Television made its debut at national political conventions in 1948. The audience was confined to the east coast, national coverage still four years away.
Conventions in those days were not tightly scripted affairs: they featured some entertaining gaffes and “hot microphone” moments.
At the ’48 Democratic gathering, President Harry Truman was nominated and gave his acceptance speech in one day — one long day.
Following extensive proceedings, a delegate walk-out, and much bluster, House Speaker Sam Rayburn was set to introduce President Truman at 1:43 am. Prior to Truman’s entry, 48 “doves of peace” were to be released from within a floral display of the Liberty Bell – one dove representing each state in the country at the time. The idea behind the fanfare was to create an ideal photo-op.
Of course, viewership at that hour in the morning was not part of the calculation — nor was the behavior of the birds. Instead of majestically flying off to the rafters, they zoomed around the stage, one briefly landing on Rayburn’s head. Others doused the crowd with bird droppings.
An irate Rayburn came across the television microphone: “Get these (expletive deleted) pigeons out of here.”
Arthur Krock, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist from The New York Times, described yesteryear’s political conventions as a mixture of “country circus, street carnival, medicine show and Fourth of July picnic.”
No more. Conventions these days — even before the restrictions imposed by Covid-19 — are controlled infomercials. As broadcaster Walter Cronkite concluded, “There is no news, it’s just a show.”
This evolution began with the 1952 conventions when television networks first offered gavel-to-gavel coverage. No one was ready for prime time — not the Democrats, not the Republicans, not the networks.
NBC’s David Brinkley pointed out television cameras did not come with instruction books. Everyone was learning their craft on-air.
“The problem here was that we still thought we were in the picture business, still competing with the movie theater newsreels and still thinking, even though we all knew better, that news was whatever we could get on film and show, not tell,” Brinkley explained. “Here we were, all of us young former newspaper reporters, trying to drive a new, highly complex machine.”
Matching the visual feed with the verbal content was the initial challenge — because silence was feared by producers, it took some time to understand that the images were self-explanatory and the best strategy sometimes was to say nothing.
As CBS anchor, Cronkite remembered in those early days he had an editor sitting on one side and a “communications consultant “on the other. The editor’s job was to pass a continuing flow of notes telling Cronkite what stories the floor reporters were ready to broadcast. The consultant was there to let him know where the camera was going next. It was Cronkite’s responsibility to process the options and keep his narrative running smoothly.
As the networks matured and the telecasts became technically sound, politicians modified their approach; they learned to message much more effectively. Here are a few moments from conventions past that reflect this development:
— In 1960, John Kennedy won the election because he bested Richard Nixon in the first of four toe-to-toe debates. But it was his electric convention acceptance speech which established Kennedy as a legitimate candidate. “It is time…for a new generation in leadership, new men to cope with new problems and new opportunities,” he memorably intoned.
— The 1968 Democratic convention will be forever recalled for the Lincoln Park riots, but the jostling in the International Amphitheater over delegate seating and the defeat of the “peace plank” left Hubert Humphrey presiding over a strife-torn party. Television coverage threw a shadow that Humphrey could not escape.
— President Ronald Reagan’s farewell address at the 1988 Republican Convention captured his genial appeal perfectly. “I can still remember my first Republican Convention,” he quipped. “Abraham Lincoln giving a speech that sent tingles down my spine.”
–The 2004 masterful convention speech by Barack Obama launched him into the political stratosphere. “People don’t expect government to solve all their problems,” he declared. “But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all.”
Touchstone moments like these can only happen when a nation is tuned into the political process as it plays out in a convention. Saccharine stagecraft is no substitute for authentic passion. It’s time we release some more doves.