Michael Dukakis experienced three indignities when he ran as the Democratic presidential nominee in 1988.
Two, you probably know. Dukakis took an infamous ride in a tank – a ride that took him from wannabe hawk to laughingstock; in a nationally televised debate, he dispassionately responded to a hypothetical question about his wife being raped and murdered with all the brio of a sleepy-eyed law professor.
And the third indignity?
It occurred during that year’s Democratic National Convention, courtesy of the whims of Boston’s viewing public. On the night that Dukakis, then the governor of Massachusetts, gave his acceptance speech, a local independent station back in Beantown nearly matched the convention’s ratings by airing . . . Benny Hill re-reruns (video-rental stores also reported booming business during both conventions that year).
Fast-forward now to 2012 and the uncomfortable relationship between the national parties, their national conventions, and American’s national television news networks.
There won’t be Monday night broadcast from Tampa. Mother Nature saw to that – the 2012 Republican National Convention shutting down for a day, until the bad weather eases.
But Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday?
ABC, NBC and CBS are freeing up all of a single hour each night – less time, on a given night, than such weighty fare as Bachelor Pad or America’s Got Talent.
If it’s extended coverage you seek, make sure your cable bill is paid up, then start surfing among C-SPAN (offering gave-to-gavel coverage since 1984), PBS (three hours’ worth, each of the three nights), or any of the alphabet-soup cable news networks (CNN, FNC, MSNBC).
So who’s at fault here?
This is one those circumstances when neither side – the parties and the networks – can claim the moral high ground. That the big three nets would give the man who could be the nation’s next leader only one hour of air time to discuss his life story and presidential vision is disgraceful.
Then again, it’s not like there’s much in the way of suspense: we know the identity of the ticket; the odds of a floor flight or prolonged protest by any state delegation are slim.
And the American voter takes a hit here too.
Viewers could put pressure on the networks to provide more coverage. Then again, they’re easily distracted: unlike most of the 20th-century presidential elections, voters nowadays can turn to premium channel channels, Netflix and iTunes movie downloads as alternatives – assuming they’ll bother to DVR the big speech. An angel gets its wings every time a bell rings; political conventions lose viewers every time technology moves forward (as you can see in this chart, household audiences for GOP conventions declined in the ‘80s, spiked in 1992, then receded again before another spike in 2008).
What we have, to borrow a work from the late James Stockdale, is gridlock. The two parties do their part to stage a nominating convention long on cosmetics and short on dramatics. The networks do their best to “cover” the event without really offering the event in any great depth.
Earlier this month, comedian/talk-radio host Dennis Miller suggested that the entire 2012 Republican National Convention could be downsized to one night, two hours (“here’s what we think, here’s what he thinks, let’s get it on on November 6 . . . then I’d have Chris Christie come out, slap around a photog, and I’d move on”).
Miller’s right in two regards:
- To the extent that a national convention goes on for several days, it’s more about tending to internal business than something as external as earning votes – rewarding delegates with a good show; letting politicians and special interests do their dirty dance;
- The convention really is a one-night show – the final night when the nominees get to directly address to a massive, unfiltered national audience (up to 40 million viewers tuning in four years ago).
Are the stakes high for Mitt Romney? Absolutely (here’s one reporter’s take on the candidates’ to-do list).
Meanwhile, here’s a name to remember, assuming the festivities do indeed get underway Tuesday: Mia Love.
Currently the mayor of Sarasota Springs (Utah, not Florida – making her that state’s first Haitian-American elected official), she’s challenging six-term Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson. If elected, she’d be the first black Republican woman in the House of Representatives.
You can expect Love to talk about inclusiveness and opportunity (full name Ludmya Bourdeau Love, she’s the daughter of immigrants), family (she’s a marathon-running mother of three) and bringing a new approach to Washington (lessons she’s applied to government).
And, perhaps, her faith.
Love also just happens to be a converted Mormon and has appeared in an LDS P.R. campaign. In a convention likely to feature a very vast Romney family tree, Love’s a subtle reminder that her church and her party aren’t necessarily monochromatic or one-dimensional.
And that’s a precept the Romney campaign would love to dispel during its four three nights in Tampa.