past is prologue

When Political Conventions Were Must-See TV

President Ronald Reagan at the podium during the 1984 Republican Convention. Photo: Historical/Corbis via Getty Images

Today’s observers may view this year’s virtual (or in the case of the GOP, semi-virtual) political conventions as a precedent-shattering event, given the absence of any central locations for speeches or even a live audience. But from another perspective, the 2020 conventions have simply consummated the process whereby a vast number of extras in a TV show with a shrinking audience finally became expendable.

The real driver of this process wasn’t TV itself, but the decline and then the elimination of any deliberative purpose for conventions. The big shift occurred in the early 1970s when all states set up primaries or caucuses; from then on, presidential nominations were almost always nailed down before the conventions. While political junkies still long for a contested or “brokered” convention, in recent decades that’s always been a remote possibility.

In reality, the last convention in either party in which there was serious doubt about the identity of the presidential nominee was the GOP confab in 1976, when Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan had fought to a near-draw in the primaries. As Republicans convened in Kansas City, Reagan was still battling to overcome a narrow Ford lead (he didn’t).

In a parallel process, the parties (or really, the nominees and their operatives) achieved iron-fisted control over convention programming and timing. The key transition point was the 1972 Democratic convention, in which an unexpected floor fight over the vice-presidential nomination pushed George McGovern’s acceptance speech to nearly 3:00 a.m. ET. The contrast with Richard Nixon’s tightly scheduled and entirely regimented Republican convention that year helped convince both parties to squeeze as much spontaneity out of the proceedings as possible.

But there’s only so much you can do with fallible human beings. Even in 2016, there were notable unscripted moments: Ted Cruz’s speech in Cleveland, in which he failed to deliver the expected endorsement of Donald Trump; and loud boos from Bernie Sanders delegates in Philadelphia when their hero praised nominee Hillary Clinton. No worries of anything like that happening this year.

Here’s a look back at some of the features that made old-school conventions exciting TV viewing, and how they went extinct.

Gavel-to-Gavel Coverage

The first nationally televised party conventions were in 1952, both in Chicago, with all three major broadcast networks covering the shows. Early TV coverage of the conventions rapidly expanded until armies of correspondents and technicians promised “gavel-to-gavel coverage” of every moment. During particularly boring intervals, the networks shifted the camera to anchors and correspondents for interviews and analysis.

For the 1968 conventions, ABC brought in celebrity “commentators” William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal to exchange urbane views, a plan that backfired when the two men exploded into memorably wild mutual insults on live TV (warning: Buckley deploys a homophobic slur in this clip):

At the 1980 Republican convention, a Walter Cronkite interview with Gerald Ford focused on rumors that the former president would become Ronald Reagan’s running mate, which then became a big story of its own. When Cronkite used the term “co-presidency” for the potential team, Reagan decided to kill the whole scheme and go with George H.W. Bush as his vice-president.

By 1984, with ratings deteriorating, broadcast networks abandoned gavel-to-gavel coverage, but it was picked up by cable networks CNN and C-SPAN (the latter continuing the tradition even to this year). As early as 1988, broadcast networks cut back to two hours a night of coverage during the convention’s four days, a window that convention planners called “super-prime-time.” Coverage of the conventions by cable networks, print, and online media remained robust, if increasingly selective.

Vice-Presidential Selections

Until 1984 — when Democratic nominee Walter Mondale announced the first woman to serve as a running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, a few days before Democrats convened in San Francisco — vice-presidential selections were invariably announced during the conventions. So they provided some continuing suspense and drama even when presidential nominations were sewed up early.

The ultimate veep drama was in 1956, when party nominee Adlai Stevenson decided to let convention delegates choose his running mate via an “open vote.” An exciting contest ensued, featuring populist Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver and upcoming young Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy. Kefauver won after three ballots, with Albert Gore Sr. (father of a future vice-president and presidential nominee) finishing third and Hubert Humphrey (himself a future vice-president and presidential nominee) finishing fourth.

If 1956 was good clean fun, the dark side of a convention veep choice was exhibited in 1972 when George McGovern, having been rejected by several running-mate prospects, turned to relatively young Missouri senator Tom Eagleton. This choice wasn’t popular, and led to a floor revolt the last day of the convention wherein multiple candidates challenged Eagleton, horribly messing up the convention schedule.

The denouement was far worse, when it transpired shortly after the convention that Eagleton had several drunk-driving citations and an undisclosed medical condition requiring shock treatments. He was dropped from the ticket after McGovern had expressed “1,000 percent” support for Eagleton. The whole incident damaged the Democratic ticket immeasurably, and led to the more recent habit of intensive vetting of veep prospects and pre-convention announcements. The last running mate to be announced at a convention was George H.W. Bush’s choice of Dan Quayle in 1988.

Keynote Speakers

Recent conventions have denoted just about anyone who kicks off a particular evening’s festivities as “keynote speakers.” But back in the day, a “keynote speaker” was a single orator who began the entire convention with a rousing red-meat speech to get the assembled delegates into a fighting mood.

These speeches are often forgotten, but they have launched a few notable careers, notably Barack Obama’s for his 2004 address.

Other renowned television-era keynotes include Mario Cuomo’s 1984 (“Tale of Two Cities”) keynote address, which might be as famous as Obama’s if he had ever run for president, and 1988 DNC opening act Ann Richards, who tore George H.W. Bush a new one.

Credentials, Rules, and Platform Fights

In the pre-television era battles over convention rules, delegate credentials, and platforms were quite frequent and import, and often reflected maneuvering by presidential candidate camps.

