THE LAST HURRAH
AUGUST 30, 1996
In a final look back at the Democratic National Convention, a panel that included a communications expert, journalists and historians explore the effectiveness of a convention marred by a sex scandel involving Clinton chief political strategist Dick Morris and wonder if Chicago marks the end of the great political conventions.
JIM LEHRER: Now some thoughts from five NewsHour regulars who were with us all week in Chicago: David Gergen of U.S. News & World Report, Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, Journalist/Author Haynes Johnson, and William Kristol, Editor and Publisher of the Weekly Standard. They are joined by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Kathleen, after the Republican convention, I asked you how it stacked up as a piece of communication. Same question, Democratic convention.
A RealAudio version of of this NewsHour segment is available.
Shields and Gigot join a NewsHour panel to discuss the President's speech.
Complete NewsHour coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Complete NewsHour Shields & Gigot segments.
Complete NewsHour coverage of the Republican National Convention in San Diego.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON, University of Pennsylvania: The Democratic convention was more uneven and, unfortunately, was marred by having two of its stronger speeches aired outside the network time. But to the networks' credit, they compensated by taking clips from the Jackson speech and moving it into their prime-ime hour
JIM LEHRER: But as far as communicating a--the Democratic message and President Clinton's message, you watched it. I assume you did it the same way you did the Republicans – full blast, right? -- you watched everything and taped and all of that. How did the message get out, do you think, just as a message?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I think as a message, the underlying consistency was sufficient that it got through, even through for those who watched the commercial broadcast networks. You know, one of the characteristics of these two conventions has been the high level of redundancy of the message, and they're doing that to ensure that those who just tune in for short periods of time are able to pick up the message. But the big advantage the Democrats had wasn't any of those things. It was that either through happenstance or design, they managed to carry their convention into the 11 o'clock hour on the East Coast for each of the nights. And that means that a lot of people who weren't tuning in to the convention, itself, tuned in to find their local news, and, instead, got part of the Democrats' message.
JIM LEHRER: Whether they wanted it or not, you mean?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Whether they wanted it or not, and in one case, during the keynote speech, they heard an extremely weak piece of Democratic oratory.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Now, is it possible to compare these two conventions? I don't mean politically. I don't mean as far as the goodness or the badness of the messages, but just as the way they communicated. Which one do you think did the best job?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I think that you can't answer that question independently because the problem is the communication is mediated through the broadcast and cable networks. And the resignation of Dick Morris created a very different context for the last night of the Clinton convention. And I think it was an unfortunate context. It marred both the print journalism and the broadcast journalism, in both cases receiving a prominence that I think was undeserved by the seriousness of the message. And it also displaced some important news from the last night, and so where Dole got his central message out -- 15 percent tax cut, some other tax cuts and an increase in defense -- I don't think Clinton got his central news out, though it was central news--and it was legitimate news--a new tax break for people who are selling their homes, which is comparable to something that Dole has offered, and also a tax break for people who hire welfare recipients. As important, the Morris news crowded out another important piece of news yesterday, which was a surprisingly strong second quarter economic growth. And so by that standard, how well did it come through the mediated filter, the last night of the Democratic convention I think was seriously marred in print and newscast transmission.
JIM LEHRER: All right. David Gergen, you said in San Diego that we may be seeing the last of these kinds of conventions. In fact, last night as we were watching more balloons than have ever been assembled in the history of the world and dropped from a ceiling, that comment was made, we may never see anything like that before. Do you still believe that, after Chicago?
DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: I think Chicago is probably the last hurrah appropriately in the city that's had more political conventions than any other. I think we've seen the last big one like this, a big extravaganza. And Chicago provided, it seemed to me, evidence of why you don't need four nights to hold a convention. The first night, after all, in terms of prime time, the Democrats devoted exclusively to people who were not in politics. You know, the essential speakers of that night were people like Sarah Brady and Christopher Reeve. Both of them did a good job, but they were not in politics. That was not a night we needed on television for a political convention. So at minimum, we can go three nights. I think what's much more likely, Jim, is that we're going to go--James Carville's got this idea which I think a lot of Democrats agree with--that the party--
JIM LEHRER: A Democratic consultant.
DAVID GERGEN: Yes. And to have the conventioneers come in on, say, Friday and do their business, Saturday, Sunday, on their own, and then Monday night and Tuesday night have their convention nights on television, and have the first night have the keynote speaker and the nomination process, the second night have the two acceptance addresses, and go home. But I think that would be about as much as you can sustain.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, from your perspective and based on the experience now, both San Diego and Chicago, do you think they deserve to die?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: No, I don't. I really think they're important for a whole series of other reasons than whatever they provide for the television audience. They're a means of mobilizing the activists, for one thing, and I think both conventions were fairly successful at that, perhaps the Republicans more so, only because they had further to move. There was such a funereal mood before [Republican vice presidential candidate Jack] Kemp's name was announced, and the Republicans managed to make people feel by the end good about going home. These are going to be the people who are going to really fight for you. The Democrats, I think, were happy when they started. There was more joy, more fun, more dancing, more singing, so they didn't have as far to move them. But that's an important moment, all that pageantry, the balloons, being together, being part of a collective whole can't be lost.
