Jewish World Review July 27, 2004 / 9 Menachem-Av 5764

Paul Greenberg

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All that jazz: Why we watch the conventions | The national nominating conventions have finally been reduced to set pieces, to a formal ritual after the real decision has been made by the great god Demos - now nothing more than an over-sized cardboard figure manipulated by the host of imps behind the curtain: the pollsters, strategizers, fund-raisers, spin doctors and, yes, we inky wretches (or the air-dried ones on the talk shows) who both live off the process and sneer at it.

We understand that the decisions made on the convention floor aren't for real any more, and that the pre-selected delegates gather only to certify the already designated nominees.

But despite it all, these four days in July and four more in August exert a strange fascination. Because the delegates are actually people, and may go off-script at any time. Maybe even one of the pols will. Who knows when the human comedy might erupt, despite all the careful planning?

It's not only the possibility of the unplanned that attracts the journalistic hordes to Boston this week, and will attract them to New York next month, to complain about having to fight all the hordes. It's also the very much planned that attracts our attention - the assuring rituals of a national nominating convention at a time of strange war against an unseen enemy who could strike again at any time, in any place.

No wonder we value the rituals of political normalcy just now: The keynote. The roll call of the states. The nominating and acceptance speeches. The straw hats and brass bands and political corn and all that red-white-and-blue razzmatazz. All this is the froth of freedom.

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This week some of us will lift our eyes from the spotlighted speakers before the bunting-draped stage, up beyond the masses of red-white-and-blue balloons waiting to drop on cue, and peer up to . the snipers standing guard on the rooftops. The war we're in around the globe is for real even if the news out of the conventions is mainly fluff.

This is not to belittle the time-honored rituals and civilities of American politics. Think what happens when they disappear; we are left with the chaos that was Chicago in 1968, when the real - or, rather, surreal - action was taking place in Grant Park and on the streets outside the convention hall. Was that the American republic or Weimar?

Just the thought of that spectacle - with Mayor Daley the First sputtering obscenities as the mobs and cops staged mutual riots - makes one appreciate set pieces, and long wistfully for some good old-fashioned, harmless bunkum.

So bring on the made-for-television visuals as The Candidate walks to the convention hall all too aware that he needs to look like The Candidate Walking to the Convention Hall. In unpredictable times, few things are more assuring than the predictable.

Besides, there is always the bare possibility of greatness breaking out. Think of Barbara Jordan's keynote speeches at not one but two national conventions, her last in 1992, at the dawn of a decade as roaring and empty as the '20s. Into that vacuum of ideas came this black giantess with her rolling perorations and arena-filling voice - a towering presence in person, word and deed. And she was never so elevating and dominating as when speaking, like FDR, from a wheelchair.

Professor Jordan could turn Madison Square Garden into a huge classroom. The very sight and sound of her lifted all as she carried the attentive with her through every carefully crafted, perfectly enunciated, incisive sentence.

Naturally she was not fully appreciated in a decade of overwhelming, transcendent mediocrity. Her strictures against political correctness in particular set the more robotic zealots murmuring. Yet she shone, like the spirit of a more meaningful time, like the sun on a cloudy day - obscured for the moment but still radiating light.

I was privileged, too, to have heard Ronald Reagan's bright shining farewell at Houston in 1992 - before Pat Buchanan covered everything in his dark rhetoric, delivered to wave after wave of mean applause and raucous cheers as he gleefully declared a culture war. Just as Mario Cuomo had tried to start a class war in 1984. That familiar theme was resurrected at the Democratic convention in sweltering Los Angeles just four years ago, when it was reduced to a drumbeat of a slogan: "They are the powerful, we are the people!" (The people in this case being largely the teachers' unions and the trial lawyers' lobby.)

No, not all the visions at a national political convention are bright ones. But surely some will be. That is why we watch, and listen. Because rituals can stop time, and renew and deepen us despite our jaded selves.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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