Once the cameras moved in, credentials fights were rarer; in 1964 and 1968 Democrats did battle over efforts by Black delegates from Jim Crow states to gain representation. The last major credentials fight was also among Democrats in 1972, when McGovern’s opponents tried unsuccessfully to bust up a unanimous McGovern delegation from California (they argued that this violated a rules change invalidating the ancient “unit rule,” where a majority of delegates from any state could bind all its members). With primaries and caucuses used universally to apportion delegates, convention fights over these matters became unnecessary.

Similarly, platform fights were quite common in the days when conventions were truly deliberative, sometimes as part of candidate strategies and sometimes due to genuine disagreements over matters of principle. Platform speeches sometimes made and unmade careers: William Jennings Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech that launched him to the 1896 Democratic nomination as a 36-year-old House member was one bookend of his career; the other was probably his speech against a platform plank condemning the Ku Klux Klan by name at his last convention in 1924.

In the television era, perhaps the best-known platform fights were among Republicans in 1964, when dominant Goldwater supporters voted down civil rights and anti-extremism planks supported by party moderates, and in 1968, when Democrats debated Vietnam War planks.

Occasionally platform debates have become part of tactical maneuvering by those attempting to dislodge a certain nominee. In 1980, Ted Kennedy delegates promoted a variety of very liberal economic-policy planks, and Jimmy Carter’s team decided to take a dive and let them pass on grounds they were non-binding and irrelevant to his agenda. For those who understood what was going on, such chess games were great fun.

The Roll Call of the States

Back when nominations were not wrapped up long before first gavel fell, balloting was conducted via the alphabetical “roll call of the states.” So at the 1924 Democratic convention, where record was set for the most ballots to nominate a presidential candidate, the clerk began the roll by intoning “A-LA-BAM-A” 103 times. And the actual competition on each ballot depended on the break-down of each delegation as announced by a chairman (though occasionally a challenge from with a delegation would lead to a time-consuming individual polling of delegates, which gave each their brief moment in the sun — or after 1952, on television.

Occasionally states would announce dramatic changes in their votes from previous ballots, or even seek recognition at the end of a ballot to change votes and put someone over the top (as Minnesota Republicans did in 1952 to clinch a first-ballot win for Dwight D. Eisenhower). Other times delegations would make their dramatic changes of course at the end of unrelated proclamations, as in the 1976 Democratic convention when Alabama’s chairman delivered a long tribute to George Wallace amid growing catcalls — only to end by announcing Wallace’s withdrawal from the contest and endorsement of Jimmy Carter.

Even when the roll call of the states lost its drama and became simply a rubber-stamping of primary results, state delegations had fun with it, cheering each result and often conducting shout-outs to local celebrities and favored state attributes. They even used to dress for the part; I recall a Republican convention where the Maine delegation dressed up in slickers and fishing boots, and a Democratic convention where the D.C. delegates wore colonial garb to reflect the District’s status as “the last colony” (a protest against its lack of full home rule and voting representation in Congress).

This year, Republicans are voting by proxy and Democrats are voting remotely, so there likely won’t be much color from state delegates — though the Dems do have an event billed as a “Roll Call Across America” scheduled for Tuesday night.

The Outside World Breaks In

Even the most scripted convention cannot control what goes on outside its walls, as the single most gripping televised convention illustrated. In Chicago in 1968, Democrats held a convention as police (in what was later labeled a “police riot” by an independent commission) battled antiwar demonstrators outside and occasionally inside the hall.

TV cameras alternated between coverage of the convention and coverage of the chaos just outside, which occasionally engulfed delegates and more often media (as police targeted cameras). And in one memorable moment, the two events merged:

The scenes of chaos within and beyond the convention haunted Democrats for the rest of the year and enabled Richard Nixon’s law-and-order messaging appealing to a “silent majority.”

Spontaneous Demonstrations

One bit of time-consuming nonsense that ended in the early 1970s as part of the move toward tight schedules and nominee-focused messaging was the tradition of “spontaneous demonstrations,” which were actually carefully planned stretches of time when delegates and all sorts of sanctioned interlopers (including bands, dancers, and hired cheerleaders) would march around the conventional hall celebrating their candidate the moment his or her name had been placed in nomination. This was true of favorite son-or-daughter candidates with no serious aspirations of the nomination as well as the real candidates, and observers sometimes compared them in terms of length, fervor, and creativity.

The continuing tradition (until this year) of delegates dressing up in ridiculous outfits and performing silly dances is probably a holdover from those days.

Unscripted Moments

In the distant past, patient viewing was rewarded with unscripted moments that sometimes thwarted the very best of plans. In 1960 in Los Angeles, Eugene McCarthy made an eloquent nominating speech for Adlai Stevenson that convulsed the convention into a wild and genuinely spontaneous demonstration that nearly upset the Kennedy family’s control of the gathering for JFK.

In 1976, after Gerald Ford’s acceptance speech, he gestured toward Ronald Reagan’s box inviting him down for the traditional all-hands-on-deck unity gestures that traditionally closed conventions on a high note. After initially resisting, Reagan came down and delivered a brief but stirring speech that totally upstaged the nominee and served as symbolic reminder that he represented the wave of the future in the GOP. He was himself nominated four years later.

And four years later, Reagan’s opponent, Jimmy Carter, spent the final minutes of his convention appearing to chase vanquished opponent Ted Kennedy around the stage seeking that unifying raised-hands gesture, which just eluded him.

Even as late as 2012, the impact of Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech was undermined by a weird appearance by actor-director Clint Eastwood, who surprised convention managers by pretending to address President Obama via an empty chair.

The moral is: Never stop watching a convention until it’s over, or you might miss something important. Probably not, but you might.

When Political Conventions Were Must-See TV