July 28, 2000
RAY SUAREZ: For perspective on political conventions we turn to our NewsHour regulars: Presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is historian and biographer Richard Norton Smith, who is currently director of the Gerald R. Ford Museum and Library in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Well, we just heard the co-chairman lay out the... His plans for the coming week. Big change from when the last time the Republicans went to Philadelphia, Michael Beschloss 1948?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That's for sure. 1948, even more, 1940 when they surprisingly drafted Wendell Wilkie this, unknown candidate for president. You know, Ray, for most of American history, 100 years and more, these conventions were spontaneous. You didn't know at the beginning who was going to be President and Vice President. You would have these bloody fights about platforms. You didn't even wait to hear the candidate give a speech because in those days candidates did not go to the convention to give an acceptance speech. FDR was the first one to do that in 1932.
Nowadays you have it in a completely different framework. You have the Andrew Card's very properly seeing this as an opportunity to present the party in a happy light and the candidate for the candidate to give a good speech. But in a way, it's based on 1972 -- Richard Nixon's reelection convention. There was a big surprise, and that was that that was a convention that went by a script. In those days, that was considered to be shocking but there was someone who found that there was actually a script with 10:39 everyone applauds, 10:40, the next speaker. The person who discovered the script is sitting to my right, Haynes Johnson.
RAY SUAREZ: Were you shocked, Haynes?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I wasn't shocked, ray. I was just watching and listening to Mr. Card talk about this convention. What Michael is saying, you have here almost a classic example of what they have become. And this is no offense to him. He had a whole string of the slogans. It's opportunity with a purpose -- a President with a purpose; renewing America with a purpose; strength and security with a purpose. And this is the theme that comes over, but it's robbed of anything that's spontaneous, as Michael said -- robbed of any clash of ideas or emotions or the rest.
You want to present a very pleasing picture for those few by the way who are going to watch this. 23% of registered Republican voters four years ago said they weren't going to watch the conventions. This year a new survey taken just a week ago says 43% of registered Republican voters will not watch the convention. That doesn't mean that they don't support Mr. Bush in all things being said. But they have become sort of sanitized and sort of a happy platform by which to please the people.
RAY SUAREZ: I would assume that in any big family there are bound to be family arguments. Doris, we don't get to see those family arguments even though you know they're there.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think what happened is after 1968 Democratic convention everybody got terrified of showing the divisions in the party to the country at large because of cost during that Chicago convention, it undid the Democratic Party because of the people shouting, Ribokoff saying to Daley that he had used Gestapo tactics and everything happening in the streets. So it's not a coincidence, as Michael suggested, that '72 was the first of these scripted conventions.
It's also true, however, historically, that to the extent that the primary system has taken the decision-making away from the conventions so they are no longer a forum for decision, they're simply a giant ratification ceremony, that drains tension, excitement, suspense, everything that made those old conventions great. So that's an historic change that it's not the convention manager's fault. I still would argue, though, that they would be better off, the irony is to the extent they try to make it better for television, they drain the excitement of debate away. Even though they have a platform, even though they a candidate that we know who it is, we could still hear them arguing on one side or other. It's not going to tear them apart.
Democracy is about argument. But I think more people would watch if both conventions would be more honest about letting people fight things out. It's the way new candidates used to be seen. When Hubert Humphrey gave the civil rights plank in 1948, that was his beginning on the stage. He was arguing against his party at that time. I would I like more of that; and I think so would democracy. So I'm not afraid of it but I'm not one of them.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me turn to Richard Norton Smith because some of the tumult that we have been talking about was certainly with the Republicans in 1976 and in 1980. Was it useful for the rest of the country to get to read about some of that, see some of it happening?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It was useful for the party. But I think Doris is absolutely right. The great irony is that as the parties have tried to script these conventions, as they've made them made-for-television spectacles, television has turned it's away. But I think it would be a real mistake if we confuse the absence of obvious conflict -- no riots in the streets, no orators pointing fingers at defeated candidates, at accusing them of leading the party down the road of defeat. I think it would be a mistake to confuse that with the lack of a story. There is history being made in Philadelphia this week. And the message is this is not your father's GOP. I've called this survivor Republicanism with Newt Gingrich and Alan Keyes voted off the island of prime time. You're not going to hear Pat Buchanan up there leading a Jihad against the 20th century. In fact, he's not even in the Republican Party anymore. That's the story.
