Convention Theater: Dems Miss Chance--TV's Fault

DID DEMOCRATS WASTE FIRST DAY? blared a graphic beneath Larry King's chin. The Monday-night program of the Democratic National Convention had ended a couple of hours earlier, and King wanted the assembled pundits to tell him whether the party has mishandled its big event. The question is rich with irony. Precisely because of the pundits, who can even tell what the Democrats did on their first day, much less decide how well or badly they did it?

Time after time last evening, I flipped from the wall-to-wall coverage on C-Span—which is viewed, I imagine, largely by shut-ins and political completists—to see how CNN or MSNBC or Fox News broadcast a speech or performance. Time and again, they weren't broadcasting it at all. Instead, talking heads were talking to other talking heads about Hillary's dead-enders, or some other overblown story, at self-parodying length. The resulting coverage had about as much connection to what happened onstage last night as NBC's Olympics coverage would have had if Bob Costas had spent two full weeks asking other sportscasters how they feel about the shot put.

There's nothing criminal about networks dropping millions to fly all those cameras to the Rockies and then barely pointing them at the stage (that soothing, soothing stage: at the Pepsi Center, there is not a Red America or a Blue America, there is a pinkish-teal America). Nor is there anything surprising about the decision of a seller (the cable news shows) veering away from a commodity (the live feed) to offer a value-added product (bloviation about the live feed), particularly at an event everybody dismisses as an infomercial. But tonight's silly circus demonstrated how distorting and unattractive this self-absorption can be.

Consider the early conventional wisdom about last night: that the Democrats didn't spend much time hitting the Republicans. That's true, insofar as organizers didn't think it would be dignified to have two history-making speakers share the stage with a McCain piñata. But just because nobody got to hear the whacking doesn't mean no whacking occurred. Multiple members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Sen. Amy Klobuchar blasted McCain before prime time. Later, America caught a glimpse of Nancy Pelosi getting off a good line, saying that McCain does indeed have experience—"experience in being wrong." But many fewer people heard the even better line from Margie Perez, who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina and said, "America can't afford to let John McCain drown our hopes in more of the same failed policies."

There's no mystery to why Blitzer et al didn't linger on some of this stuff, consigning it to their online video streams. Much of it was boring; some of it was downright creepy. (If it's wrong for Bush to have a fake town hall with only his supporters, it's wrong for Democrats to let Sen. Sherrod Brown MC a fake town hall, a Potemkin panel to celebrate Obama and criticize McCain.) But you'd think somebody other than C-Span would get out of the way for a while and let the country make up their minds on the subject.

Even when the sheer weight of events compelled a moment of silence from the pundits, the self-aggrandizement endured. When Ted Kennedy walked a little unsteadily to the podium, and Maria Shriver began to weep—how much of our history is punctuated by Kennedys weeping?—it reminded you of all the crushing sacrifices the family has made in their lives of public service. Kennedy vowed to be back in Washington in January, but this could have been the last of the many ringing speeches he's made to the nation, a final declaration that "The work begins anew, the hope rises again, and the dream lives on." Still he had to share the screen with news tickers and network promotions and inane convention trivia. Has the man not earned, at this point, seven minutes of our undivided attention?

If they're smart, the Democrats are doing some recalculating today. Minor speakers—even good ones, like Obama's charming and forceful half-sister—aren't getting much airtime. With the most oxygen-depleting couple in American public life set to take the stage tonight and tomorrow, the pundit scrum will only get more aggressive. So the convention organizers may look back on tonight as their best chance to flesh out Obama's life story—one they partly fumbled.

I don't mean Michelle Obama's speech. Crafted with evident care, she talked about love of country and love of family, seeming impressive without becoming overbearing. This comes, I think, from a hint of nerves. The speech looked like it had been rehearsed down to the last hand-flutter. But the earnestness was winning: what normal person wouldn't be tense in that situation? Her delivery shifted from bold and declamatory to intimate and casual, in a trajectory that seems awfully familiar. Though it didn't have as much fire, her speech resembled her husband's big address four years ago. Pace the Clintons, here, at last, we might get two for the price of one (hold the psychodrama).

The letdown came from the soon-to-be nominee himself. Beamed onto the stage from a campaign stop in Kansas City, he flashed the characteristic allure ("Now you know why I asked her out so many times," he said of his wife's speech). Just then, Sasha, the youngest Obama and the one most likely to steal a scene—she high-fived Dick Cheney at daddy's swearing in— got her hands on a microphone, and used it. You want to show us Obama family life? Here is the perfect opportunity, gift-wrapped in front of a national network audience: not even the pundits can stop it now. But for whatever reason—technical snafu? Producer off-camera wildly gesturing to wrap things up?—Obama cut the father-daughter exchange short. The Democrats didn't waste the day, at least not as much as the people covering the convention might lead you to believe. But boy did they miss a chance.