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Will COVID-19 mean the end of already-fading conventions?

COVID-19 has disrupted a centuries-old political mainstay -- national political presidential nominating conventions. As Republicans and Democrats scale back their in-person conventions this summer, Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield reports on how these multimillion dollar events were losing their sheen even before the pandemic.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Before the coronavirus pandemic changed everything, the summer of 2020 was going to be the time of the traditional days-long national political conventions.

    But as NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield reports, the conventions were already fading from the spotlight and their historic role years before COVID-19.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    The strangest sound you will be hearing this month is… the sound of silence. There will be no throngs of Democrats cheering the nomination of Joe Biden in Milwaukee. No crowds of Republicans celebrating President Trump in Charlotte, North Carolina. Nor in Jacksonville, Florida, where the Republicans planned to decamp, the better to hold a more traditional convention.

    The persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced both parties to abandon an event that's been a mainstay of American politics for close to two centuries: the national nominating conventions. But in a larger sense, conventions have been on something close to life support for decades.

    From the first gatherings starting in 1831, through Civil Wars and World Wars, through prosperity and depressions, this is how America's political parties have chosen their candidates, and battled over the most significant of issues.

    It's where in 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt challenged his successor, President William Taft, for the nomination—then led his supporters into a third party.

    It's where in 1924, Democrats battled for one hundred and three ballots before choosing a candidate— and where they fought over prohibition, immigration and whether to condemn the Ku Klux Klan.

    It's where, in 1948, Democrats embraced the cause of civil rights after a rousing speech by Hubert Humphrey.

  • Hubert Humphrey:

    The time has come in America for the Democratic Party to walk out of the shadow of state's rights, and into the bright sunshine of human rights.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    And where Southerners walked out, and launched a segregationist third party that almost cost Harry Truman the White House.

    But it was the arrival of television that brought conventions into millions of American homes, complete with furious conflicts, rhetorical and physical. In 1952, with fights over dueling delegate slates, and an angry denunciation by Republican Senator Everett Dirksen of the party's last nominee, New York Governor Tom Dewey.

  • Everett Dirksen:

    We followed you before, and you took us down the road to defeat!

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Or the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where violent clashes in the streets led to a frontal blast at Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

  • Abraham Ribicoff:

    And with George McGovern as President of the United States, we wouldn't have to have Gestapo style tactics in the streets of Chicago!

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    And where a press credential was no protection

  • Dan Rather:

    But don't push me. Take your hands off me, unless you plan to arrest me!

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    And even without such high drama, conventions were often filled with political suspense. Would George McGovern get to keep all his delegates from California in 1972, the key to this nomination? Would Ronald Reagan four years later succeed in unseating President Gerald Ford? Would Ted Kennedy manage to keep his nomination hopes alive with a Parliamentary maneuver?

    But that 1980 convention was the last gasp of anything approaching suspense. The primaries had already become the way the great majority of delegates were elected. No more brokers in smoke-filled rooms picking a nominee; no second or third ballots where alliances were formed or broken. There hasn't been a second ballot for a presidential nomination since 1952. And every four years, pundits proclaim that this time, there will be a real contested convention. Only to watch the nomination wrapped up weeks or months before the convention begins.

    That fact, in turn, has made conventions much less appealing to audiences, and to TV networks. The multi-million investment in sky booths, and an army of reporters and technicians, has been scaled back in recent years, and the major broadcast networks devote less than an hour a night to the proceedings. There are no challenges to the rules or the platform, or the credentials of delegates. About the only chance for surprise is when an obscure figure suddenly emerges into prominence; like this keynote speaker from 2004.

  • Barack Obama:

    There is not a liberal America, and a Conservative America, there is only the United States of America!

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Four years ago, the only remotely unscripted moment came when Republican Senator Ted Cruz did not endorse Donald Trump, and was roundly booed for it.

  • Ted Cruz:

    Freedom matters, and I was part of something beautiful.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Now, the pandemic may have answered the question many have been raising for decades: do we need four days of meticulously scripted pageantry…is there a point to staging an event that—like the Main Street at Disney World— creates an essentially artificial reality? Or do we need to keep the conventions alive, on the chance that some year, some decade, an unresolved primary battle will have to be resolved on the convention floor?

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