Commentary: Watching the conventions

Sep 5, 2012

I grew up a pathetic political junkie of the worst kind. I've been avidly watching and occasionally attending conventions since I was eight years old. I was so pathetic that I would rather have watched Stuart Symington speak than Rocky Colavito play ball.

However, while that didn’t make me one of the cool kids, it does give me some basis for comparison, and there is no doubt that Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention last night was one of the best I have ever heard.

Had her moment happened forty years ago, everybody would be talking about it today. But, the real question today is not what she said, but … who bothered to watch?

Sadly, while I haven’t seen the ratings, the answer is certain to be that only a small minority of Americans saw the first lady, other than perhaps a brief sound bite on the news.

Once upon a time, the networks prided themselves in “gavel to gavel” coverage of both national political conventions.

That was in the pre-cable days, when they and the government took the public interest requirements of the Federal Communications Commission seriously. But nowadays, you have to turn to cable to find much convention coverage. And with dozens of other channels showing the Kardashians or reruns of Law and Order, that isn’t easy.

Few Americans regard the conventions as important, which is both sad, and a possibly dangerous indication of a lack of interest in democracy. Former Attorney General Frank Kelley’s father was a self-made businessman and political appointee in Detroit.

But the highlight of his life was chairing Michigan’s delegation to the nineteen forty-eight Democratic National Convention, and being able to announce to the nation that “Michigan casts all forty-two votes for President Harry Truman.”

They used to actually pick presidents at these conventions, and they were once wildly unpredictable. One Democratic convention lasted for sixteen days and one hundred and three ballots.  But those days are long over.

So, apparently are the days when conventions did much to persuade people. Last week I talked to Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. He told me that he felt getting President Obama reelected was critical to Detroit having a fighting chance.

The mayor said: “The big concern we all have is that the enthusiasm has waned quite a bit, and the big issue is getting people excited about how important it is to get out the vote, because if you don’t vote, you are really voting for the other guy.”

The mayor told me he had a meeting last week to begin discussing what might be the best way to get Detroiters to the polls.

He knows that while Mitt Romney could be elected without Michigan, Barack Obama can’t be. What he didn’t say was that Detroit itself, with its shrinking population, has grown far less important. But in a close race, it could still matter.

And in a crucial time, the competing versions of America on display at the national conventions ought to matter too.

So whatever your politics, you might think of tuning in tonight. A battle for America’s future is underway, and it sometimes makes good theater. Mad Men reruns will still be there tomorrow.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.