L.A. Nonstory

My trip to the convention interfered with some plans my daughter had made, and she was resentful. “Why do you have to go? Is it like some seventies thing?”

“That’s mean,” her mother said.

Briefly, I tried to explain to my daughter what a convention meant, both personally and journalistically – I had attended every Democratic convention since 1976. It was wounding to face the fact that she thought this was seriously fossilized – possibly even fetishistic – behavior.

But then, most of the country, I realized, had no context for understanding why in God’s name conventions occurred. For my daughter, as well as most of the television-savvy audience, conventions obviously seem like vestigial events, Miss America-ish. Dopey, inauthentic. The modern political convention did not even make the kitsch cut. This was depths-of-summer television. Part infomercial, part religious programming. It was, without the memories, about as out of touch as out of touch gets.

Even the Reform Party gathering, with its histrionics and near fisticuffs and battling over the $12.6 million jackpot (however piddling $12.6 million might be), which I offered to my daughter as an example of what could happen in a highly charged political atmosphere, only made the floor-fight battles of old that I fondly evoked seem like seriously aberrant carryings-on.

Still, my daughter’s insinuation that nothing of any purpose could happen here was wrong. Beyond the blandness of the television event, there was lots of business to be done. If your business was influence-garnering or -selling, political or bureaucratic job-seeking, or even serious policy-crunching, there was good reason to be here. If you were a political operative, your clients were here. If you were a national political reporter, well, every other national political reporter was here (it’s still a prestige assignment). And, not least of all, if you were Jerry Levin, who was at every party and on duty in the halls outside the CNN Skybox at the Staples Center, with serious regulatory issues, it behooved you to be here. (Steve Case, however, was not in evidence. Is Steve a Republican?) Of course, for the Gore people, the convention was the prime opportunity to get the field reps in sync – to convince them they had a quality product (and, more important, one that is easy to sell). This was a sales meeting. A trade show.

On my way to the men’s room, I passed, in quick succession, Jimmy Smits, Jon Corzine, Jerry Levin, Jimmy Carter, and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

But if you didn’t have a professional interest, there was almost no reason – except for the pure nostalgia of conventions past – to pay attention to what was happening. The dwindling network commitment to the two conventions recognized that. This had become a narrowcast event rather than one for mass-media consumption. There was no broad cultural meaning here. Politics was as specialized a profession as any other.

Time editor Walter Isaacson, who would undoubtedly put the convention on next week’s cover (as he had the Republican convention), compared it, not necessarily in a negative sense, to a meeting of cable operators. “We cover that convention too,” he said.

We were at a party hosted by Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter at a beach house in the Malibu Colony. Arianna Huffington, Mickey Kantor, Chris Matthews, Mark Whitaker, Brian Williams, Mandy Grunwald, Al Franken chatted on the deck over the beach. (There were many guesses at the cost of the house.) Clinton was just up the road, having lunch with Barbra.

Obviously, adding Hollywood to the mix was meant to help maintain the illusion that this was still a big-deal cultural event. (Of course, there is the argument that Hollywood is as dead as politics.) That is, surely, the only reason to have a convention in Los Angeles. No way, without proximity to stars, would you spread your convention out so inefficiently from Marina Del Rey to Pasadena. (I’ll bet the traffic dynamic was a little different when JFK was nominated here.)

A large contingent from the Alter gathering trekked from Malibu over the mountains to a party on the set of The West Wing (the knowing assessment was that the set looked much better than the real West Wing) on the Warner’s lot in Burbank. In theory, the event was closed to the working press, although most of the people at the party were big-time journalists and media types (or perhaps these journalists had all graduated to being media types), together with The West Wing’s stars, and a few politicians (you had to be a fairly media-savvy pol to get in here). The party featured a walk-through by Chelsea Clinton. The Times’s Alex Kuczynski, writing color stories from the convention – “I’m doing what Maureen Dowd used to do,” she said – insisted she was covering the West Wing party, no matter what anyone said.

If you couldn’t cover this, what would be left?

I don’t think too many of us were interested in the real business of the political pros. Who was up for a breakfast at the Sheraton in Santa Monica titled “Democrats’ Challenge: Promoting Change – Yet Continuity – on the Economy, Family Issues, and Foreign Affairs,” featuring Representative Sam Gejdenson? Or instead of going to the West Wing party, any of us could have opted for the AIPAC event, where Clinton spoke (indeed, I was dragging my feet about seeing the father of a friend, newly retired and now active in the Jewish lobby – he was very impressed with the presentations he’d heard from the Republicans courting AIPAC in Philadelphia). And I certainly was not hurrying out to Pasadena to talk to a political-consultant friend about how his business prospecting was going – although he thought someone should write the story about how good the political business was.

