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Greenfield Jeff Greenfield is senior analyst for CNN. He is providing Web-exclusive analysis during Election 2000.

Jeff Greenfield: The scene of the crime

July 19, 2000
Web posted at: 11:21 a.m. EDT (1521 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It's fitting that the first convention of the new millennium is taking place in Philadelphia. Why? Because the last time a convention was held in the City of Brotherly Love was 1948 -- the first time the medium of television showed up. To say that television has changed the nature of these conventions is like saying the Pacific Ocean contains a lot of water.

Even though there were only a few hundred thousand TV sets in American homes in 1948, the still-new medium was very much on the minds of the politicians. One of the reasons both parties chose Philadelphia is that it lay midway along the East Coast coaxial connection. (Live TV would not reach coast-to-coast until three years later). The sheer logistical nightmare of moving bulky TV equipment is one reason why both Democrats and Republicans agreed to hold their conventions in the same city.

Further, one prescient political operative named Kenneth Fry, radio director of the Democratic National Committee, urged his party to "provide better staging to eliminate clumsy time gaps and general sloppiness showman-wise ..." He also warned delegates not to read magazines and newspapers on the floor, not to yawn, and not to scratch themselves in embarrassing places.

But in a more important sense, the presence of TV did not alter the fundamental nature of these conventions. It would never have occurred to the Republicans to speed up the process of choosing a nominee for the sake of the audience at home; Tom Dewy, Harold Stassen, Robert Taft, Earl Warren, and other prospective candidates all had their supporters; political leaders had to be courted, cajoled, persuaded to shift their delegates. If it took three ballots to pick Dewey, so be it; this was a political event, not a media event.

That was even truer of the Democrats. Harry Truman might be the incumbent president, but he still had to wait to make sure the grumpy, defeatist Democrats did not turn to another nominee. A floor fight over civil rights would be intense; it would even result in the walkout of Southern delegates. But the idea that a party would bury its differences for the sake of a good show was literally unthinkable back then. (Indeed, Truman himself had to wait until 2 a.m. to give his acceptance speech, a notion today's minute-by-minute convention planners would regard as an utter disaster -- in fact, the feisty Truman rallied his party with his speech -- the hour really didn't matter that much).

Television was an onlooker in 1948; in coming years, it would prove to be a major player. The kinds of battles that were commonplace became unacceptable as television grew more dominant. When protesters in 1968 chanted, "The whole world is watching!" the politicians thought: "Oh, God, that's right! We can't have this kind of disorder at our event!" And when the demand for voter participation moved the selection process from convention halls to primaries, the pols more and more saw their conventions as a marketing tool, rather than a political assemblage.

The result? Four-day long "infomercials" with pre-selected themes of the night; the decision to put a smiley face of unity on the entire proceedings; and the resulting pullback of broadcast network coverage. Heaven forbid an actual disagreement might push a speech out of prime time! Heaven forbid a major political party thrash out in public what it wants to do about a serious controversy!

So, to paraphrase the first Republican president, it is altogether fitting and proper that the Republicans gather in Philadelphia. If they listen carefully enough, they may be able to hear echoes of the last time they were here, when conventions really mattered; they may be able to see the flickers of the bright television lights that helped alter forever the event they came to illuminate.


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Wednesday, July 19, 2000


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