They're also a means of showcasing the candidates for the future, although I'm not sure they did such a great job this time, and Bayh would have been the candidate of the future perhaps, but he got lost, as we've said. Gore was showcased, and Powell was certainly showcased, just as JFK was showcased in 1956 with the vice presidential race, Stevenson in 1952, Hubert Humphrey in ‘48.
So I think those functions are really important, and there's something about politics that demands people being together to go forward. Maybe it can be reduced a couple of nights, but I think if it loses itself, even if the nominating part is taken care of by the primaries, we're going to lose an important part of the emotion of politics in the good old public sense. As you know, I've been saying I don't like this personal emotion that's been going on. I think it reduces the quality of the rhetoric and takes us away from a public demonstration.
JIM LEHRER: Bill Kristol, what do you feel about the question of the importance of these events? You heard what Doris said. Where do you come down?
WILLIAM KRISTOL, The Weekly Standard: Well, I would agree with Doris if the conventions were still the way they used to be. I think you can make the case that the old conventions elevated the quality of American public discourse. I mean, they weren't elevated in some high-flaunting intellectual sense. They were all partisan. There was a lot of heated rhetoric, but I think you could argue that the American people knew more about the issues and the political parties after the convention than before. I don't really think you can make that case this year, and I would really make the opposite case, that the conventions are, they've been so taken over by an attempt to project empathy and sentiment that ideas don't get sharpened, the edges get taken off everything, that someone watching the convention does not get an accurate sense really of what either party stands for, and in some sense that we're worse off having had these conventions as a political community than if we hadn't had them. They have other functions; they energize activists; there are all kinds of reasons why they'll probably keep going in some form or another, but if you step back and say sort of, on net, are these conventions a good thing for our public debate, I think one once would have said yes for many, many decades, but I myself would say no this year.
JIM LEHRER: You don't think, Bill, that if somebody sat down cold and watched--say stayed with one of--stayed with us or one particular media outlet, and watched everything that the Republican convention, that happened at the Republican convention, then sat and watched everything that happened at the Democratic convention, they would not know what the differences were on the major issues between the two parties?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: Oh, no, I agree with that, Jim, if they watched the whole convention, and if the--if the coverage were such, as PBS's is, is to cover, you know, give long stretches of speeches and give a sense of what--not just the two or three featured speakers each night or something but sort of rank and file Congressmen and Senators and Governors, but I would imagine that most Americans certainly don't watch gavel-to-gavel, and they don't even watch the network coverage, they get their news of the conventions filtered through the evening news and the morning news the next day in the newspaper headlines. And I would wonder at the end of that they may get a sense of the parties but, I don't know, I do think David Gergen made the key point, when the Democratic Party put on in prime time people who had no elected--were not elected officials, who were not political people really at all, simply to appeal to emotion, you really do have to ask, you know, is this what we want our politics to be?
JIM LEHRER: Michael Beschloss, how do you see the value of this?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, I think as Bill was saying or asking just a moment ago, I think the business about personal stories is probably not where we want American politics to be. And I think one thing that has been a little bit damaging about both conventions is that we've really elevated the ability to tell these personal, emotional stories, maybe even as a prerequisite for national office. I kept on thinking back to 1992, one of the debates, a questioner asked George Bush how his life had been changed by the deficit. First, he didn't understand the question. And then he said, you don't have to have cancer to understand cancer. That's something that would seem slightly absurd in San Diego and Chicago this summer. And one thing I'm really worried about is that you're really giving a lot of power to some future candidate who may be able to tell these wonderful stories, appealing to emotion but not to reason, and reason and argument are two of the things that really underlie a democracy.
The other thing is I think you might see conventions beginning to evolve. It was mentioned in Kwame's piece that there were 190 speeches at this convention in Chicago. Four years ago, there were 100. And apparently the reason why there were so many more this year was that the Democratic National Committee thought it would be a good thing to have as many local candidates as possible up on that podium, even if it was for 60 seconds. You send the image back by a satellite to the local district and neighborhood and that helps. Perhaps that's good for a party, but it's very different from what conventions were originally designed to do.
