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Phil-osophically Speaking: September 6, 2012

Convention Fever

I was asked about it wherever I went. Every family member, friend, colleague, passing acquaintance and even those who genuinely despise me asked if I had watched the Republican Convention last week. The answer is no, I did not. In fact, I never watch either the Republican or Democratic convention.

My interlocutor stares like the proverbial deer in your headlights, as if the Pope had announced he’s skipping Christmas Mass. This pregnant pause is usually followed by, “I thought you were a political animal.” Aside from my annoyance about being relegated to a branch of zoology, the labeling hardly seems justified.

The truth is I never cared for politics all that much; seeing it more as a duty than a pleasure. There are a whole lot of things I’d rather be doing than politicking or being politicked. Read Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography on Lyndon Johnson and you will know the breed. With American soldiers dying in the jungles of Indochina, peace protests swelling to the many hundreds of thousands, riots in every major U.S. city, Johnson would still call in to his hometown in Texas for the results of the local school board election.

Politics is divisive; which is why one should never bring up politics or religion at a cocktail party or Thanksgiving. Feelings most likely will be bruised and temperatures uncomfortably rise. The weather was probably invented to give us the opportunity and grace to change the subject allowing us to eat our turkey and stuffing in peace.

With anticipation being nine-tenths of pleasure, there’s no longer any drama in conventions. Everyone knows who is going to be nominated. Besides, I know who I’m voting for so it doesn’t matter if Mitt Romney, like a political prestidigitator, pulls from the hat his missing likability gene. I don’t care if my president is Mr. Congeniality or as gruff as that curmudgeon who lives across the street. As long as we agree on the issues, the president and I will be on good terms.

I also don’t watch conventions because they’re an unfortunate reminder of America’s Got Talent or one of those productions that rudely assault my waking hours. Conventions try hard to be a showcase for tomorrow’s political stars. Sometimes lightning strikes, as when Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote address catapulted him to national stardom. On the other hand, Bill Clinton’s address before the 1988 Democratic Convention was as popular as a fire drill on a frigidly cold day. Clinton’s loquacity got the best of him, as it often did, and people’s ears proved no match for the mouth that wouldn’t shut. In his monologue, Johnny Carson quipped that Clinton’s speech “was right up there in excitement with Channel 13 fundraiser telethons.” For a while Clinton was branded, of all things, as incapable of elocution, which is sort of like saying Monet didn’t understand colors.   

That’s good news for Governor Christie who didn’t exactly electrify a crowd that hero-worships him. I like Christie for his common sense, guts and truth telling.  My friend Donna likes him because he reminds her of Jackie Gleason. With his heft and big trap it’s easy to see him as Ralph Kramden, driving a bus and sitting royally behind that big steering wheel barking at passengers to pipe down. People like a larger than life personality. So what happened in Tampa? I couldn’t resist and clicked on YouTube. It’s true, the big guy tanked. It’s not as if there weren’t high notes in his aria, there were just too many “I’s” and not enough Romney/Ryans in the lyrics. Not that self-centeredness is anything new in politics, but teamwork is part of the ritualistic snow job of every political convention speaker who secretly believes he should be the nominee.

Moreover, it’s no big deal to give a convention speech as long as you’re not spooked by large noisy crowds. And if you’re in the business, why should you be? With a bevy of speechwriters, handlers and teleprompters, how can you screw up? When I was mayor, an elderly gentleman asked if I wrote my own speeches, to which I replied that having someone write my speeches would be like having someone write my love letters to my wife. Some things are too personal and intimate to place in anyone else’s hands. Things, however, are different on the national level. Paul Ryan was a former speechwriter, but as the VP candidate, I doubt if he has time to brush his teeth much less compose lofty lines of prose.

There is also the scripted feel that gives me the creeps. What a difference from the Republican Convention held in Chicago exactly 100 years ago. No one knew whether former president Theodore Roosevelt or the sitting one, William Howard Taft, would be nominated. The event was described as a cross between Saint Bartholomew’s massacre, the Great Chicago Fire and the War of the Roses. Like a parade marching down Fifth Avenue, epithets rained upon that convention like confetti: Taft called the former president and his former friend, “a dangerous egotist, a demagogue and a flatterer of the people.” TR, no pacifist, countered by calling Taft a “puzzlewit, a fathead and one whose intellect was a little short of guinea pig.” One almost expected to hear the scolding voice of a schoolmarm “Boys, boys, boys.” Instead one heard brass bands, the roar of the crowd every time they espied Roosevelt in his cowboy hat or heard the thunder of his voice, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” A reporter asked how he was holding up under the pressure, “I’m feeling as strong as a bull moose,” Roosevelt replied, a presentiment of things to come.

While the old Rough Rider won over the crowd, Taft operatives had the delegates and that’s what counted. Once it became evident the nomination would be Taft’s, charges of thievery filled the air; choruses of “Onward Christian Soldiers” broke out as did fistfights all over the arena. Taft carried the day and Roosevelt and his followers stormed out of the convention to form their own political party called, what else, Bull Moose. It was the most successful third party in American history with Roosevelt outpolling Taft in November but falling short of the Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson, who was elected president.

One could find similar drama in the 1968 Democratic Convention when on live television the Chicago police in full riot gear got into an all-out, no-holds barred brawl with 10,000 protesters crying out against the Vietnam War. Order was only restored after the National Guard arrived. The teargas was so intense that it made its way into the Hilton Hotel where it had the vice-president and soon-to-be presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey gagging for air in the shower.

The violence on the streets unnerved and divided the entire convention. In his primetime speech nominating George McGovern, (yes he was running), an enraged Senator Abe Ribicoff went off script and denounced Mayor Richard Daley, sitting front and center like the king that he was, for using Gestapo tactics against people exercising their First Amendment rights. A furious Daley leapt to his feet and in a robust display of vulgarity, fraught with ethnic slurs, told Ribicoff to perform a series of anatomical impossibilities.

Attendees were now being bodily thrown out of the convention. CBS correspondent and future anchor Dan Rather, even then showing unmistakable signs of weirdness, got in the middle of the commotion and was punched out by a security guard  — CBS credentials and all.

There was none of that excitement in Tampa and I suspect there won’t be any of it in Charlotte when President Obama takes the stage. Maybe all conventions should be in Chicago —- that’s where the action seems to be. But then isn’t there enough drama pervading the issues presently confronting America? Republicans painted Romney not as a Bain capitalist, (success being a bane in the current climate), but a humanist who gives nearly a fifth of his earnings to charity and prays by the bedside of dying children. In Charlotte, Barack Obama will tell you with a straight face, (count on it), that “we are moving forward,” when anyone not dwelling in a cave knows that under his leadership over the last four years America’s gear has been jammed in reverse.

So ignore all that waxes sentimental. This race is either about creating jobs and growing the economy or it’s about the government’s idea of fairness and equality. It’s a choice as clear as day and night. I don’t need a convention to tell me who stands for what. Maybe I’ll tune in for the 2016 Conventions; perhaps then things will be a little less obvious.