Southern convention blues

Apart from the swirling controversy over whether the Democrats can produce a bigger balloon drop than the Republicans did in Tampa, this summer’s national political conventions have been a relatively airtight news-free zone.

I suppose President Obama could jazz it up a little bit tonight in Charlotte by announcing that Toby Keith is replacing Joe Biden on the ticket. In a very tight presidential race, not only would that help him with the coveted southern working-man vote, most importantly it would wake up all those groggy-eyed conventioneers after three days of gorging themselves on BBQ and chugging ice-cold pitchers of PBR.

Note to self: Tip off the C-SPAN cameras so we can clearly see Biden’s face as he learns the news in real time along with the rest of us. Now that would be some must-see TV.

Kidding aside, in all honesty these political conventions have been devoid of serious news for a long time now and as an inveterate news junkie I am actually surprised the networks continue to devote so much of their air time to coverage. In reality, you have to go all the way back to 1988 for the last time any serious news actually took place at a political convention. The Democrats were in Atlanta that year and the Republicans gathered at the Superdome in New Orleans.

The news moment for the Democrats in 1988 came courtesy of a little-known governor from a small southern state who droned on and on during his nominating speech for Michael Dukakis. The only heartfelt applause line during the entire speech came when the speaker decided to wrap it up by mercifully saying “in conclusion.” A forgettable convention debut for a young Bill Clinton who surely would never be heard from again after his disastrous debut on the national political stage.

In New Orleans that same year Vice President George H.W.Bush decided to kick it up to a whole new level for his conventioneers when he shook up the political establishment and announced that Indiana’s unknown junior Senator Dan Quayle would be his running mate. As a very green South Carolina-based cub radio reporter covering my first convention I was in high cotton as I stood talking to veteran Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson and Indiana’s senior Senator Dick Lugar the very moment the Quayle bombshell hit. There had been some serious rumors going round that Bush might actually tap Lugar for the VP slot, which is why I happened to be stalking him all week.

With microphone in plain view and my reporter’s credential dangling around my neck it was the first time I remember wishing I could have been invisible and listened to those two chat about what they really thought of the Quayle announcement. The most I could get from the bemused Simpson -- on the record anyway -- was “interesting choice.”

That was the very same convention where Bush received a standing ovation during his acceptance speech when he confidently bellowed “Read my lips -- No new taxes!” Not only did the Peggy Noonan-crafted line bring down the house that night, it contributed as much as anything to burning down the house on the Bush presidency in 1992 after Bush was forced to raise taxes as part of a budget deal with Capitol Hill Democrats the prior year.

There might not have been any tea partyers to speak of in those days, but there was one cantankerous Georgia congressman named Newt Gingrich who made the Bush no tax pledge violation a national cause. Bush never really recovered from that and went on to defeat at the hands of that never-to-be-heard-from-again governor named Clinton.

Not exactly earth-shattering news at the time but the big buzz item from the Democratic convention in 2004 was the jaw dropping keynote speech by an obscure state senator from Illinois with a really funny name. Neither “Barack” nor “Obama” had ever appeared in any of the political playbooks circa 2004, but that one convention speech immediately put him on the map – winning the presidency himself just four years later.

Barack Obama was fresh and new in those days – with nowhere to go but up. Full of promise, hopes, and dreams. And for most of the political diehards in the convention hall tonight Barack Obama may still be that inspiring young man with the promise, hopes and dreams. But for the somewhere-in-the-middle, up-for-grabs, undecided and independents across the country watching in on television, Barack Obama is now simply the guy who has had the job for four years with little to show for it. For those folks to be re-convinced this time around the bar is incredibly – maybe unreachably – high.

So, as he stands there in the Time Warner Cable Arena tonight in Charlotte and receives his party’s nomination for a second term, one can only wonder if the once awe-inspiring young man has enough left in his rhetorical tanks that might recapture the original spark that moved so many in 2004 and 2008 and made it worth their while to tune in. If not – there’s always the balloon drop.

A former network television producer for C-SPAN and Fox News in Washington, D.C., Jim Mills is a freelance writer living in Myrtle Beach. He can be reached at jimmills2@gmail.com