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Jewish World Review July 13, 2000 / 10 Tamuz, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports

The Great Lie about political conventions -- SAN DIEGO Oh...right. The Star of India.

I knew I recognized the ship. It's a hard one to miss...a gorgeous old three-masted square rigger, all ancient wood and soaring sails, the kind of ship you half-expect to find a bare-chested Victor Mature at the helm of in some vintage swashbuckling movie.

But as I looked at the Star of India the other morning, it wasn't Victor Mature or Hollywood seafaring films it reminded me of.

It was Bob Dole.

Four years ago this summer, the Star of India was the the most prominent vessel in a flotilla that brought Dole and his running mate, Jack Kemp, into San Diego for the national convention that would officially give them the nominations to head the Republican ticket.

(Actually, they had flown to a nearby military base. They had switched to the boats so that their arrival in town would be more photogenic. Victor Mature needn't have worried; Dole and Kemp as salty swabbies made an instantly forgettable maritime visual image, and as soon as the Republicans left town the Star of India was tethered back to its customary place in a local harbor.)

Which is where I came upon it the other day. And which is what made me think:

San Diego is a lot better off this summer than Philadelphia or Los Angeles.

For it is those cities that will be hosting the national political conventions -- Philadelphia gets the Republicans, Los Angeles gets the Democrats. And what they will receive for all the trouble they went to in attracting the politicians, for all the money they spent sweet-talking the Republicans and the Democrats into coming, is....

Pretty much nothing.

The great lie about American cities and the national political nominating conventions is that by winning the right to host the conventions, the cities will enhance their own images for years -- no, generations -- to come. The citizenry of the United States, impressed and awestruck by the fact that a particular city has been anointed to host an actual political nominating convention, will make a mental note that this is a city like no other, a champion among cities, a bright and glorious light on the national landscape. Quick, honey, get out our calendar for next year...we've got to pack up the kids and see Philadelphia for ourselves!

Well...people who live in cities where the national political conventions are held will tell you that they're mostly a headache and a nuisance. The streets are tied up with security agents, the local merchants invariably are disappointed with the paltry amount of business the conventions bring to them, the tourism bounce ends up being about zero...the era of Americans caring about which city holds a Democratic or Republican convention is long-vanished.

For starters, the central premise that leads cities to fight each other for the right to host a convention -- the promise of coast-to-coast, gavel-to-gavel major television network coverage that will indelibly imprint the image of the city in the minds of impressed and admiring Americans -- has fizzled entirely. In the early days of television, it was assumed that because so many people were watching the conventions, this meant that the country was hungry for the national civics lessons that the conventions represented. People must love the conventions...they were watching, weren't they?

They were watching, it turned out, because (1) television was still a novelty, and they would watch anything that appeared on it, and (2) there was nothing else on. Back then the three major networks carried all four days of each convention, from morning to late at night. If you wanted to watch TV, then you had to watch the conventions.

This year, several of the major networks are talking about carrying no convention coverage at all some nights -- not a minute. NBC -- the network on which Chet Huntley and David Brinkley made the national conventions into the original must-see TV -- this year is seriously considering televising the conventions only on their fourth (final) nights. They've finally figured out that when viewers are given a choice between the conventions and almost anything else, the conventions become must-flee TV.

For an image of a city, the only real effect a convention can have is a bad one. If things go smoothly and peacefully convention week (as, for example, in Kansas City for the Republicans in 1976), the world immediately forgets. If things go rottenly wrong. ...

What is the last convention city that the world really remembers? Chicago, 1968.

When the Democrats finally came back to Chicago in 1996, and things went well, the world hardly noticed. Those cute painted cows on the street corners last summer did far more for Chicago as a tourist destination than did the Democrats of '96.

Good night, Chet.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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