Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

Jack Lessenberry

Conventions still a draw for politically minded

DETROIT - Jim Blanchard remembers how hard he fought to get to his first Democratic National Convention. He drove to United Auto Workers headquarters in Detroit, slipped past a security guard, and sat for hours in the outer office of Millie Jeffries, a UAW vice president in charge of hiring pages.

That was 1964, the year of Lyndon Baines Johnson's famous coronation in Atlantic City. "I really wanted to get to that convention," said the future governor, who was in the midst of getting ready for next week's gathering of the Democratic clans in Boston. When she finally showed up, she noted that he was a little old to be a page, but was impressed by his eagerness.

"She asked me if I supported civil rights. I was amazed. Of course - doesn't every Democrat?" he said. The elfin Millie smiled. Well, he had a lot to learn. But he got in, and the experience helped hook him on politics for life. "One night Bernie Klein and I were going for a walk and we saw Adlai Stevenson. Adlai Stevenson! I had handed out leaflets for him in fourth grade."

He ran up to him and introduced himself to his hero, who addressed him gravely as "old man." College and law school kept Mr. Blanchard away from the next two conventions, two of the party's most disastrous.

But he's been going ever since, as congressman, governor, leader of the Bill Clinton forces in the state, and finally, as sort of an elder statesman.

And he still loves every minute of them, as his wife Janet noted with some amusement. "He'll be swinging from the rafters next week," she chuckled.

"The conventions have changed," Mr. Blanchard said, noting that national conventions once actually chose the party candidates, and that until recently, delegates arrived having no idea who their vice presidential candidate would be.

Conventions past have seen titanic struggles over party positions - the so-called "platform" - with roll call debates on issues ranging from civil rights to Vietnam to whether to seat a state delegation deemed to be insufficiently diverse or improperly chosen.

"Now, they are all sort of coronations," said Mr. Blanchard, who says he is nevertheless excited, in part because he thinks his party's ticket of John Kerry and John Edwards "is maybe the strongest we've had in 40 years."

That may be debatable; what is not is that for many of the delegates (and the press) national conventions these days are in many respects much more like high school reunions than anything else. Politicians and reporters see old friends they haven't seen in four years; relive old battles; open new bottles.

"You have to pace yourself," Mr. Blanchard said. You can easily spend all day talking politics and listening to speeches on the convention floor, and all night going from hotel to hotel and party to party.

Conventions are still politically worthwhile, he notes, because they serve two other key purposes: To introduce the party's candidates to the American people, many of whom have, until now, been paying scant attention to the process, and also to fire up the delegates to work hard for the ticket.

The best recent example of that was probably 1992, when Bill Clinton arrived at the convention trailing both President Bush and H. Ross Perot, and left the clear front-runner. Four years ago, the convention was duller, but delegates still talk about the startlingly passionate kiss between Al and Tipper Gore.

Most conventions produce some memorable moment; Mario Cuomo's famous speech in 1984; Bill Clinton's famously long and boring speech in 1988, and the bizarre scene in 1980 when Jimmy Carter seemed to be chasing Ted Kennedy around the platform, trying futilely for the traditional victory embrace.

Democrats, who tend to be a more unruly lot than Republicans, have also had their presidential campaigns ruined by conventions. The worst of all time was the 1924 convention in New York City, when a deadlocked convention continued for three weeks and 104 ballots, until the nomination itself was worthless.

The ultimate modern horrors were 1968 in Chicago, when out-of-control cops tear-gassed and clubbed demonstrators and delegates, and 1972, when anarchy prevailed; vice presidential votes were actually cast for Mao Tse-tung, and the nominee didn't get to speak till 3 a.m. - prime time only on Guam.

Back then, networks prided themselves on so-called "gavel-to-gavel" coverage. Sadly, that's now a thing of the past. The major networks plan to show only three hours of coverage all week. That won't present many opportunities for the 155 Michigan delegates to see themselves in prime time.

Yet questions remain. Will John Kerry finally electrify people? Will Al Sharpton behave? Will Michigan's two party chairmen, who loathe each other, make nice for the cameras? Despite all the pre-packaging, something fascinating or bizarre is bound to happen. With Democrats, it nearly always does.

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