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Remember Those Conventions?

What a difference a day, a week, a month make! Let's not even talk about tomorrow!

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How things have transformed since the Democratic National Convention only a month ago!

The news cycle has turned a dozen times. The political landscape before Sarah Palin was different. The race to the White House was playing out gamely with more or less known entities. Then Sarah Palin happened! The Republican's coming out party in St. Paul, Minn., got everyone off script, especially the Democrats. Then came the two hurricanes, rumors about Palin's 17 year-old daughter's pregnancy, the spate of blogs and columns full of admiration and vitriol, and of course, the on-going Wall Street debacle in several short-lived shifting news cycles. The banking crisis may well have the country in the tank, one never knows. The conventions may be the last thing on our minds come Nov 4.

 
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain and his running mate Gov. Sarah Palin celebrate on the stage at the end of the Republican National Convention in St Paul, Minn.
This political campaign has been as strange as anyone can remember. First, we have a candidate of color running for the highest office. The candidate himself is downplaying his race, as is the entire conversation. Instead, we have snipes and swipes, rumors and distractions, attacks and counter-attacks. Hillary Clinton warned Democrats that the Republicans would not spare anything to get to the White House; people doubt she really meant that. But maybe she did. The country has two political parties, with each harboring deep nervousness for its nominated candidate and the media playing the part of a third party. They have their own axe to grind, whether it is the new media, the blogs, the rumor mills, the web sites, talk radio or the traditional media, such as newspapers, radio and television.

Both conventions passed and the issue of immigration, so dominant just a few months ago, did not even surface in the discussions. And this in the most diverse society in the history of this country and that too, with two self-qualified mavericks on their party's tickets. It is foolish for us to think this is an election based on issues. Only losers think of issues. As Rick Davis, the Chair of John McCain's campaign, said, this election is not about issues, it is about personalities.

Conventions become distant memories once the general campaigns begin. In rare cases, such as the 1992 declaration of the culture war by the Republicans, the convention ends up casting a large shadow over the election. They are occasions to rally the converted and make sure the parties have the firepower needed to move the electorate to victory.

 
The TV anchors talk to the cameras and pose for the interminable little snap shots around them. 
It is the Republican convention that may have been influential should McCain ends up winning in November. His surprise choice of Sarah Palin as his vice presidential mate energized the base, which had been tepid about McCain. He may have achieved the same effect by choosing Sen. Joe Lieberman, but not in the same direction. Her entry onto the national scene transformed the conversation about the election and introduced a new level of debate, hypocrisy and energy on both sides.

The first day of the Republican convention was lost to the hurricane. President Bush was whisked away rapidly from the stage even though he did not appear in person, and McCain's rambling speech on the last day was a test in tolerance. All things considered, it was Sarah Palin's convention and she did rise up to it.

The Democratic Convention in Denver seemed energetic, but even before we could pack our bags to leave town, McCain's dramatic Palin pick had already made the convention, its historic nature and the Obama speech all distant memory,

Conventions become a part of voluntary memory of the nation. They are hardly remembered during the voting process. For political junkies, they are a treasure of trivia as much as fodder for forecasting. But mostly, political conventions are mass rituals, huge spectacles aimed at boosting everyone's spirits up. To that end, we measure the success of conventions on the thrill they produce. And yes, symbolism is ours to take home and chew on.

 
The entire space is littered with well-positioned TV cameras, which do a great job projecting an image of grandeur to an event that is actually contained and far less expansive
And yet, for someone with an "Indian pedigree," the Democratic National Convention was unique. The party had more participants of color and the 50-some Indian American delegates were the largest ever in the country, generating a sense of pride, jubilation and some degree of presumptiveness (see table). We do well hanging out with winners. There were more color faces on the convention floor than ever. It resembled the America we have come to know, diverse, crazy and exciting.

This sense of "history" was palpable. Our lot comes from numbers (numerical and monetary) and the Democrats have been hospitable so far. In coming years, as our numbers grow and more Indian Americans enter electoral politics, we will pass ever more thresholds.

One drama of the Democratic convention was the so-called "Hillary" factor. The delegates awaited signs on whether she would throw her support behind Obama. As they were clearly not the insiders in the machinations that were at work behind the scenes, the drama ended quite anti-climactically as she orchestrated both: the feat of entering her name in the balloting process and then gamely adding her name to his supporters.

Both party conventions are contained in a sports stadium for ice hockey or basketball. Each delegation sits separately with its paraphernalia, mostly without any attention, mulling around their chairs. The entire space is littered with well-positioned TV cameras, which do a great job projecting an image of grandeur to an event that is actually contained and far less expansive. The TV screen at home makes it appear a lot bigger for which we ought to thank the technology of camera, which makes the spectacle possible.

 
NBC’s David Gregory knows well when the cameras are on him as he prepares for his makeup and straightens out his hair.
Every person on the floor and obviously on the stage is very self-conscious that the eyes of the camera could be on them and they are permanently disposed to showing themselves off to a larger audience. If there is a social malady in America it is that the proverbial man on the street is always ready to perform for the camera. The convention floor participants, including journalists, visitors and politicians are forever posing for cameras. Just as NBC's David Gregory knows well when the cameras are on him as he prepares for his makeup and straightens out his hair, the delegates on the floor are equally tuned to the gaze of the outside world. They are forever ready to be photographed and if not, they act as if they are, cool or otherwise.

