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Judy’s Notebook: Conventions, Here We Come!

Balloons drop from the ceiling at the end of the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.


I confess I love them. And I’m fascinated by the political people who go to them. Ever since I sneaked – without credentials – into the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach in 1972, as a reporter for the CBS TV affiliate in Atlanta, I have been hooked on these quadrennial political festivals. Despite the fact that the gatherings in Tampa and Charlotte over the next two weeks won’t feature “takeovers” by political activists (we don’t expect) or run on into the wee hours of the morning, as did that wild confab that nominated George McGovern, they will be exciting. More important, they’ll be worth paying attention to.

No, they don’t hold the sort of suspense that conventions used to hold – as at the 1980 Republican Convention in Detroit when presidential nominee Ronald Reagan seriously considered naming former President Gerald Ford as his vice presidential running mate. Or the Democratic Convention that same year in New York City, when Senator Ted Kennedy, who was trying to unseat the President in his own party, Jimmy Carter, worked to release delegates from their voting commitments. Kennedy ended up with more than a third of the vote and helped weaken Carter for the fall campaign, which he lost to Reagan.

But conventions are a coming-together of almost all the movers and shakers in each political party, with delegates from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, plus territories and protectorates like Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. And they offer a chance for each party – or more accurately, the nominee of each party – to spell out where he wants to take the country over the next four years, and what he proposes to do to get us there. Today’s conventions are far more scripted and orchestrated, right down to the second, with high production values more like several nights worth of Academy Awards than a political or policy debate.

But if you listen closely to the speeches and look carefully at the images on the screens – the Republicans are boasting 13 huge LED screens “with a high pixel count” – you should come away with a better idea of what’s important to that party’s nominee. If you don’t, if you don’t hear the detail you seek in how either one would spur job creation, or address the housing crisis, or improve the United States’ international standing in education, or deal with the growing violence against American troops in Afghanistan, then you have a right to complain. The parties and their presidential campaigns have had months to prepare for these conventions, and they should – at the very least – provide answers to the questions of ordinary citizens.

By listening to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie give the Republican keynote address in Tampa, or San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro for the Democrats in Charlotte – the first Latino to deliver their keynote – you should have a better understanding of what Mitt Romney and President Obama stand for, and why they deserve your support or not. The same goes for the Wednesday night DNC speech of former President Bill Clinton, who will place President Obama’s name into nomination. Or another Arkansan, former Governor Mike Huckabee, who speaks at the RNC next Monday. They’ll all come with a message, signed off on by their party’s nominee. When it’s all over, we should have a better idea of what they stand for and how prepared they are to face the unknowns that lie ahead. Otherwise, you do have a right to complain, and to keep asking questions until they answer them.

Join Gwen Ifill and me, and the entire PBS NewsHour team, over the next two weeks – we promise to do our best to make it all as fun and meaningful to you as it is to us.

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