The first political convention I remember watching was the Democrats in 1980. I was seven years old, and my main concern that year was that for mysterious reasons, all my favorite TV shows were off the air. No "CHiPS." No "Diff'rent Strokes." No "M*A*S*H." Just speeches, all day and into the night.
My dad, who was a year older then than I am now, sat at the TV in our Minnesota farmhouse basement, escaping the hayfield sun and watching for hours, in the midst of a transformation that made him the classic Reagan Democrat who never came back. He'd invite me to sit with him and watch the speeches. I remember him asking me who I wanted to be president. My mom liked the Kennedys -- a picture of JFK hung in the basement then -- so I said, "Ted Kennedy." Dad said no, you don't want to vote for Kennedy -- he'll raise your taxes. "OK," I said, and the rest of the week I watched the convention with my father as a fellow Reaganite, beginning a life of political vacillation that I proudly continue to the present day.
Maybe that moment warped me for life politically. But that was 1980, and that was my life, and here I am, 1,500 miles from the farm on and 24 years later, sitting in a makeshift pressroom in New York and thinking about conventions. 1980 was a watershed year in several ways. Along with the "Reagan revolution," it was the last year the three major networks carried the conventions live, gavel-to-gavel. "CHiPS" and "M*A*S*H" took a back seat then -- starting in 1984, that began to erode. I wasn't too politically savvy as a seven-year-old (don't know how savvy I am now), but I knew that whatever was happening was important -- my shows weren't on. That doesn't happen now. The erstwhile Big Three cover Merely Three hours, though the rest is on PBS and cable. It's another show on a wide schedule, and politics is just one more range of entertainment fare.
This is the part of the essay where I veer dangerously close to bemoaning a lost seriousness in American discourse. But I'm not gonna do it. The good old days were never so good, and the present isn't as bad as it seems. Even then, conventions were largely stage shows, and even now, the conventions are still important, if not as omnipresent. The messages are still crafted for the masses, and even though nearly everyone will find at least one party hopelessly cynical, we forget how fortunate we are to be in a country where those parties are forced to at least try to appeal to the public, rather than arrogantly rule with no need to explain.
And the proliferation of media makes more information available, if also easier to avoid. The three hours on the networks actually seems about right -- exposure for the news events, and overload on cable for the news junkies. Perhaps if today's media were available in 1980, my mother would have turned the TV to a cooking channel during the conventions, and I'd be a chef rather than a political writer. If that were the case the world would go on -- hey, this country needs chefs too. But even then I'd have the access -- and the ability -- to make an informed choice, and that's the foundation of freedom.
I'm rambling. It's late. We have two official nominees, and a razor race, and it will be ugly, and it will be divisive. But I'm not worried about America's future, no matter who wins. I've been watching these campaigns since 1980 -- participating in them for the first time this year -- and the people always make choices that keep the country moving ahead, though the veer may shift. Right now, this summer of conventions just feels like a dream come true for me, and right now, I'm leaving it at that.
I'm posting, I'm packing, I'm going to bed. Tomorrow it's back to the Beltway. When I get home I'll call my dad and ask him what he thought of the conventions, watching from home in Minnesota. And I'll say, thanks for watching them with me.
(I'm still conflicted about those parties, though.)