It is a good idea to ask yourself: what does all this have to do with voting or social change? The idea, one assumes, is to be as festive as possible. It is to rally the troops for battle. You see a strange mix of people who are watching others, which seems to be the main purpose of their "participation," and those who love being watched. Delegates often come in garbs and hats, fluffily flirting with fame. They are a sight to behold and they absolutely never mind being paraded around the floor, posing with others. It is perfectly okay to have a miniature Abe Lincoln on your arms, because we rarely think of this as having a "monkey" on your shoulder.

 
A large part of this spectacle has to do with the "big media," which occupy prominent space on the convention floor. The major TV networks and cable programs camp right in front of the stage, in tiny spaces designed for the giants' cameras to make the stage look dramatically larger for the TV screens. The TV anchors talk to the cameras and pose for the interminable little snap shots around them. It is reciprocal festivity. The stars of news shows are as big celebrities as the politicians they cover and they are as much, if not bigger, presence as the delegates.

The convention stage marks a major achievement in the spectacular quality of the event. For the most part, outside of TV primetime, is resembles a high school entertainment show, with a huge budget. It is a party to celebrate the greatness of the nominee, to emphasize his larger than life presence in the hall. Very few people pay attention to the proceedings, as they are busy either being photographed or engaged in some form of politicking on the floor. But it is showbiz all the same.

For the most part, the convention is a dull and boring event. That is, if you pay attention to the proceedings. It is more a ritual of the willing and less an event that inspires or aspires for anything. There is often more activity outside the hall, in the corridors that force the politicians and film stars to move around with their posse and for the rest to grab a bite or a drink. It is a schmooze fest if you can ignore the main stage until primetime comes around.

 
Each of the three days is themed by the parties for the sake of history books. But for the realists, the first day of the Democratic convention was Michelle Obama day, as she was the principal speaker. It is a custom to cheer the wife of the nominee, the prospective First Lady and there is always cuteness and admiration in the air. The young family of a young nominee added to this year's glamour of the first night. The headliner of the following night was Hillary Clinton. The actual voting was still a day away and this gave her a chance to proclaim that she was officially backing Obama. Great move and it was also clear that a good part of this party still likes her and admires her. The occasion is so festive that the events do not allow any divisions to show. She made news by not making much news as a good foot soldier for the party.

The third night at the Pepsi Center culminated in the formal acceptance by Joe Biden of his vice presidential nomination. The newsmaker of the night was the Big Dog himself, former Pres. Bill Clinton. Relishing each moment he had on stage and in front of the TV cameras, he owned the party that night. He sanctioned the selection of Joe Biden and was characteristically measured, but overtly generous in his approval of Obama. There were other speakers for the night who spoke to beef up their resumes or enter small notes in the history books.

 
Three days passed and not a single Indian American speaker appeared on stage. We missed Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. But oh, he is not a Democrat and wasn't around here at all! He was slated to speak at the Republican National Convention, but hurricane Gustav pinned him down in Louisiana and he skipped his scheduled speech. After Katrina, nobody wanted to be anywhere except New Orleans when the next potential disaster rolled around. We haven't quite made the big leagues, but then again, there wasn't a single food stall of Indian food around either convention hall. Perhaps it's too classy for an occasion like this.

It is some measure of the historic nature of this convention and also a testimony to the confidence and popularity of the Democratic Party's nominee that the final day was held in Invesco field, a football stadium not too far from the earlier events to accommodate an estimated crowd of 80,000, the largest ever in convention history.

 
For American political theater, this was an odd event. It is rare for politicians to address such a large audience. Perhaps because politics has become so dull or because TV is so powerful that we do not see massive audiences at political speeches. It was reminiscent of Indian political rallies, particularly after the end of emergency in 1976 when political events commanded huge crowds, even by Indian standards. The uniqueness of the event brought in spectators as curious to see just how big an event it was, as much as it opened the convention to those who didn't have a badge to listen to the nominee of the party.

It was a grand event, much too large for an observer to absorb. The stage underscored the showbiz quality of the convention and the pomp of the organizers. The so called Greek columns, the special stage erected just for this event, and the vast, expansive audience already announced that the spectacle was far from the ordinary. It was touted for another historic significance, as it was held on the day of the 45 anniversary of the "I have a dream" speech by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington D. C.

That single historic quality of the event was not lost on the audience gathered there. Although held in a city in the West, with a relatively small Black population, the audience was well tuned to its historic character, never mind their political affiliations.

The pomp and the spectacle of the event culminated in the fireworks, hitherto unseen at conventions. At the Democratic convention fireworks displaced the usual shower of balloons, oversized balloons, which buried the crowd at the Republican convention the following week. Fireworks and balloons. They are both the symbols and the substance of political conventions - all air and flashes.  

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Politics | Magazine | October 2008

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