In a few days, a few thousand good Americans will meet in Cleveland and Philadelphia to pick the Republican and Democratic nominees for president.
Many of their fellow citizens will watch their work with a mix of amusement and disgust. This curious American spectacle — the national political convention — has confounded observers for decades.
“There is something about a national convention that makes it as fascinating as a revival or a hanging,” legendary columnist H.L. Mencken wrote in 1924.
“It is vulgar, it is ugly, it is stupid, it is tedious,” he observed. “One sits through long sessions wishing all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell — and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour.”
Anyone who studies conventions eventually finds Mencken’s column. And then notes, sadly, that modern conventions are even less exciting than they were when Mencken hammered out his stories on a manual typewriter in a stuffy press room, near a stuffier convention hall.
Yet political conventions are still fascinating, and essential.
They’re now pageants, of course. But judged by that standard, they can be thrilling. Sen. Barack Obama’s 2004 convention speech, for example, in Boston, paved the way for his 2008 presidential campaign. Ronald Reagan invented the modern Republican Party with a convention speech in Kansas City in 1976.
The 1968 riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago remain a cultural touchstone from that calamitous year.
Conventions can also damage careers, and campaigns. Bill Clinton’s 1988 convention speech was so long and boring he went on late-night TV just a few days later to joke about it. John Kerry’s goofy “reporting for duty” salute in 2004 may have doomed his campaign against President George W. Bush. Dan Quayle never recovered from his stumbling answers to questions in New Orleans, hours after George H.W. Bush put him on the 1988 ticket.
Conventions matter because politics matter. Despite the silly hats and sometimes intense tedium, conventions provide an opportunity for ordinary Americans, every four years, to argue over the country’s future — and to tell the rest of us how they plan to make the union more perfect. That’s a pretty important job.
I’ve covered 13 national political conventions, starting in Detroit in 1980 when Reagan won the GOP nomination. Sure, some were more compelling than others, but all have had at least one moment of unexpected drama — a speech, a vice presidential pick, a surprise appearance.
Clinton’s renomination in 1996 was a Chicago snoozefest. On the final day, his campaign adviser quit after stories surfaced about an alleged toe-sucking incident with a high-priced escort. A story!
Somewhere, Mencken was smiling.
For this special section, I reviewed the conventions of the two major parties over the last 100 years. I picked the most interesting convention in each decade — 10 in all — then ranked them, for drama, importance, interest. I used books, newspaper accounts, videos, oral histories and my own reporting as sources for the stories on each convention.
A few themes emerged. The way presidential candidates pick their running mates is confusing and haphazard. Well-planned conventions can still run off the rails. And the best candidates can use their conventions to inspire supporters, giving them momentum for the general election campaign ahead.
In a few days, I’m off to Cleveland for the Republican convention, then I’ll head to Philadelphia for the Democratic convention. I’ll take a computer, a cellphone, a video camera — tools Mencken would not have recognized. We’ll be blogging, tweeting and writing about what we see and hear.
Republicans and Democrats will accuse each other of heartless perfidy, illegality, ignorance. Bands will play. Balloons will fall. It will be vulgar, boring, tedious.
It will also be exhilarating. Americans are picking a new president, and there’s nothing boring about that.