I’ve attended every convention since 1988, when Michael J. Dukakis accepted the Democratic presidential nomination. That year, as I exited Atlanta’s rapidly emptying Omni Coliseum after the balloons had dropped, I stopped to chat with a prominent Southern Democratic senator. He was all smiles, sure that the party’s four days of festivities would lead to Mr. Dukakis beating George H.W. Bush. Like thousands of other Democrats in attendance, he thought it was in the bag.
They were wrong, of course, and Mr. Bush triumphed. But that was one of the beauties of conventions — the visceral feel of politics, the coming together of thousands of people devoted to American political life and perhaps witnessing something that might only bear fruit years later. And, of course, there were the over-the-top parties, private concerts, struggles with transportation to distant hotels, battles for credentials and bleary-eyed early breakfasts following essential late-night intelligence gathering.
This year, I’m not bumping into anyone to receive immediate if flawed analysis as I watch the scripted and occasionally prerecorded speeches on C-SPAN from my pandemic bunker.
Many are saying that the virtual convention is the way of the future, and none other than Joseph R. Biden Jr. suggested Tuesday that the old ways are done.
That would be too bad, because the much-ridiculed conventions served many purposes, just not the singular purpose for which they were originally intended.
The days of a suspenseful state roll call culminating in the selection of a nominee are long gone. But a lot of business still got done at conventions, and many indelible images of convention spontaneity remained long after the circus had departed Houston or San Diego, Chicago or Tampa.
For those who were in the political world and for those who yearned to be, conventions were the must-attend quadrennial gathering of the clan, a holy rite, a raucous politifest, a spotlight for newcomers and a last moment onstage for elder stateswomen and men. They constituted a political proving ground, a chance to see whether up-and-comers would seize the moment or let it slip away. They were a job fair as political professionals searching for a campaign to join roamed stadium concourses in a sort of on-site LinkedIn.
“I loved every moment of it,” said Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor, national party chair and convention chair who would have been attending his 12th consecutive Democratic convention if this year’s event had gone forward in Milwaukee.
“I usually got two or three hours of sleep,” said Mr. McAuliffe, a legendary convention networker. “I would start at 5:30 or 6 in the morning and usually shut down at 2 a.m. Some of the people you saw only every four years. It was a great reunion.”
Of course, with the pandemic this year, organizers in both parties had no choice but to pull the plug on live conventions. Based on the nightly Democratic show, the producers did a heroic job of reinventing the concept on short notice.
Viewers got to hear from Democratic officials and ordinary voters without the cheering and chanting from the crowd. But that could be oddly jarring and sterile, similar to the new experience of watching sports without fans. Part of the power of conventions was the roar of the crowd. Rousing oratory feeds off the passion of those packed on the convention floor.
Think back to 2004, when a barely known state legislator and U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois brought cheering delegates in Boston to their feet with his words about “the true genius of America.” Four years later, that same speaker, Barack Obama, was accepting the presidential nomination rather than delivering a Tuesday night keynote. Had it been a virtual convention, who knows what the future might have held for Mr. Obama.
“I don’t believe the Obama speech would have had the same impact virtually,” acknowledged David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s campaign adviser at the time. “Eloquent as it was, part of the power of that speech was the impact it had on the people in the arena.”
“There are advantages to the virtual format,” Mr. Axelrod said. “You have more control and can produce better, more fast-paced and entertaining television. But you do lose the kinetic connection between the speaker and the crowd.”
Sometimes the convention speaker loses the connection even at a live event. In 1988, Bill Clinton delivered a meandering 33-minute address considered so lame that its best received line was “In closing.” Some thought it was his end on the national stage, but it proved just another setback for the Comeback Kid to overcome.
Other times, the lines most cheered by the crowd can come back to bite a nominee if he does makes it into office. Think of Mr. Bush’s 1988 “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge in New Orleans.
Convention life extended far beyond the arena stage. Campaign operatives must be crying over the lost fund-raising opportunities. The conventions presented a glorious display of wretched excess, the Washington swamp at its soggiest as lobbyists and corporate America spent millions to wine, dine and entertain the elite at gatherings designated as “widely attended events” to skirt gift disclosure rules.
Many no doubt cringe at the insider nature of the conventions and bid them good riddance, but the schmoozing was a vital part of the convention fabric and had meaning.
“The events outside the convention hall — things like the morning breakfasts, the delegation meetings, the late-night parties — bring politicians, activists, the media, staff and party regulars together and help create special bonds that bring greater cross-sectional understanding,” said John Feehery, a former top Republican House aide who attended each of his party’s conventions since 1992, as well as two Democratic ones to needle the opposition. “They will be missed if they disappear entirely.”
Live conventions can also reveal those willing to push the limits. Tom DeLay, the take-no-prisoners House Republican leader from Texas, set up a private luxury rail car as a hospitality suite and tapped his contributors to hire cars and drivers for Republicans in Philadelphia in 2000. But his scheme to rent a cruise liner docked on the Hudson River at the Republican convention in 2004 in New York proved too outrageous even for him, and the plans were scuttled.
How about Senator Ted Cruz, another Republican from Texas, going onstage in Cleveland in 2016 and failing to endorse the nominee, Donald Trump? That impressive slight would have never made it past the virtual speech police.
In 2008, the media and convention goers were obsessed with John McCain’s choice of little-known Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska and a mystery to most of the nation. You could feel the tension rise throughout St. Paul as disclosures about her family and political views emerged. Would she sink or swim? We soon got the answer when Heart’s “Barracuda” became her convention theme song and she famously embraced her role as a hockey mom and noted “the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull — lipstick.
Though rivals for the nomination have typically been vanquished from contemporary conventions by the time the events open, they still provide a forum for those not yet sold on the nominee. Some Bernie Sanders supporters booed Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia in 2016. Journalists were more than happy to showcase the divide, even if organizers did all they could to push protesters into the background. This year, Mr. Sanders spoke on Monday in support of Mr. Biden, and if any Sanders loyalists let loose with boos, we didn’t hear them.
One of the most memorable moments for a defeated contender came in 1976 when, at the last real contested convention, President Gerald Ford invited the runner-up, Ronald Reagan, to the stage in a final-night show of party unity. Mr. Reagan gave a spontaneous concession speech so powerful that delegates worried they had picked the wrong guy. It set up Mr. Reagan for 1980.
Let’s not leave out The Kiss in 2000 in the Staples Center in Los Angeles, when Al and Tipper Gore marked his presidential nomination with a lengthy PG-13 smooch that would have never made it on Zoom. Clint Eastwood and his address to an empty chair in 2012 wouldn’t have made the cut either, but both incidents are now part of convention lore.
Certainly, conventions needed to be streamlined and the huge expense scaled back. But streamlining doesn’t mean they have to be entirely steamrollered. Hopefully the parties will still find a way to gather together four years from now in person and conduct politics face to face. If not, a great American tradition and a piece of the nation’s political soul will have been lost.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: email@example.com.