RNC, DNC conventions amid Covid leave veteran journalist pining for normalcy

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I’m going to let you in on a little secret that almost no other political journalist is willing to share. Covering political conventions is a nightmare.

We all have things in our jobs which we like to do and things we abhor. But we do them all because it’s part of the entire package of work. It goes with the territory. In my book, covering a convention is not my favorite. And once COVID-19 canceled practically every major conclave on Earth – except perhaps the Auburn-Alabama football game this fall – this year’s quadrennial party conventions went poof.

The question now is, once the pandemic passes, will conventions return to their former glory? Or are we watching the future now on Skype and Zoom?

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Times change. And sticking with the “2016” convention model would be like saying we should continue to handle conventions the way they were back when Chet Huntley was still on the air.

Television certainly altered the convention equation, starting as early as the 1948 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia. Local stations broadcast some of the convention. NBC and CBS initiated the concept of gavel-to-gavel coverage. 

It’s no wonder that political conventions evolved into glitzy, TV productions, dominated by stagecraft – but lacking substance in later years.

Delegates had a few issues to sort out on the floor of the 2012 and 2016 Republican conventions. Democrats had a controversial platform issue involving Israel which demanded action on the floor of the 2012 convention in Charlotte, NC. But when it comes to the ticket itself, you have to go back to the 1980 Democratic convention in New York and the 1976 GOP convention in Kansas City, MO to unearth actual decisions formulating a ticket.

I can’t speak for my journalistic colleagues. But conventions are a slog. Early wake-up times because sometimes scribes don’t even stay in the same state as where the conventions are being held. That’s because hotel rooms are at a premium. I know some journalists who stayed in South Carolina for the 2012 Democratic convention in Charlotte. I know a couple of reporters who stayed in Pennsylvania for the GOP convention in Cleveland in 2016. I stayed in New Jersey for the Democratic 2016 convention in Philadelphia.

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The hallmark of conventions are mangled logistics and challenging shuttle schedules. Police officers and security officials, often parachuted in from other jurisdictions and states, are constantly struggling to determine who can enter through what gate of the secure perimeter around the arena. These secure zones don’t just consume a few city blocks. They usually engulf an entire downtown area. Officials constantly tell people they can’t enter through this gate because you lack a certain pass. Then you switch the pass or go to the other gate where they directed you – and mysteriously, that doesn’t work either.

This goes on all day long. That leaves reporters, just trying to bang out a few lines on a laptop, perched high above the arena floor in a hockey play-by-play booth, in a perpetual state of purgatory.

The execution snafus are endless. And you walk everywhere. Meals and snacks are hard to find. CLIF bars are a must. Security is so stringent, you’re restricted from toting food many places. I survived for a week at the 2004 Republican convention at Madison Square Garden in New York on water and Certs.

Conventions are great if you don’t really have to be on the job, per se. Let’s say you work for a trade group. Or are a delegate. Or maybe just a political junkie.

You show up. Sip Merlot and devour canapés (like anyone will actually eat hors d’oeuvres off an open-air try from a waiter, circulating at a reception, ever again). You network (which really is work). Hand out some business cards (like anyone will ever do that again). Spy some celebrities. Get pictures with your favorite politician. Maybe catch a country music concert. And go home. It’s a fabulous four days of frivolity.

But working one of these things can be a nightmare.

I’ve been asked a lot if I miss the conventions this year. Sure. I miss the normalcy of it. The rhythm of every four years. That’s the same way I miss the normalcy of everyday life. Going to a crowded restaurant for dinner. Going to Nats Park for a baseball game. Getting the newspaper in the morning and bringing it right back inside. Compare that to the new ritual of using a tissue to empty the paper from its plastic bag, then washing my hands and disposing of the tissue and the bag in a basket on the front porch.

We all crave normalcy. Even if it’s the onerous kind like a political convention.

As a political journalist, you have to cover conventions. You can’t be a football writer and not report on the Super Bowl – even if your favorite part of the process is training camp or reporting on the draft.

Political conventions are exhausting physically. I’d rather cover the rough and tumble of Capitol Hill any day. Believe it or not, I still get excited when I’m near the House floor and the buzzers sound signaling a roll call vote. The back wall of the House chamber flickers to life. A matrix of the surnames of all 435 House members lights up. The wall behind the dais and the press gallery looks just like any old wall, covered in parchment. But it secretly doubles as a scoreboard. I get a kick out of it every time. And if you listen really closely and are standing by the wall, you can hear the diodes in the lights, composing each name, twitch into action.

It’s unclear if the parties can ever return to conventions after coronavirus. Just as TV altered political conventions, the pandemic will change them, too. Many party insiders on both sides asked for years why they continued to pour exorbitant dollars and energy into these conventions. Everybody lives on their phones now. So why wouldn’t the next wave of political conventions morph into something digital?

Remember, that despite years of planning, the weather forced Republicans to lop off one day apiece from their conventions in 2008 and 2012.

One factor will decide how the sides forge ahead: what Democrats and Republicans reap from the event. If the parties feel the only way to communicate a message is to hold a grand, four-day fete in an overgrown basketball gym, conventions aren’t going anywhere. But if the parties believe they can actually achieve the same goals through a digital format, then that calculus will establish the tone going forward.

Kind of like the decisions before Hollywood right now. Will movie theatres ever come back? Or will they just release everything online in the future?

And there’s another intangible in all of this. Let’s say there’s an effective vaccine or herd immunity or whatever works – and the world starts to return to normal. It’s possible Republicans and Democrats may really want to hold elaborate in-person conventions in 2024 to make up for lost time. In fact, people may demand it after they were cooped up for so long.

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None of this changes my view that covering political conventions aren’t my favorite things. What is my favorite thing is normalcy. The mundane detritus of daily life.

And I look forward to a morning, sometime in the future, rising before dawn, walking outside, collecting the newspaper, and reading about how the parties will conduct their next conventions.

Hopefully, by that point, I still won’t be going through an elaborate hand-ballet of fishing the paper out of its protective, plastic cover, with a Kleenex.



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