Because the convention is designed to offer no real news, the big news becomes the effect of there being no news, or the benefits of no news, which causes the bounce. This is a postmodern condition wherein the news is about the quality and quantity of the news itself. The more positive coverage of a candidate the convention generates, the higher the bounce (the common wisdom is that the candidate with a five-point lead on Labor Day wins).

The art of the bounce is managing to exceed the size of the headlines you would have received just on the basis of a certain number of reporters being in place – they have to file copy. The Boston Globe, for instance, has a staff of 30 here. But on top of that guaranteed coverage, you want to add layers and layers of sentimentality. Two days of front-page color pictures of Caroline Kennedy was a big score. (There was a secondary market outside the convention in the caroline placards that appeared on the floor.)

The Lieberman deal immediately became, at least for reporters, a sentimental story because it could be told in Jackie Robinson terms (FLASH: A Jew makes it in America!) It was faux news. Big but bland – that’s the standard.

Now, another aspect of this postmodern media condition (perhaps it is post-postmodern) is that very little of this television event is played out on television. While the modern convention, with its cultural as well as political importance, is a television creation, it’s also, in its post-conflict incarnation (in political-marketing parlance, “a red, white, and blue show of unity”), a television dud. Newspapers, news magazines, and now possibly the Internet are, therefore, much more important than television in the creation of the bounce. Still, print reporters continue to cover the convention as, principally, a television event. A good part of their coverage is about assessing the effect of the convention on television viewers, even though hardly anyone is watching.

The fact that this is all staged for television – the biggest fights are about who gets on television at what time – even when network television carries very little of it, gives the proceedings a ghostly and sometimes desperate quality.

This is also Gore’s desperation – he can’t seem to strike the balance between needing the attention and not looking like he needs it too much.

Everyone has been forced into an awkward role. The staging is forced – speakers emerging, casual-like, from the middle of the crowd. The programming is off – the lineup of immigrants and paraplegics and homeless is less Oprah and more Queen for a Day. The look and feel is garbled – Alexis Herman, the secretary of Labor, gotten up as a variety-show host. The mannerisms, ridiculous – Hillary trying to move to the music.

The awkwardness comes not least of all from the fact that none of these people are allowed to talk about, or hardly even refer to, what interests them most of all, which is politics – that is, the procedural machinations of who’s in and who’s out, who’s up and who’s down. These are people who would shine in a credentials fight but who seem pathetically diminished in their efforts to make nice-nice.

Except for Bill. He’s the one who shines. He can do the emotional thing, the flirty thing. He doesn’t have a separate identity from his television one. He is so much the natural that it just seemed absurd to contemplate that this would be his last speech. In an ideal world, were Bush to win, the next Clinton campaign would begin in earnest immediately thereafter.

Almost everybody was here in the press gallery – or anybody who could make any claim to journalistic importance. If you were in this business, there wasn’t a better place to be to catch up with who you needed to catch up with, to be seen by who you wanted to see you.

Indeed, it was a pretty good pageant of pols, moguls, studio folks, celebrities, and pundits. In a way, you could argue that the story here was insiderism – that’s the story of all trade shows. We were all quite interesting to one another. But very clearly, we are not interesting to anyone else. Doubtful we’re any more interesting to the rest of America than, say, Herb Allen’s Sun Valley show.

And so it seemed inescapable that, as much as it was nice to be able to get together on a regular basis with the nation’s machers and show-offs (on my way to the men’s room, I passed, in quick succession, Jimmy Smits, Jon Corzine, the character who died last season on Ally McBeal, Jerry Levin, Jimmy Carter, and Jeffrey Katzenberg), this could not go on.

Or at least we couldn’t go on pretending this was a nominating convention.

Money gets the bad rep, but media is as deleterious to the political process. The perspective goes way off. Politics as a major cultural event is a sixties and seventies notion – a three-network notion. But that was an anomalous time and business model.

If you withdraw the media – and obviously, at the networks such withdrawal has begun – then you begin to return conventions, and politics, to a pre-1960 state.

Indeed, if we could regard politics as a specialized profession, like health care or telecommunications, Gore could probably get elected easily.

Anyway, sooner or later, ratings, if not good sense, will break the co-dependent and tiresome bond between media and politics.

As for me, I’ve assured my daughter that this is my last convention (except if Bill finds a way to run again).

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

L.A. Nonstory