JIM LEHRER: Personal stories, everybody's made the case about Christopher Reeve and Sarah Brady, but one of the most dramatically personal stories was told by the Vice President of the United States, who's very much a part of the political process.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It is, and I thought that worked, and the reason it did work is that it came form a Vice President who is not exactly known for his emotional accessibility. The point was that here is Al Gore, who usually speaks in rather abstract terms or at least speaks in rhetoric but is very different from the kind of thing that he said the other night. He stepped out of character for a moment, and the point was that this was someone who was saying something very different from what you usually hear from him. And it was also a genuine story that he obviously was intensely involved with, and it also touched on a deep conviction. So I think, as with other things in life, as long as it's used in moderation, personal stories are okay.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes, what do you think about these conventions?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Author/Journalist: I've been--you know, it's fascinating. I was just thinking these two are so fascinating the way they were staged. We've all talked about that.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
HAYNES JOHNSON: But I now think there was a political purpose that did work for each party. I think the Republicans actually helped themselves tremendously. They came there defeated to San Diego, dispirited, as glum as the Democrats were in 1968. There was this enormous surge of energy when the Kemp announcement was made, and Dole did well, and all these other things. I'm not talking about staging now, but what it did for the parties, itself, and I think they left there feeling really up and I think that Democrats also, their convention worked too for them in a pure party sense. They were unified, yeah, they were doing this stuff on the floor and all that.
JIM LEHRER: It's called macarena.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Macarena. I still haven't mastered it. I'm trying to do it, you know, but, but--and it worked for the party, and whether it worked for the country is a different question that we're talking about here, whether people really understood enough of the differences between them or not.
We obviously didn't get--they were cloaking over differences. Yes, it's true, as you asked Bill, they would have watched, anybody who watched the whole thing would have seen differences between the parties, no question, but the Republicans were acting like Democrats, and the Democrats were acting like Republicans in this thing. And it just struck me very, very weird. One last thought.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
HAYNES JOHNSON: It's a picture that I can't--Kathleen would be watching it. What people see, I suspect, out of this isn't any lingering oratory, but an image. Bill Clinton looks great. He's young and vigorous. And I think that is a big--it's a showcase for that kind of President.
JIM LEHRER: Let me ask--Kathleen, watching last night, did--what is that scene when all of those--all the confetti--we were--we talked about it because we were there and it was hard to figure out how that was coming out over, over the television. Was that an impressive, dramatic thing to you looking at it?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes, and you saw a very real difference in the size of the two convention halls because there, there was much less of panoramic space in the Republican convention hall than there was in the Democratic. But I'd like to make one other point.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I want to be your defender of narrative. What people are going to remember from this convention is the narrative. We know that people are more likely to remember statistics that are tied to stories, and so the AmeriCorps worker is tied to the AmeriCorps policy for Clinton. The auto worker is tied to the 10 million new jobs. Sarah Brady is tied to an issue distinction on guns. It's more likely that people remember those issue distinctions because they remember the narratives. Gore's narrative enhanced people's recall of a difference on tobacco. So I disagree with your other panelists. I think those narratives were very effective communication.
JIM LEHRER: You don't think that--some people suggested--in fact, Mark Shields and Paul Gigot suggested on our coverage that night that the Vice President actually stepped over the line with his story, that he went too far, too personal, too long, no?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: No. I think the test is whether or not this is something that he has actually experienced and feels deeply, and I think the answer to those two is yes and as a result, it was an effective narrative. Narrative is less effective when you think it's been counterfeited. And I think in that case that one could not raise that as an objection.
JIM LEHRER: David Gergen, finally the question about the Dick Morris thing; it would seem to me yesterday that it was a coming together of the old and the new. We had these new conventions where there was no news and suddenly we had a news story, and everybody was running around, and Kathleen said that walked on the message, in other words, the Democratic message, but it was a legitimate story.
DAVID GERGEN: It was certainly a legitimate story, and we don't know where it's going. I don't think--I disagreed with her about crowding out the message. I think it's true that the President's initiatives didn't perhaps get as much attention as they might have otherwise. But I thought his theme about looking to the future, accusing Dole's forces of looking to the past did work effectively. It is the major headline in every significant newspaper this morning. I thought the Democrats were far more effective at having a single message which they got out the day after their convention, where the Republicans, I thought the Republicans were far more effective in generating excitement, and energizing their troops at their convention than were the Democrats.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, look, thank you--yes. Doris.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Can I show you two headlines from San Francisco?
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Here's the first. Here's the second. These are headlines that treat Dick Morris--
JIM LEHRER: Hold ‘em up again. Hold ‘em up again, Kathleen.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Here's the first.
JIM LEHRER: All right. "Hope Springs Eternal," right. Okay.
HAYNES JOHNSON: "Despite Morris Scandal."
JIM LEHRER: "Despite Morris Scandal." Oh, yeah, okay, got you.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, I wish we could bring a lot of other newspapers here.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
DAVID GERGEN: But I would just tell you, Kathleen, there are a lot of others that go the other way.
JIM LEHRER: I was accosted by a woman in the Chicago Airport this morning who said, uh, the same thing you said, accused us, accused the news media of oh, my goodness, you stole Bill Clinton's night by even reporting the Morris story, but anyhow, what I was going to say is thank you all very much. See you right here in four years. Okay.