August 28, 2012

With such choreographed conventions, is something lost?

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — As Chris Christie's moment at the microphone neared, delegates to the Republican National Convention were atwitter at the chance to hear the New Jersey governor speak. After all, who knew what might happen? "He doesn't seem to have a filter," said David Shimkin, a delegate from New York.

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Ann Romney, wife of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, looks over the main stage during a sound check at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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But the famously freewheeling Christie does in fact have filters: He's using a teleprompter, and he's reading from a speech that has been vetted and approved.

Americans hunger for authenticity — or, at least, say that they do. The explosion of reality TV is testament to that desire for the unscripted moment (even if that unscripted moment is, well, scripted). So the slick choreography of the modern political convention, while understandable, also seems odd. And, some say, it's actually counterproductive to what the parties say they want to accomplish: generate passion that translates into votes.

"This regard for order, this insistence on order, it's just weird," says Richard Bensel, a professor of American politics at Cornell University.

It's that need to control the message and the messengers that led Texas Congressman Ron Paul to hold his own alternative rally Sunday in Tampa, Fla., drawing a crowd of thousands. "It's exactly what the Republican Party should have wanted — real spirit, real emotion," Bensel says. "That enthusiasm shouldn't be offstage. It shouldn't be in an independent rally."

But it's the way things work these days. And Robert Lehrman, who was Vice President Al Gore's chief speech writer for three years, says that if he were GOP nominee Mitt Romney, he would insist on an orderly convention.

"You're trying to show a unified, strong party that represents your views," says Lehrman, author of the 2009 book "The Political Speechwriter's Companion." ''And to have those kinds of debates doesn't help the campaign."

"Used to be 30 years ago, you had platform fights, and they would come from the floor and be debated," he says. "Now, they had some platform stuff on CSPAN, where 30,000 people watch it. But 30 million people have no idea about those things."

In the 19th century, the candidates mostly avoided the conventions altogether. In 1860, Lincoln stayed home in Springfield and his supporters did the work. To do otherwise, Lehrman says, "was considered immodest."

Harry Truman was such a terrible speaker that his aides, at the 1948 Democratic convention, decided to give him a list of talking points instead of a speech. To make things worse, just as he reached the stage, a woman rushed up with a cage full of "doves of peace" — which promptly got loose and, as one aide would later write, "did what pigeons do." The speech went on to be one of Truman's more memorable, but it's hard to forget the pigeons.

There was a time when a rousing convention speech could make history. William Jennings Bryan was a little-known former Nebraska congressman when he arrived in Chicago for the 1896 Democratic National Convention to make a speech in favor of the free-silver movement. Most newspapers covering the event listed him sixth or lower — if at all.

"He was technically a candidate, but in the way, say, Ron Paul is. Even less than that, actually," says Bensel, author of "Passion and Preferences: William Jennings Bryan and the 1896 Democratic Convention." But after Bryan delivered his now legendary "Cross of Gold" speech, he walked away with the party's nomination — and a place in the history books.

(Continued on page 2)

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