Party Conventions Are for Show, Not Heavy Lifting

A Republican delegate sports a feather hat.

An unidentified delegate makes a fashion statement on the floor of the Republican National Convention in New York City, Sept. 2, 2004. Christine Arrasmith, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Christine Arrasmith, NPR

"Conventions these days are nothing more than carefully planned infomercials."

That's what every seasoned Washington politico seemed to say, with his most growling voice and craggiest face. So just because I've heard that over and over again, I went to the Republican National Convention in New York City expecting an entirely scripted and entirely dull event.

But while the official speeches were carefully processed for the podium, the convention floor was a vibrant, sparkling, zesty place to spend four nights.

Walking into the Republican Convention was a little like walking onto the field before an NFL game. The star players move around with clinging masses of reporters and camera crews in tow, documenting their every move. And those who come as fans of such celebrity truly deserve their title — derived from "fanatic."

TV is said to have taken over the conventions through the power of the visual. But in many ways radio is a better medium for a sense of the glitz and glitter of the convention. TV just shows a big flat picture over and over. Sound does more justice to the details and the spirit.

One of my favorite things to ask delegates about was their pins and brooches. One woman had a giant elephant brooch made entirely of rhinestones — and the trunk swayed back and forth! Another popular trend was in Republican headgear. I saw as many different kinds of elephant hats as can possible exist, including one that made a trunk-trumpet when you squeezed its ear.

The entire Texas delegation donned 10-gallon cowboy hats, of course, and used them to add flourish to their rousing cheers for their governor-turned-president. And I saw lots of state-themed headgear — Arkansas Razorback hats, and Wisconsin Cheeseheads among them.

But while it was definitely fun for the delegates, celebrities and Republican luminaries did NOT seem to have as good a time — at least on the convention floor. The big-name senators and House members were escorted by their press secretaries and Secret Service details, as well as by entourages of their own, as they shuttled from anchor booth to camera location giving interviews.

I caught up with Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Utah Sen. Orin Hatch, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas and others doing the news circuit, and it seemed the convention was a lot of work for them. Then again, several of them seemed to have enjoyed themselves at some of the surrounding parties, just before hitting the floor.

For those who experienced it at ground level, the Republican convention was like a storm, contained within fences and security checkpoints. While the event as televised may have been canned, the convention floor was still an exciting and unpredictable place.

But in the end, when President Bush had spoken for an hour and the balloons had fallen in a sudden swoop, it was over and eerily silent . The presidential family and party left after only a few minutes of waving and smiling. As soon as the network cameras cut away, the oomph went out.

And back in Washington, the day after Labor Day, it all seemed long ago and far away. The convention gave the president a push in the weekend polls, and Republicans felt good about that. But there was little transfer of energy to the Congress, reconvening after six weeks. And there was no sense of momentum with which to scale the mountain facing lawmakers in the short weeks before October.

The conventions are not about agenda so much as advertising, as the old hands had warned. And that advertising is almost exclusively for the benefit of the president, despite a few bows in the direction of congressional candidates.

So there won't be much help in tackling the spending monster (12 of the 13 appropriations bills remain unfinished) or in sorting out the competing ideas for revamping the intelligence establishment in the wake of the 9-11 Commission and its recommendations.

Conventions are for show, for fun and for presidential candidates. They aren't about the heavy lifting that still remains to be done.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook covers Capitol Hill.

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