This past week the Democratic Party held a convention. Well, they had sort of a convention. Due to the pandemic there was no gathering of delegates, only a carefully orchestrated series of speakers. The Republicans will also hold a virtual convention. Maybe they will decide that this format actually makes more sense and will stick with it. For decades political conventions have been about as exciting as a Sunday morning infomercial. Even the television networks, starved now for original programming, chose to air only a one-hour summary each evening. It was not always so.
Once upon a time, conventions were compelling viewing, and an opportunity to see our democracy unfolding. I fell into watching political conventions quite by accident when I was eleven years old. The opening of the 1964 Republican Convention in San Francisco coincided with my having two teeth extracted in anticipation of having braces installed. Since my mouth hurt like crazy and was full of cotton to stop the bleeding, there was nothing I could do but lie on the couch and watch television. And the only thing on television, from 5:00 p.m. on was the convention. By the second night I was feeling better, but now I wanted to see if Barry Goldwater would get more votes than Nelson Rockefeller. Though Goldwater lost the 1964 election badly because he was perceived to be too conservative, even then Goldwater hardly fit the mold of contemporary Republicans. He was a member of the NAACP and a strong supporter of environmental protection. He would become a strong defender of abortion rights and legalized marijuana. Not a churchgoer, Goldwater would later rail against the influence of religious leaders and religious values on Republican policy. Having found the Republican Convention a lot more interesting than it sounded, I watched a good bit of the Democratic Convention a month later in Atlantic City. This was pre-gambling Atlantic City, which by 1964 was a rapidly fading seaside resort. But to a kid who had never been far from home, Atlantic City sounded magical. Besides, it had all the streets from Monopoly in it.
Well, it was a different kind of affair. Everyone seemed to agree that Lyndon Johnson should get the nomination and continue the work of the late President Kennedy. The real excitement was a squabble on the convention floor about which set of delegates from a few southern states deserved to be seated. This was a precursor of the internal strife in the Democratic Party that would mark the 1968 Convention in Chicago and continue in 1972. I didn’t stay up for George McGovern’s acceptance speech at the 1972 convention, which took place at about 2:00 in the morning. A few years ago, I did see a tape of his speech. McGovern praised the process that had allowed all the voices at the convention to be heard, as the delegates hammered out the party platform over the course of eight hours that evening. But having the most important speech take place at a time when almost no one was watching was not a good beginning for a campaign that never went anywhere. Even in that faded tape, it was obvious that McGovern needed a shave; and stagehands, forced to work overtime, were dismantling the set while McGovern was speaking. Meanwhile the Republicans put on a beautiful show. Richard Nixon’s name was placed in nomination by twelve different speakers and each speech was carefully timed to allow the most important events to take place while the most people were watching. That format worked so well, that it has been followed ever since by both Democrats and Republicans; and conventions soon became dull and predictable. Public interest shifted to the growing list of state primaries, designed to give everyone a voice in selecting the nominee.
The pandemic has affected everyone, and some have suffered more than others. It has forced us all to stop and consider why we do many of the things we do. Many of us have been compelled to become more adept at technology. Yet the real lesson of the pandemic is not how many things we can do without being physically present to one another; it is how inescapably we are connected to one another. We will get through this together as God’s children or we will not get through it at all. I hope both Democrats and Republicans realize that.