The Republican Convention

The Republican Convention

The Republican Convention

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Karlyn Bowman
6:46 a.m.  Tuesday  8/13/96

Gallup's poll conducted Sunday suggests that Nelson Polsby is right about the reasons for Kemp's selection. If he is able to move masses of people, part of the reason will be because he steps into the job well-known and well-liked. In the new poll, he has a 56 percent favorable rating, virtually identical to Al Gore's 59 percent, and his negatives are lower (14 to 29 percent). Six in 10 think he is qualified to step right into the job should the need arise (the same number as felt that way about Gore in 1992). Only three in 10 people felt that way about Dan Quayle after he had been in the job for four years! I doubt Kemp will overshadow Dole during the campaign, but he could give a rousing convention speech and detract from Dole.

I watched the uninterrupted evening coverage on C-SPAN in part because I wanted to see whether the "unprecedented level of orchestration Republican planners are imposing on the proceedings" (Alan Brinkley, yesterday) was visible or objectionable to a regular convention watcher such as myself. Both parties would be crazy not to tailor their conventions to television. Viewers have lots of other choices and for good or ill, television is where most people get their news. The New York Times reported recently that the Democrats are polling what speakers they should use at their convention. Paralyzed actor and Democratic party member Christopher Reeve tested well, according to the story. Testing speakers this way may be going a bit far, but being aware of the requirements of television is a necessity.

The proceedings moved along at a snappy and pleasing pace. The early evening had the flavor of a revival meeting, but as the convention unfolded, the speeches said quite a lot about the Republican party. If I'd watched CBS, I would have missed most of the Reagan video because the network mostly had commercials at that time. If I'd watched ABC, I would have missed Ford's speech because the network didn't cover it. I for one would welcome the networks bowing out and leaving the coverage to fuller presentations by CNN and C-SPAN. I can do without the frequent snide comments of network corespondents. People can judge for themselves whether events are scripted and whether they find that objectionable.

Alan Brinkley
9:14 a.m.  Tuesday  8/13/96

The first night of the convention went reasonably well, given the modest and closely-defined aims of its managers. There was no strident rhetoric, no mention of abortion (except for Colin Powell's assertion of his pro-choice views, incongruously cheered by his overwhelmingly pro-life audience), many evocations of Ronald Reagan, and speeches that stayed so "on message" that they were almost uncannily repetitive. The principal event of the evening, Powell's speech, was significant more for the fact than the substance of it. The actual speech was fairly generic. Most of it could as easily have been given at a Democratic convention (some of it, in fact, more easily).

The more important event of the day, it seemed to me, was the obvious enthusiasm the choice of Kemp seems to have injected into Republican ranks--both because he is a vigorous and attractive figure, and because he seems to seal Dole's late conversion to the supply-side gospel in which the party's real rank and file still believes (and in which Dole never previously did). But will the choice of Kemp resonate very far among non-Republican voters? And will his very real attractiveness actually help the ticket, or hurt it by providing so sharp a contrast to Dole's much less dynamic personality? Ed Muskie in 1968 and Lloyd Bentsen in 1988 both probably did their tickets more harm than good by seeming so much more attractive than their running mates. Kemp could do the same unless Dole is able, at this late date, to shed himself of his dour, lugubrious image.

Christopher Hitchens
9:50 p.m  Tuesday  8/13/96

Well, now we know what it is, and what it takes, to stay "on message." Even when the mask slipped, it showed how well it was kept in place. Reminders of calamities past were oblique confirmations of the impressive job that was underway. Sure, Dan and Marilyn Quayle held a cocktail reception at the Hotel Del Coronado, sponsored by the American Standard Toilet Corporation. And Jim Pinkerton told MSNBC of the "message implant" supplied by Jack Kemp. Later, and on the same network, Sen. Arlen Specter alluded to the way that Dole had "staged--I mean put on--this convention." And nobody lost composure when Colin Powell defined Jack Kemp as "an incredible American." Nor did anyone notice the absence of a Nixon theme in the parade of past Republican "greats." So those mounting a gaffe-watch had little to nourish them, and nothing to trump Pat Buchanan's unexciting endorsement of the ticket and the platform. (I say unexciting because I have always thought that rumors of a Buchanan walkout to be a false alarm of the cheapest and nastiest kind, designed either enhance or depress Buchanan's speaking fees, or to make more or less likely his return to full-chair status on Crossfire.)

Language casualty of the year is the simple word "issue." One now does not disagree with somebody "on the issues." Instead, "I don't sympathize with some of his issues." This, from guest after guest and delegate after delegate, is interesting as suggesting a worry about issues themselves. Colin Powell's mediocre and Rotarian performance was the perfect comfort-food for the issue averse--he touched on almost all "issues" in order to promote them beyond the realm of immediate controversy. Yesterday I tried to point out that "unity" and "disunity" had become two notes in the same key, like partisan and bipartisan. I would have been nearer the mark if I had said that "inclusive" and "divisive" were moving closer together. On Monday, with Powell's supposedly daring admissions (cleared in advance by the platform managers) out of the way, it became apparent that the party takes a fully inclusive line on being divided, and is indeed divided only about how inclusive it ought to be. "Tolerance" of the intolerable is a relatively easy swallow that may yet take up a little media time between now and Thursday.

