American major party conventions are rarely more than signpost formalities in the game of electoral politics. They are not particularly exciting, and the spectacular meltdown of the Democratic Convention in 1968 was one of only a very few exceptions to this rule.
Sentimentality has a habit of corroding substance, and there is much of that at National Conventions, which have become more and more like Academy Awards ceremonies over the years. The sentiment often embeds itself in sickly sweetened rhetoric, giving off a cloud of feelings without any tangible connection to hard realities.
A look then, at the first day’s proceedings at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. There is the music — Celebration is played to a swaying, shimmying hall. There are numerous announcements, a tepid affair which rolls along like court procedure. If the eyes are at risk of glazing over, there is plenty of colour and movement to distract yourself with — hats, costumes, the Stars and Stripes.
There are of course, the celebrities, brought in for the occasion. No Convention is quite complete without them. There is Senator Edward Kennedy, the ailing warhorse of the Democrats, though something of a saboteur at previous conventions. But here, he is the hero who took a stance against the war on Iraq and reads for the disadvantaged, a figure now battling cancer. A video is shown: Kennedy sailing on water, that water being the "metaphor of change". He makes a promise to be on the Senate floor next January.
And there is Michelle Obama, the wife of the nominee, who gave what a contributor to the liberal magazine Nation called "elegant remarks". The purpose of the speech was distinctly less than elegant, a patch-up job for gaping holes caused by her comments made on patriotism earlier this year. (One is not entitled to not be proud of America, even in the face of shameful mistakes.)
Obama’s credentials as the poverty-fighter are emphasised. He embraced Martin Luther King Jr (the religious element, the inclusive element). Challenges are mentioned — poverty-stricken parts of Chicago with seemingly everything but hope. And Obama was there, an agent of rescue.
The same themes are reiterated with rhythmic, hypnotic effect, much like a Tibetan chant. "This is America. This is the place where dreams come true." That’s the message of another Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, who sees Obama as someone who believed in dreams that never died. But let Michelle Obama take us from here: "We know what fairness and justice and opportunity look like. And he urged us to believe in ourselves — to find strength within ourselves to strive for the world as it should be. And isn’t that the great American story?"
All these comments are meant to bolster the authentic experience, the authentic voice long lost in Washington. This, of course, is the strength of this message, though by the time it reaches a national convention such as this, it’s bound to be diluted.
Every convention needs its stellar projection with cinematic Dolby sound. It also needs a lumpen feel — the common folk are neatly slotted into performances with rigid choreography. One such speaker talks about the loss of her mother. She is now keen to pursue public service. She read Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. She is the "everyday" woman who is incapable of being everyday in any sense — she is, after all, speaking at a huge national convention. The moment one is propelled to the stage, there is little to say other than what is carefully filtered and scripted.
Maybe there is something genuine in all these antics. Kennedy left his bed to give a speech that could have killed him. With others, it’s hard to know. There is no violent outburst of suspicion or dislike for the charming Senator from Iowa and his anointed running mate Joe Biden. While they may be staging the odd protest elsewhere on the streets of Denver, inside this tent, Clinton supporters are silent, if indeed they are present.
Only the truly hostile conventions produce genuine politics and genuine discussion. Again, 1968 stands as the star, with the problems of Vietnam providing the sizzling catalyst.
"Genuineness" is what Obama is marketing, but not even he can get away from the nature of this celebrity system. Obama talks about the "fierce urgency of now". But any sense of authenticity or reality at the Convention is somehow diminished by this coliseum atmosphere. This is the last place to look for the practice of politics.
Of course, a resounding theme at this convention is that of "healing". It’s even in the script: Hillary Clinton, reports the New York Times, is set to "embrace Obama". It is unlikely that a mere hug will heal the rift between the putative candidate and the old challenger. Any healing between the actual personalities is bound to be as cosmetic as a facelift.
McCain may still get a bag of votes from the Hillary camp, and his advertising minions are swooping in for the kill. That, perhaps, is the only political reality at the end of this first day: those states (Ohio, for instance), with significant numbers of Clinton voters who still feel bruised by Obama’s glamour, by the rhetoric, may well defect to McCain or stay home.
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