New life for an outdated concept

There was a time when national political conventions played a significant role in the selection of a president. But that was when party platforms meant something and before interminable primaries sucked the juice out of the event and when party bosses could still broker a deal in a smoke filled room.

Those were the days when the dinosaurs of the information age, newspapers and broadcast television, still ruled the political landscape and the major networks took their public service obligations seriously, forgoing revenues to monitor the expensive extravaganzas from gavel-to-gavel, not just a couple of hours a night. Political writers, pundits, strategists and hacks were the blood and bone of the beast and they measured their lives in four -year increments, recalling the highlights of one venue after another in boozy late night bouts of camaraderie a block or so from the convention hall.

"Say, do you remember what happened in . . . "

Now about all that is left of these archaic celebrations is the bonfire, the sauce without the meat, where party functionaries, wannabes and the cadre of advisers and hangers-on surrounding the current quadrennial winner try to warm up the troops for the final push for the brass ring — the two months or so left in campaigns already overly long.

Yet, it may be possible to recapture some of that old-time flavor and excitement and to draw some valid comparisons when Democrats meet in Denver this month for the coronation of the first African-American to head the ticket of a major party, an event unimaginable a decade or two ago. Clearly 1960 in Los Angeles comes to mind when John F. Kennedy became only the second Catholic to shoulder his party’s banner and ultimately the first to carry it all the way to the White House.

But that achievement is overshadowed by the giant stride of nominating Sen. Barack Obama, a young, charismatic son of a black father and white mother for the honor, whether he wins the election or not. The Republicans meeting in St. Paul, Minn., a few days later, will have a hard time matching it for sheer historic drama.

Kennedy, out of political necessity, held his nose and selected his chief opponent, Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, as the vice presidential nominee. Without Johnson, his home state of Texas and Southern conservatives could not be counted on in November.

Now if Obama is ultimately to succeed, it may be necessary to make a similar move, offering his chief opponent at least the right of first refusal to share the ticket despite serious trepidation. Hillary Clinton, after all, as she and her fans remind us frequently, received 18 million votes in the primaries, only a few less than Obama, and the Illinois senator cum whiz kid has to be aware of the potential for alienating many among the army of women who supported her candidacy and still regard her defeat as another expression of sexism.

So when the former First Lady makes her initial appearance in Denver’s Pepsi Center expect one of those political demonstrations reserved for the party’s truly elite and one not often seen. For those of us in the dij` vu crowd, Robert F. Kennedy’s appearance on opening night of the 1964 convention in Atlantic City seems an apt comparison. With the ghost of his slain brother hovering over the proceedings, the former attorney general mounted the podium to one of the longest and loudest demonstrations in the history of these affairs. It sent a clear message of things to come.

But, Denver, the cosmopolitan symbol of the progressive West, is a far better image for a party on the move than pre-gaming Atlantic City’s grungy boardwalk and even seedier hotels of a bygone era. In cutting new ground, the party’s 2008 pep rally probably never will be matched. Certainly, Obama will do his part to put some new era spark in the proceedings by accepting this singular honor before 75,000 in the Denver Bronco’s football stadium, a move as unprecedented as his victory. It is designed to be a spectacular television can’t ignore and won’t.

While changing the venue may seem like a publicity masterstroke, it is more than a little tricky. Independent voters and others may regard this almost inaugural-like setting as confirmation that Obama believes he already is president. It could lend credence to GOP allegations that he is a messianic rock star than a candidate who is ready for the job. His advisers obviously believe that this kind of punctuation to the historic event is well worth the risk.

During the 1964 convention, the FBI eavesdropped on the Rev. Martin Luther King, bugging his Atlantic City hotel quarters with the concurrence of Johnson and Robert Kennedy, who as attorney general had signed the original infamous surveillance order. Also, that year Johnson used FBI agents, posing as delegates, on the convention floor to help keep tabs on Kennedy, whom he never trusted, and to head off potential dissent.

The irony of this can’t be lost on what is about to occur in Denver.



(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)