Preachers to the Choir

So in the inimitable tradition of making news mountains out of molehills, the Republican National Convention planners are beginning to trickle out the names of what they are calling “headline” speakers for the August 27-30 event in Tampa. No days or times have been announced, so the term “headliners” refers to the presumed prominence and/or representational value of the seven confirmed speakers (John McCain, Rick Scott, Nikki Haley, Mike Huckabee, Condi Rice, John Kasich and Susana Martinez). McCain is a given; so is Scott as the host governor; then you got your three women, all “twofers” as minority group members; Huck checks the Christian Right box early; and while the rationale for trumpeting Kasich isn’t entirely clear, Ohio is a big battleground state. Since none of the most obvious Veep possibilities (with the arguable exception of Huck and Martinez) are on the list, I suppose this announcement is also designed to subtly narrow and stimulate speculation over that decision. There were earlier reports that Chris Christie had been selected to deliver the “keynote address” (whatever that means these days: there have in the recent past been multiple “keynoters,” sometimes speaking well after the convention’s opening), but no confirmation, which gives them another big exciting announcement to make on a slow news day and/or when Romney does something stupid.

As a longtime convention hand (I worked in the script or speech operations of the last six Democratic events, a streak that will end this year now that I’m a bona fide journalist, albeit an opinionated one), I am always curious about the evolution, or perhaps the right word is devolution, of national conventions. The ever-burgeoning cost and steadily shrinking broadcast television coverage is making the old-school trappings of conventions more anachronistic each four years. The Republicans made a big leap in 2008 by killing off most of the afternoon sessions and croaking the sense of entitlement of every dogcatcher in the country to give a heavily scripted three-minute version of the campaign talking points watched by no one but CSPAN viewers. It was thus no big deal when the first formal day of the event was canceled at the last minute because a hurricane was approaching Louisiana (not something GOPers wanted to appear insensitive towards after Katrina). This year Democrats have shortened the official schedule by a day, but it’s unclear whether they will follow the Republican precedent by radically reducing the number of speakers.

In any event, if I were a potential or even announced speaker at either convention, I wouldn’t get too excited just yet. Donald Trump indicated over the weekend that he was confident the convention would get around to inviting him to speak; there was earlier murmuring from conservatives about the possibility that Sarah Palin might not get to the podium. I am sure either or both could be accommodated easily at some inconspicuous time, so long as they sign blood-oaths to stick to their teleprompter script. In my convention days, I can only recall three speakers who went blatantly off-script: DC Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly in 1992 (a rogue mic-hogging address that earned her and her staff vicious recriminations from everyone involved); Jimmy Carter in 2000 (Carter refused to use a script); and Al Sharpton in 2004 (nobody minded his entertaining rant at all).

Personally, much as I love these spectacles, I do wonder at what point the people running the two major parties will finally decide that it’s not the most effective use of their time and money to present themselves to the American people via a long series of politicians standing behind a podium and making speeches. But traditions die hard, along with the tendency to hope that each convention will recapture the old magic of the days when these gatherings actually involved deliberations and drama.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.