Want to understand what's going on when you tune into the Democratic Convention? Ask Alice — I think she'll know. I think I know as well, since I've reflected on a number of these meetings.
Consider the convention that nominated President George W. Bush four years ago. If you watched it on television you saw a party that was inclusive: lots of close-up shots of minority delegates, in the hall and on the podium. The speeches and the speakers leaned toward the center of the political spectrum, presenting the nominee as a "compassionate conservative" who believed in taking care of folks back home and not becoming entangled in adventures overseas.
If you stepped through the looking glass and went down to the convention floor, you saw a sea of white faces and had to search for the black and brown ones constantly appearing on the TV screens and the Jumbotron. If you were standing in the hall, you heard tepid applause for centrist politics, and saw the delegates truly enthusiastic only when an icon of the right appeared, usually way before prime time.
The campaign on the podium was selling a candidate to the whole country, one who reflected the slightly right-of-center politics shared by most Americans in 2000. The delegates on the convention floor were considerably more conservative than that. But they were good soldiers, they cheered, they waved signs and they waited for Election Day.
Now, the Democrats in Boston are selling the personal courage of their nominee and his fitness for the job of commander in chief. Photographs and videos of the young naval officer are plastered all over the corridors and stream across the screens in the convention hall. John Kerry, the commander of a swift boat in Vietnam, arrived in Boston on a boat, accompanied by his military escort, the men who served with him during that war. Speeches from the podium have told stories of his medals and his military service. His wife has assured convention delegates that Kerry would not hesitate to use force if necessary. Generals and admirals have appeared on stage to endorse Kerry. Shots of the crowd often include veterans. We know that's who they are, because of their hats.
But again, if you step through the looking glass, or perhaps the TV screen, and go into the hall, you can't help but notice that delegates seem to be a little disturbed by the belligerent tone coming from the podium. When retired Gen. John Shalikashvili spoke to the convention — appearing, he said, as an old soldier and a new Democrat — response to his endorsement of Kerry as his new commander was closer to polite than to enthusiastic.
I couldn't help thinking that if a prominent military man turned up to endorse a candidate at a GOP convention (not an unexpected event), the crowd would have ripped off the roof. The speaker that ripped the roof off the FleetCenter in Boston was Howard Dean; he may be the emotional favorite of many of the delegates here, but in this "reality" he was not slotted into prime time.
Both parties assume, correctly, that they can count on the faithful to stay invested even if the messages of the conventions seem a little out of joint with the politics of their parties. That message is aimed over the heads of delegates who are to the right of most of the people who think of themselves as Republicans or to the left of the people who vote for Democrats most of the time. It's aimed at that other group, the bigger group; the people who may think they're partisans but who think so only because they've never been to a party convention and met the folks who pin lobsters to their funny hats. They've never been asked to overlook the content of the speeches and wave the designated sign for the allotted 20 minutes and then switch and wave the next sign for another 20. If everything works as the planners plan, these less-involved people will do something much more critical — they will show up on Election Day and vote. And that's what this whole pageant is about.
At the end of August, another group of people, who traditionally wear even funnier hats, will gather in Madison Square Garden for the Republican National Convention. And there we will step through the glass again, and watch it all unfold in all its passion and absurdity and importance once more.