HAYNES JOHNSON: There's one thing, Ray, about the conventions that's fascinating. We can say they don't matter much, people don't pay attention -- but there's a figure of the last 13 presidential elections --literally, the last, going back to 1948, only twice has the person who came out of those -- the last convention in the first polls who was ahead in the polls did not win the presidency -- only twice. In other words, the people who do watch, the American people, form an impression about the person who might be the President of the United States. And unless something really untoward happens, that person who is ahead after the last convention has won except for two times: Once Dewey in 1948, and the second time, oddly enough, Jimmy Carter was way ahead of Ronald Reagan until the end. Every other candidate who came out ahead in the last poll or at the end of the conventions went on to win the race.
RAY SUAREZ: One thing that is very different about this time is that even after we kind of knew who the nominee was going to be in previous conventions, the discussion about the vice presidency was full of surprises, full of some tension. Now we don't even have that. A big loss, Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, it's a loss because that was perhaps the last thing that brought suspension. Go back to 1980 in Detroit. That was a time when Ronald Reagan flirted very seriously with the idea of putting a former president, his own opponent in 1976, Gerald Ford, the leader of the opposition wing of the party, Reagan was the leader of the conservatives for the moderates on that ticket as vice president. And it was so suspenseful that the night of the roll call vote there was an assumption most of the television anchors announced that the deal has been cut and Reagan and Ford would be coming to the convention hall to announce that they were going to be the ticket.
And suddenly, and you saw this all on television, people were shouting it's Bush, it's Bush, and suddenly it was Bush, Bush, Bush. It was almost like Gore Vidal's movie "The Best Man" - you know - at a convention - something we rarely speak - but George W. Bush wants absolutely the opposite because what he remembers is his father, 1988, on the Tuesday of convention week, announce the choice of Dan Quayle, the ceiling fell in, there was a feeding frenzy, worries that Quayle was a lightweight, had evaded the draft, that threatened to overshadow the presidential nominee at the convention, threatened to sink George Bush and keep him in 1988 from becoming President.
RAY SUAREZ: Richard Norton Smith, does the Republican Party nurse any nostalgia for 1980? It sounds like there were some rough nights during that convention.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, you know, in a lot of ways this election does feels like 1980. Twenty years ago you had a western governor ride out of the West, someone who had made a career out of being underestimated, someone who was a profound conservative, and yet had a smile on his face. His conservatism stood conventional wisdom on its head. It was as futuristic as it was optimistic, and the job that Ronald Reagan had at that convention and in the campaign that followed was to reassure enough voters, particularly swing voters, that he could be trusted and that, in effect, he wasn't a menace. It's interesting. I think the planners of this convention have decided rightly or wrongly that there is a critical mass, a majority of voters out there who are looking to the Republican Party for some profound changes over the last eight years, but they aren't yet sold on Bush. That's what Dick Cheney is all about and that's what this convention is supposed to produce.
RAY SUAREZ: Apart from the potential audiences, apart from the public that's meant to be at the receiving end of these messages, isn't there still an internal function that's being served by this process?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Absolutely. This is where you bring together the people that represent the political party, one of two that we have in this country, that will set the direction for the United States down the next four years. It's very important - if nothing else than the gathering of the people. I have always thought in recent years conventions are much more important outside the hall than it, because this is where people actually gather and talk and rub shoulders and trade ideas and talk about what they privately fear and think, and it does serve a very important purpose in that sense. It's also taking place in the context of which there's no driving single issue, so they're looking for some way to see if they can arrive at some consensus that will appeal to the public that they want to win.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You know, Ray, in terms of mobilizing the people in the hall itself, I think television has not had a good impact, because in the old days the kinds of speeches that were given were these "to the rafters" shouting kind of speeches so the people in the hallway would really feel yes, we're going to go march with this new leader. Now, because of the cool medium of television you get the feeling - and we've looked at these speeches in these last years - they tend to be more personal - they talk about their own family problems.
You know, it's sort of like the Oprah Winfrey style of talking on television rather than getting that audience to feel I'm going to march with this leader. So I, again, would go maybe this is just me always going back to the past, but I loved those old speeches when people shouted to the rafter, people with their funny hats were screaming and running around. I hope that comes back.
RAY SUAREZ: Maybe we could get some of those old-fashioned microphones and put them in front of our NewsHour positions next week. Television isn't kind to the real shouting kind of oration, is it?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It isn't, and you know, another nightmare that's lodged in the back of the mind of every presidential nominee is George McGovern's convention in 1972. And that was a convention at which he was not able to stage anything. The vice presidential choice, Thomas Eagleton, revealed later to have suffered from depression, had to get off the ticket; McGovern was unable to control the schedule. There were so many spontaneous nominations for vice president and unexpected events that McGovern famously gave his acceptance speech early in the morning only during prime time in Guam. And the point that this was seen that McGovern was incompetent, couldn't lead his own party, couldn't do the same thing with America.
RAY SUAREZ: We'll continue this conversation next week. Thanks to all of you.