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Commentary | UNCONVENTIONAL THOUGHTS

Look in the Mirror, America

August 14, 2000|Richard N. Goodwin | Richard N. Goodwin was an assistant special counsel to President Kennedy and a special assistant to President Johnson. He lives in Concord, Mass

"Let's get this over with quickly, before they all find out how little they want me," John F. Kennedy said to his companions as he alighted from the plane that had brought him to Los Angeles for the 1960 Democratic National Convention.

A joke? Not really. He was ahead. The votes had been canvassed. Yet the margin was slim, and if he was not nominated on the first ballot, there was a real danger that defections would deny him the nomination.

And there were some among his supporters who did not want him, who feared that he was too young, or too Catholic, or too inexperienced to take on the wily and despised Richard M. Nixon. In the end, out of 1,500 votes, Kennedy would receive only 45 more than he needed, many of them given reluctantly.

It was a watershed convention, both the last of the old conventions and the beginning of the new. As had been true in the past, party bosses--the chieftains of state and city parties--would be decisive. But in 1960, for the first time, victories in the primaries were also decisive, demonstrating to the party powers, or so it was thought, that despite his religion and his age, Kennedy could win votes.

Today, as the Democrats reassemble in Los Angeles, the bosses are gone, an extinct species. This convention is merely a ritual of ratification, a formal confirmation of the primary elections. It is no longer the bosses who decide, but the people--at least that handful who vote in the primaries, along with the wealthy who make it all possible.

Yet before we congratulate ourselves on this extension of democratic principle, we should pause to acknowledge that it was the bosses who gave us Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, Adlai E. Stevenson and John F. Kennedy. The people on the other hand have given us . . . everybody since.

It was the old Democratic and Republican conventions that were truly made for television--the clash of egos and ideas; some uncertainty, both real and contrived; colorful personalities in collision: Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley shouting insults at Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut; Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois blaming Tom Dewey of New York for leading the Republican Party to defeat at the hands of Roosevelt and then Truman; Hubert H. Humphrey driving Southern delegations from the convention with his plea that it was time for the Democratic Party "to get out of the shadow of states' rights" into the "bright sunshine of human rights." And in the more distant past, William Jennings Bryan demanding that the moneyed East not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

In contrast, today's tedious events appear as if designed by some twisted producer determined to drive his audience away to quiz shows and "reality" dramas.

Everyone who remembers the conventions of old mourns their passage. But in politics there is no room for nostalgia. The conventions of today, like those of the past, are faithful mirrors of the country and the political process, reflecting the changes of the past four decades.

There is still plenty of drama in the contest for nomination. Except that now it has been pushed forward into the primaries, as we saw John McCain's insurgency mount and then recede, Bill Bradley's challenge beaten back by a reinvigorated Al Gore. There was sharp and serious debate on issues and personalities, as well as an abundance of hypocrisy, meaningless rhetoric, imprecations hurled at opponents. Surely the Bush performance in South Carolina rivals in violent hypocrisy anything done at any convention.

Since the true contest for power takes place in the primaries, they are now the theater of political drama. By the time the convention begins, the battle is ended. An old political adage holds that it is fine, even necessary, to kick your opponent when he is down, but not when he is dead. That is a waste of energy in a struggle where there is no energy to waste.

But even in their current emasculated condition, the conventions can tell us something of the country they reflect. The 1960 convention was shadowed by the Cold War. Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev had broken up a summit meeting and declared the Monroe Doctrine dead, while Cuba was transformed into a communist outpost. The threat from communism and the struggle for the turbulent, impoverished continents of the Third World preoccupied candidates and delegates.

Today, to American concerns, the world has grown larger, its difficulties more remote, the theater of a struggle for markets, not for human freedom. The manifold difficulties of a turbulent globe are of only marginal concern to a self-absorbed American people, and the political debate--health care, education, etc.--reflects this shrunken concern.

Nor will there be even an echo of the strident civil-rights debates of the past. For there is an emerging national consensus in opposition to racial and ethnic prejudice. The Republicans have even dropped the hostility to immigration reflected in past platforms.

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