The Reckoning

Conventional Wisdom

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally at Horizontal Wireline Services July 17, 2012 in Irwin, PA.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

A few of my old buddies are putting the finishing touches on their travel plans for the presidential nominating conventions—some are staffers, some journalists who will, as I did for years, head out in the waning days of summer to cover the climactic spectacle of American democracy.

For the first time since 1992, when George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton, I have no plans to attend either of them this year.* In spite of a nice invitation to provide commentary from one of the cable networks (an invitation I couldn’t possibly accept given my schedule), I’m going to miss the fun this time. And, strangely, that suits me just fine.

Having turned 50 this year, I’m trying to be aware of creeping curmudgeon-ism and the tendency to think things were better in years gone by. Trust me, once you’re 50, a lot of things were better in years gone by.

But I’m not sure that’s true of American politics. Our politics has sucked for decades—really ever since Richard Nixon’s cynical cabal collapsed 38 years ago today. (Yep, this is the anniversary. Sadly, I can remember the experience of watching his resignation on television in the home of a school friend, his parents whooping and cheering in the background, only to go home to my morose US Marine Corps dad railing at the pointy-headed liberals who were closing in on him. He had no idea how close they were).

Yet this year’s particular brand of stank is less appealing than usual. It seems to me there was a sense of shame in past campaigns—a requirement, when caught blatantly lying—to own up to the sin, or at least to pretend as though it was the work of overzealous young campaign staffers. 

  • George HW Bush’s campaign disavowed the infamous Willy Horton ads against Michael Dukakis in 1988 (though only after the damage was done).
  • Bob Dole seemed to be constantly apologizing in 1996—for forgetting the Dodgers had left Brooklyn, for falling off a stage during a campaign speech, for calling Clinton a draft dodger.  (Well, actually, no—he never apologized for that, but my uncle, who was drafted, had the best line I ever heard in Clinton’s defense: “Anyone who could get out of the draft by 1969 and didn’t is too stupid to be elected president,” he said).
  • Hillary Clinton apologized for her husband in 2008 after he called reporter Todd Purdum (married to former Clinton aide Dee Dee Meyers) a “scumbag.” Even if he was one, it seems, Hillary felt decorum required an apology.

No red faced campaign apologies this year, though. Romney simple stands by lies about Obamacare “death panels” or the idea that Obama came up with the idea for TARP (it was Bush’s Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, of course). The Obama’s campaigns lies about Romney’s positions are easier since he’s changed them so often, but they’re still lies. Contrary to Obama ads, he’s never backed a bill to “ban all abortions.”  And is he being “racist” toward Palestinians because he’s pro-Israel?  Nonsense: he’s just a run of the mill pandered to the Israeli lobby, and you’ll find plenty of more virulent examples in Senate and House from both parties.

The idea that voters might value a president willing to clarify an unfair impression—that’s just not a factor.

What good can come of this?

The conventions, never very relevant since the dawn of television and the expansion of the primary system, will be even more vapid this year. So, again, I’m not really going to miss the phony cocktail mixers and the “spin rooms” and the scrum of over coiffed television pundits as they weigh the significant of whomever is chosen to be the vice presidential running mate for either of these guys.

When I look back, actually, most of the really memorable moments of the conventions I attended had almost nothing to do with the question of nominating a president.

At the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia, I went from a rather boring interview with Ed Rendell, then the Philly mayor, to a First Amendment lecture by Nina Hartley, a porn star known better from her backfield than her sidebars. Porn was a theme, in fact, in the City of Brotherly Love that year. As George W. Bush promised a more humble foreign policy in the convention hall, just up the road was an opportunistic entrepreneur and his “Voyeur Bus,” a pimped out terrarium filled with exotic dancers that was a big hit with the Kansas GOP delegation.

A few weeks later, as I covered an “anarchist” rally in LA, the guy next to me at the Gore nominating fete got a rubber bullet in the shoulder courtesy of the LAPD. I got tear gassed. Interestingly, only the police were violent that day. That was fun, too.

Four years later, in Boston’s ill-fated Festival d’Kerry, I had a hell of a time at the wrap-up party of the Wyoming Democratic Party’s delegation. (Yes, they have one). I met one delegate who had voted in every election since 1952—and only once did his vote affect the presidential outcome (the last time Wyoming went blue was 1964, choosing Lyndon Johnson 56.6 percent to 43.4 percent).* But he was sanguine. “Someday, we’ll vote Democratic again,” he said.  If he’s alive, he’s still waiting.

I spend 10 days at the 2008 Obamathon in Denver, and even attended the famous nominating speech at Mile High Stadium. Still, the highlight for me was on the flight back home when, sitting behind a Fox News commentator, I heard him give an interview via cell phone on the “brilliant” McCain selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate.  “She’s very smart, very popular in her state,” he said. “This is a brilliant maneuver and it will steal the thunder of Obama’s nomination.”

Yeah, right.

Who knows, maybe I’ll cover the Marco Rubio fest in 2016 for someone? Or perhaps Hillary’s final chance at redemption? But I kind of like the idea of that flight home from Denver as my last convention memory. It has all the elements that define them: anti-climax, hubris, half-truths and a well-stocked bar. 

Watch me and Chrystia Freeland on Reuters television tomorrow at 3 p.m.

Correction, Aug. 9, 2012: This article originally stated that George W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election. It was George H.W. Bush who lost to Clinton. This article also stated that the last time Wyoming went red was 1948, choosing Harry Truman 51 to 47. The author meant to say that the last time Wyoming went blue was in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson won 56.6 percent of the state’s vote.