The Washington Post Column

The Politicized And the Apolitical

Boston — “So, I bet it will be a lot colder when you get back there to Washington, D.C.”
We were driving through dense fog along the Pacific Coast, and the thermometer had hit 60, maybe 65 degrees. Actually, I said, July is usually a lot hotter in Washington.

“Oh, really?” My companion, who was doing the driving, took that in. A resident of Sonoma County, she had never been to Washington, but had always assumed it must be much colder than Northern California. She also assumed that, over there in Washington, they probably talk about politics all of the time. She said they didn’t talk about politics much around where she lived. In fact, she wasn’t absolutely certain of the president’s political party. “He’s a Republican, right? Or is he a Democrat?”

Like a vision of an alternate reality, that little snippet of two-week-old conversation kept repeating itself in my head over the past two days as I sat in the convention hall in Boston, surrounded by cheering Democrats. Political conventions, at least the few I’ve been to, are never quite what you expect if you’ve only seen them televised. In real life, most of the delegates look like well-dressed, ordinary, middle-class people. There aren’t nearly as many funny hats, peace signs and oddball buttons as you see on TV (the favorite in Boston appears to be the predictable “Regime Change 2004”). Actually, being there in the hall doesn’t feel at all like being a pawn in the kind of super-controlled “scripted TV occasion” or “packaged TV presentation” that so many pundits rail against either. Even during the most electric moments — when Bill Clinton rallied the troops, say, or Al Gore told painful jokes about not being president — quite a lot of people were milling about, walking in and out of the hall and, of course, talking on cell phones. (“Can you hear, Mom? That noise is people cheering for Hillary!”) Despite what appears on the small screen, the physical surroundings are more “utilitarian basketball arena” than they are “21st-century slick television backdrop.”

But simply by virtue of being in Boston, the delegates to this convention and the Republican convention next month in New York really are oddballs. Not only do they know which party the president belongs to, they also know what his party, and their party, are supposed to stand for. And not only that, they feel very strongly about it. What they cannot seem to do is transmit those strong feelings to the rest of the country, and, in particular, to the sort of person who isn’t quite sure whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican. Much is made of how “radical” delegates, left or right, find it difficult to appeal to “moderates” in the rest of the country. But the far knottier problem is how the politicized can appeal to the apolitical. Offstage, a frequent theme of Democratic officials here is the knotty question of how to “break through,” how to “get out the message” about the budget deficit, or the remoter fields of foreign policy. One Kerry policy aide said they’d been talking about maybe spending less time with the “coastal” media, the Washington/New York/Los Angeles reporters, and concentrating harder on those places in between, where news coverage was a lot slimmer. Another wistfully reminisced about the time in 1992 when “two out of three networks” carried news of then-candidate Bill Clinton’s manufacturing policy. Ah, those halcyon days.

Onstage, as at most recent conventions, the solution has been to make the proceedings look like something else. Old-timers always complain that “nothing happens” at conventions, but something is happening: A bunch of unusually politically motivated people have come together to present their candidate and his policies to the rest of the country — and why not? Yet, instead of portraying that reality, the convention — or at least, again, the parts on TV — is at times made to seem like a rock concert, with cheering groupies, loud music and even cigarette lighters in the dark. At other times, it is made to look like a late-night talk show. Speakers walk on stage to a blast of canned music — “New York State of Mind” for Hillary, “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” for Bill — and often get a Hollywood hug from the presenter, who is Glenn Close or someone of her ilk. At still other times, it feels like a one-sided sporting event, with chanting and a scoreboard-style video screen showing individual members of the crowd, who scream and wave when they see themselves screaming and waving.

It’s a formula that may have outlived its usefulness. Ultimately, all of this effort to make the convention seem “normal,” or to make it look just like other things that appear on television, backfires because it can’t really compete with other things that appear on television. Glenn Close makes a better actress than she does political presenter. Pop music is more fun when there’s a dance floor nearby. This kind of show will never bring in the people who don’t know one party from the next, and it might even turn them off. Why not spend the allotted hour of prime time presenting Kerry’s health care policy — everyone cares about health care — or talking about Iraq? At least that would help explain what all of these people are doing here. The trouble with conventions isn’t that they are scripted it’s that they are scripted to appeal to the people who aren’t watching anyway.