Conventional Themes: What will be the story for 2004?

Election 2004 | Familiarity

Last Saturday I went up to Harvard for an event organized by Anna Weisfeiler of the Harvard Extension School Democrats. It featured Walter Podrazik, David Hunter, and Gary Flowers, who have worked at a number of Democratic National Conventions, coordinating the logistics for political invitees and for the media. It the type of day that made one want to get out of Boston, which I did, not to the Cape but to Cambridge, as I thought I’d like to begin to get ready for the convention next week.

Throughout the forum Anna aired some audio and video clips from previous years, as well as photo stills from the 1968 riots. One video clip I finally saw, which I had skipped due to Clinton fatigue, was the famous 2-minute “Clinton walk” through the emptied corridors of the Staples Center. Hunter pointed out that this was one part of the convention which was exclusively shot by one camera– the DNC’s– and pooled with the networks. The dastardly networks, with the exception of C-SPAN, removed the text of accomplishments that the DNC had flashed across the bottom of the screen. So while the conventioneers were cheering each successive accomplishment on the main video screen, many people at home were just trying to figure out what the walk was all about. This fell in line with one of the key, and expected, themes of the forum, the evolution over the last thirty years towards made-for-television political conventions.

I asked one question: without political drama, what if drama emerges in some other way? With less than a week to go, the prime convention drama has been the evolving series of road closures and city shutdowns (culminating with the elimination of garbage cans on Newbury St. and Cambridge St.), as well as the potential of picketing by the Boston Police (for over six months, the police have been demanding a 16% raise over four years, in line with what the firefighters received; Mayor Menino has refused to yield from his offer of 11.9%). The convention is promising few surprises. Just about anything can happen to upstage the main event. Consider even the high drama of Tom Brady’s adept leadership of the New England Patriots on a 2-minute drive to triumph in this year’s Super Bowl– upstaged by the Janet Jackson flap. No doubt that the convention planners are checking to see that the artistic performers are a little more family-friendly than Whoopi Goldberg. The equally vocally liberal Bono will be in town, at a Symphony Hall Tribute for Ted Kennedy, and thus he has an opportunity to improve his thank you speech.

I didn’t phrase the question about sharply at the time, so I didn’t get the depth of an answer I was looking for. Podrazik’s answer was that the main story is simply that this is the main gathering of a major political party (no kidding), and that’s the story. Our ponderous theme: Stronger at home, respected aboard. Of course it may be the most important Democratic gathering since 1968. He also explained that it’s primarily a way for John Kerry to introduce himself to the millions of Americans outside the Boston-Washington corridor who still haven’t heard of him. I suppose an additional story this year is that of what many people hope is a “people’s convention”– there’s a lot of first-time delegates in town, as well as a tremendous amount of auxillary events for activist training (Aldon Hynes over at GreaterDemocracy is looking to write about many of these first-timers). Maybe the actual convention will be secondary.

Sidenote: There was one misstatement from the event. Gary Flowers offered an oft-repeated observation that the security has been increased dramatically due to a new reality: [dramatic pause] September 11th, 2001. That is undeniable, but people should be aware that that the “National Special Security Event” designation (and many of the headaches that come with it) was first formalized by President Clinton in May 1998 (see the Secret Service NSSE page).