A View from the Floor

KKTV Fox 11 reporter Phil Shuman '79 at the conventions.
KKTV Fox 11 reporter Phil Shuman ’79 attended both the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

You have to love politics to attend a national  convention. Hotel rooms 30 miles out of town. Security checkpoints and 12-foot-high steel fences. Metal detectors  on virtually every corner. Enough police officers with automatic weapons to invade a medium-sized country. Secret Service dictating your every move. Hot air inside; hotter, humid air outside. Crowds. Lines. Traffic. Hurricanes. Rainstorms. Did I mention the 12-foot fences?

I don’t want to sound negative, but three days of this (mercifully shortened from four)—all to nominate a presidential candidate who’s already been selected by his party—seems like a lot of time, effort, and tax dollars that could be put to more productive use.

Having traveled to both Tampa and Charlotte on assignment as a local TV news reporter from Los Angeles, it’s definitely exciting to be “in the room” when the big speeches happen. At the same time, conventions are outdated, expensive, logistically challenged dinosaurs. They’re gatherings of tens of thousands of  party loyalists, politicians at every level, untold numbers of staffers, and omnipresent PR types who love to hear themselves talk, wave banners, have parties, touch base with their friends from the good old days, and hope they show up in the background of a Fox or CNN or MSNBC broadcast. The conventions’ time seems to have come and gone, at least from my perspective in the Fox affiliates skybox and on the ground, waiting in those endless security lines.

Going back to the ’40s, conventions actually performed the role for which they were designed: to vote for and nominate a candidate from the party to run for president. But now, the delegates have already been “pledged” in the primary and caucus processes, so the candidates have already been selected. As a result, there’s no suspense or indecision or controversy or uncertainty. The last time we saw a Democratic battle was in 1980 in New York City, when Teddy Kennedy decided to challenge sitting president Jimmy Carter’s nomination. Kennedy lost. The Republicans had their last contested convention battle in 1976, when Ronald  Reagan tried to boot Gerald Ford after Ford, the incumbent, failed to win enough delegates during the primaries to ensure a nomination. Again, no luck. Since then, conventions have been entirely predictable.

In a time of shrinking budgets and economic hardship, what may be even more outrageous is how much we taxpayers spend on conventions. Each party got at least $18 million in taxpayer funds for its side’s candidate, then each raised tens of millions in private donations. What’s more, since the conventions are officially designated as “National Security Events” (think Super Bowl), the federal government picks up the tab for keeping everyone safe, to the tune of $50 million per convention.

And yet…

There are payoffs. During the conventions, more people are tuned into the race for president than ever before, at least for the hour or so of the final night when the candidates make their highly anticipated speeches. The prime-time hour of TV coverage gets good, solid ratings, and people are able to focus on the merits of the candidates and their platforms, unfiltered by slick campaign ads.

We get to think about important things, such as who has a better vision for the future of the country. While national media figures like Sean Hannity or Brian Williams or Wolf Blitzer get to sit down with the candidates themselves, a local reporter like me can ask the Mayor of Los Angeles, Democratic convention co-chair Antonio Villaraigosa, about what all this means to Southern California. (His answer: in large part a more rapid distribution of transportation dollars and the fact that President Obama is a “friend” to Los Angeles). I can talk to someone so far out of the limelight that they walked around almost unnoticed, like former Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis. I think he had one of the best sound bites of the two conventions when he told me, briefly, in Charlotte: “We had to put up with Romney for four years. … That story has to be told.”  I was able to ask the Rev. Jesse Jackson, mobbed by the media wherever he went in Charlotte, about the pride he felt in seeing President Barack Obama on stage, and about the path that led through such figures as Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., Strom Thurmond, Jackson himself, and the president, and about how a generation ago North Carolina would have never hosted a Democratic convention. In Tampa, it was a chance to get Karl Rove’s reaction to the much-anticipated Mitt Romney speech and the curious Clint Eastwood performance. (When I asked Rove to rate the night on a scale of 1 to 10, he answered, ”I hate those kinds of questions.” OK… ) Overall, it was good perspective.

So, would I advocate for ending the conventions? Not necessarily. Would I advocate for shortening them considerably and narrowing the scope, cost, inconvenience, and number of speakers? Sure. And given that none of that is likely to happen—and it will probably be business as usual four years from now—would I want to go to the conventions again? Absolutely.

Phil Shuman ’79 is a reporter with KTTV Fox 11 News in Los Angeles.