A well-known network correspondent was standing at a hotel bar with his coffee and orange juice. The day was not starting out well.
"There's no news here,” he lamented out loud to anyone within earshot, which was me. "What's the point of all this? Why am I here?"
Tampa? No. It was San Francisco in the Orwellian year of 1984.
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ABC White House correspondent Sam Donaldson wasn't the first to complain. It had taken awhile but by then both political parties had figured out that the raucous nature of their gatherings every four years was delightfully entertaining to reporters and political types but did not exactly inspire confidence with the electorate.
By the time Democrats met that year to nominate Walter Mondale as their challenger to President Ronald Reagan, they had figured out how to take all the spontaneity out of the event.
Then, like last week in Florida and this week in North Carolina, the convention became more of a stage show. The networks’ gavel to gavel coverage eventually ended. There was no shortage of pundits who predicted the institution’s demise.
So, what happened?
Well, cheap satellite time for one thing.
While the networks turned up their noses to them, local TV stations across the country filled the void by sending their own reporters to cover the local delegations. Then came the resuscitation of AM radio and the talk show format.
Now both have been followed by the Internet and the 140-character instant dispatches via Twitter. Both Tampa and Charlotte will have about 15,000 credentialed reporters, second only in size to the Olympics. (In Tampa, that was about 4 reporters per delegate. It should be 2 to 1 in Charlotte because Dems seat twice as many delegates as Republicans do.)
Even with dwindling media presence, it’s doubtful these conventions would go away entirely.
At its core, the political process is not about scripted messaging or TV spots. It is about people and personal relationships. Conventions are milestones of political participation, both for the politicians and those who sacrifice time and money for a cause and an ideal.
That last part Sam Donaldson no doubt knew well. After the juice and coffee were finished, he was on his way. After all, who knew? Maybe an 82-year-old actor with an empty chair would liven things up a bit.