A slight dissent from Alan Brinkley, who worries about the manipulation of the media by the convention. I'd be more inclined to stress the reverse. The show has been put on, as he correctly says, for the journalistic profession. Every booth and skybox in the hall testifies to the long collusion that underlines that assertion. So does the ridiculous over-staffing that brings every prestige member of every magazine and news-organization to San Diego. The price exacted by the press has not been in terms of camera-angle and "access" alone--because with more media attendees than delegates that happens to be unfeasible. No, the price exacted is a relentless, repetitive discourse of "unity" and "inclusiveness." Thus, our great profession has in effect demanded a bland and pre-arranged convention, and is in no position to complain when it gets what it asked for. Nor indeed does it seem to be complaining. How would you guess, if you did not know, that politics is "division" by definition? Not from the famed "image-makers," to be sure. But not from those who cover them, either.

Nelson Polsby
9:58 a.m.  Tuesday  8/13/96

The Monday night Republican show didn't give a political scientist (or at least this one) very much to chew on. I think this week you might have been better off with an entertainment critic.

I watched C-SPAN and therefore I'm sure I missed a fair number of foolish remarks by commentators that would have been grist for the mill. But instead I got the full and undiluted dose of what the Republican party wanted me to see. It seemed to me like three hours of Lawrence Welk, which I used to tune in because it was fun watching people try to play the saxophone while smiling.

It's hard to praise diversity with much conviction from the podium while the spectators on the floor are illustrating homogeneity. This is a well-scrubbed, well controlled, middle-class party. That's OK for Republicans, there are plenty of votes in the middle.

It's not altogether unexpected to see George Bush take a shot at Mrs. Clinton. Do my colleagues recall an unpleasantly nativist subtext to Bush's campaigning against Michael Dukakis? Is Mrs. Clinton this year's Willie Horton (i.e., negative symbol that rallies the troops)? I've supposed right along that the campaign on both sides would be pretty negative, President Clinton running against Congress, Newt Gingrich, and GOP threats to Medicare, education and the environment. The Republicans, I assumed, would run against the Clintons, more or less ad hominem, and here it comes I guess.

Herb Stein
10:01 a.m.  Tuesday  8/13/96

Maybe I'm getting soft in my old age, but my reaction to Monday evening was more "tolerant"--to use one of this week's key words--than that of some of the panelists. True, after the singing of the Star Spangled Banner there was 2 1/2 hours of dead time, enlivened only be the speech of Mary Fisher about AIDS. But it all came to life in the last half-hour. The Reagan show and the Powell speech gave the GOP an aura of romance, strength and hope that could make one happy to belong to it. And that's what its all about--to use another of this week's cliché's--isn't it. I will admit that I was uncomfortable during the first half of Powell's speech, which could have been delivered by any of the pols present, but I later thought that was the price he had to pay to get a hearing for the rest of the message.

And when it was all over I didn't feel so sour about the 2 1/2 hours of ordinary people talking platitudes to other ordinary people. Probably that has been going on at conventions for over 150 years--it probably went on at the convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln--and we not only survived but prospered nonetheless.

As, for the media, I agree with Karlyn Bowman that the big three networks should bow out of the picture. The way they interrupted the proceedings and then followed them with the most banal observations delivered as if they were the wisdom of Socrates was revolting.

I suppose that is enough "moderation" for now. I look forward to your further comments.

Herb Stein
11:50 a.m.  Tuesday  8/13/96

Question for Karlyn Bowman: Yesterday there was a poll showing Bob Dole to be 9 points behind. Today there is a poll showing him to be 19 points behind. What does that mean?

To Nelson Polsby: I thought a political scientist was an entertainment critic.

Nelson Polsby
11:52 a.m.  Tuesday  8/13/96

Herb. Touché. Love and kisses. Nelson

Alan Brinkley
2:38 p.m.  Tuesday  8/13/96

A reply to Christopher Hitchens's comment this morning:

He has suggested that my first post--suggesting that the GOP was attempting to manipulate the media--overlooks the complicity of the media itself in the convention charade. Certainly last night's coverage seems to support his point. With the partial exception of Ted Koppel on Nightline, the networks were fully on board with the Republican convention plan--except when they discourteously cut away from the proceedings from time to time for self-puffery and their own paid (as opposed to the party's unpaid) commercials. As a result, the Republicans got exactly what they wanted: an opportunity to shape an image to their liking even though it bears only a limited relationship to the party as it actually is.