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Political Conventions in the Eye of Beholder


President Barack Obama addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012.(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was at the Republican convention. He did not attend.

In politics, as in physics, there is an observer effect. An instrument used to observe a phenomenon—from TV to Twitter—can transform it in the process.


A few weeks back, my boss assigned me to go home and watch the conventions the way most Americans would. What I observed—on a Sony widescreen, an iPad, and my iPhone—is not what the press and the delegates were seeing in the convention hall. Here are a few final observations. 

 1. If demography is destiny, the “emerging Democratic majority” may be fleeting. The Republican convention was ablaze with bright, vigorous, inspiring people of color. Marco Rubio. Condoleezza Rice. Susana Martinez. Ted Cruz. Nikki Haley. This was more than window dressing; this was a dazzlingly diverse array of Republican leaders. The Party of Lincoln may be witnessing a rebirth of its noblest values as—and nativists beware—personnel will transform policy. 

2. All across the nation... such a strange vibration... people in motion. There are voters who feel that a remote control is all you need to participate in the national political conversation. But for lots of other Americans, passive is passé. We like yammering away on Twitter, reddit, Tumblr, Flickr, and Facebook, giving running commentary, putting silly captions on photographs, creating videos, and tossing insults as we watch the politicians cavort. Why let showboats like Chris Matthews have all the fun? Tweet, chuckle, retweet, repeat. A whole lot different from the days when Uncle Walter told us, “Sit still, children, and listen to Hubert Humphrey.” 


3. Fair and Balanced. Americans are not just passing on passivity—they’re dumping objectivity as well. The conservatives at the Fox News Channel led all networks in the ratings during the Republican convention—and then the yakking liberals at MSNBC usurped them when left-leaning viewers tuned in to see the Democrats. We want folks to tell us what we want to hear. 

4. The Culture War. Oy. Just as the Republicans were easing up in the interminable conflict between Woodstock Nation and the Silent Majority, the Democrats decided to rev things up by scaring their base with tales of the dreadful deprivations that will follow Mitt Romney’s potential election. The GOP kept the preachers off the program in Tampa, Fla., and focused on the economy. But the Democrats have had plenty of help from Rick Santorum, Rush Limbaugh, and other conservative paladins this year— and their porcine comments gave Sandra Fluke and others a prime-time opportunity to incite women voters.

5. Golf? What was up with the Republicans and golf? I was offended by their snickering insinuation that my favorite pastime is a sport for dolts and layabouts. The hypocrites! I started as a caddy at 12, and have played the globe over, and can tell you what you know: Country Club Acres is no Democratic precinct. If President Obama makes it out to the links a couple of times a month, good for him.

6. What if they had a fact check and nobody cared? The media was confronted by an existential threat during the conventions. The press was spotlighting campaign falsehoods, seemingly to no effect. So, egged on by media critics, The New York Times, Aaron Sorkin, and their own desperate ache for relevance (and challenged to do their worst by Romney’s pollster), reporters responded with renewed vigor. It was awful timing for poor Rep. Paul Ryan, who got smacked in the face by the wave of media umbrage when, among other taradiddles, he got caught embellishing his marathon time. In American tale-telling tradition, only fishermen and golfers are permitted to enhance their sporting exploits. And runners, it seems, treat their times like holy writ—and will narc you out if you fib.

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