The conventions: No life in these parties

FOR THOSE OF YOU still hooked on “Survivor,” here’s a quick update on what you missed:

Considered as showbiz, the conventions played like two infomercials in search of Tony Robbins. As political events, the conventions may prompt millions to stay away from polling places.

A generation ago, the Republican convention would have highlighted a down-to-the-wire McCain vs. Bush floor fight. Bradley’s challenge to Gore might also have provided a spark for the Democrats. And, since the Democratic delegates seemed to “hang” more with folk heroes Streisand and Geffen than at the Staples Center, who knows whether one of these two might have been inspired to run as a dark horse!

The bottom line, though, is that the two parties have put their conventions out of business, and the broadcast networks’ decision to snub them is understandable.

The ratings were even lower than for the 1996 conventions. ABC’s live coverage Aug. 15 pathetically drew half the audience watching NBC’s “Dateline.” The stage-managing was so inept that it was almost 11 p.m. in the East before President Clinton started his oration.

While the efforts of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News to pick up the slack were admirable, their coverage, too, seemed journalistically onanistic.

Fleeting glimpses of the convention floor were intercut with interminable panels of journalists arguing with other journalists. By Day Three, the “experts” themselves seemed catatonic when asked, yet again, whether Al Gore really was a stiff.

THE TERRIBLE TRUTH was that there was essentially nothing to talk about, and the party poobahs weren’t helping, either. The left wing of the Democratic party, for example, simply wasn’t interested in picking apart Joe Lieberman. Step up military spending? That sounds like a neat Democratic idea.

The conventions of old could count on both suspense and nostalgia, yet even here these conventions bombed.

Everyone knew the outcome, so there was no shot at suspense and no insights into the dealmaking and tradeoffs — the grist for high drama when figures like Kennedy and Nixon were making their runs.

As for nostalgia, President Reagan, of course, could not be summoned up by the Republicans, and Teddy Kennedy looked more like a float than a senator.

It remained for Clinton to supply the “Elvis moment,” but he, too, seemed oddly irrelevant — the Democrats at once needed him, yet wanted him to go away.

What’s sad about all this is that the conventions of old probably would have played great for today’s audience. Viewers clearly are desperate for anything that seems spontaneous and real, however “staged” these shows may be. How else could one account for the success of “Survivor” or “Big Brother,” or for the resurgence of the quiz show?

At the same time, there seems to be a growing skepticism over the media prism through which we all view the political process. Al Gore’s personality has to be filtered through those journalists who cover him, and who clearly find George W. Bush more convivial. Yet Tommy Lee Jones tells us that his one-time Harvard roommate, Al Gore, was the life of the party.

THE ONLY GLIMPSES the public sees of its candidates are so stage-managed, so manufactured, that there’s no way of assessing character or personality. During the conventions, each candidate is depicted in maudlin detail as the ideal Daddy — one finds oneself longing for a lone “bad apple.”

Doesn’t anyone remember that Reagan was a notoriously clueless Daddy and it didn’t hurt his political career at all? This is an election, not a rerun of “Father Knows Best.”

If our politicos want to avoid fading even further into obscurity, they’d do well to consider the following retro measures: Bring back the smoke-filled room. Bring back the old-style conventions with all their intrigue and dealmaking. Most important of all, bring back some candidates we wouldn’t want to vote off our island.

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