-time slot for Ron Reagan Jr. and the massive applause for Kerry’s line about medical research. Both parties want to own optimism, but it’s Democrats who back that up with policy. Even The McLaughlin Group’s John McLaughlin, who was standing next to me on the floor when Hillary Clinton spoke, gave a few claps when she mentioned stem-cell research. And he shouted “Beautiful!” when Clinton thanked the families of September 11 for demanding a commission to investigate the country’s intelligence failures. For all the convention’s faults — the false unity, the papered-over progressives, the corporate sponsorship — it did communicate the basic message that Kerry would make better decisions than Bush.
Since Bush gets nearly everything wrong, this hardly makes Kerry a path-breaking progressive, but it is not so terrible as the “least-worst logic” Nader condemned. In the end, who doesn’t prefer a competent technocrat over a creationist? If very little of the progressive agenda made it to the platform or onto prime-time convention slots, those themes did help frame the terms of the primary and, ultimately, the election. “We’re trying to move to the ball,” Kucinich said as he greeted people at an Ohio-delegation breakfast. It may be an optimistic view of his influence in politics. Then again, at least he’s on the field. And you certainly can’t co-sponsor $500 billion in forward-thinking infrastructure development, as Kucinich recently did, from a lecture hall at Harvard.
“We can’t give up on the system,” Caroline Johnson said, adding that she’d like to see Nader “build a movement” to create a network of progressive local candidates like herself. What goes on at the convention is far less important to democracy than what goes on in 25th Middlesex and districts just like it around the country. What she described, of course, is an experiment in the works called Democracy for America, the grassroots organization attempting to direct the energy of Howard Dean’s supernova primary campaign, which Dean did not mention in his 10-minute speech in the Fleet Center but did discuss everywhere else in Boston. It remains unclear if Democracy for America will succeed, but it is a good idea — better, perhaps, than Dean grabbing the wheel and taking a sharp left turn before the Democratic Party is fully onboard.
If there was a lasting benefit from the progressive surge last winter, it may be the basic gift of political awareness. The convention may not have been huge news, but the number that’s more important than ratings share is that big jump that Patterson’s survey recorded — doubled since 2000 — in the number of people who say they’re closely watching the election. Despite worries about our vanishing democracy, there might actually be an increase in turnout this year. As Nader himself put it, “Half of democracy is just showing up.”