THE BLOG
10/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Conventions as Infomercials: I'm Sold!

Two Tuesdays past, when Hillary Clinton took the stage at the Democratic Convention in Denver in her Day-Glo pantsuit looking for all the world like a human highway cone, my immediate reaction was, "Is she here to speak or is she here to make balloon animals?" At first blush, this didn't seem like a fashion choice made by the commanding general of an amazon army 18 million strong. This was something the Other Hillary, the one who laughs like a psycho killer who has just axe-murdered some skinny dipping campers, would do. Wasn't there anyone working at the Democratic Convention with enough television experience to avert a hideous color clash?

Twenty minutes later, I knew I was wrong. I was obviously in the steady hands of seasoned professionals. Once Senator Clinton hit her mark behind the podium, the stage picture came together. Unlikely though it may seem, against the vivid blue background, her safety orange jacket looked just right: lively, contemporary, daring, fun, energetic -- the Good Mrs. Clinton in a nutshell. The NY Mets tangerine-and-aqua color scheme had never really worked for me in the past, too 1960s Queens. But that Tuesday she passed the "mute" test with flying colors: even with the sound off, she made a strong, positive impression.

Sure enough, the New York Times ran a photo the following day (unfortunately not in their on-line edition) from before the speech of stagehands holding up various alternative pantsuits in all the Skittles flavors -- lime, blueberry, cherry - for a camera test. People who knew what they were doing were sweating the details. From Chelsea's Veronica Lake hairdo (a calculated -- but successful -- risk for a family well known for expensive haircuts) to the camera angles favoring Bill's nose -- which looked more than ever like the second most attractive human sexual organ, the penis -- the Clintons, the Democrats, and the viewers were in good hands.

The slickness continued throughout the week: the show ran on time, the message came across, and the climax, Barack Obama's speech at Invesco Field in front of a sort of early-Mussolini backdrop, was either just right or excusably a tad over-the top.

The Republican Convention was a simpler, plainer affair, as befits the party not-of-Hollywood. There were also more notable slip-ups like Rudy Giuliani's stage-hogging ramble that cut deeply into the main event, Sarah Palin's maiden speech, on their third night. The Republican media wizards also fumbled a photo backdrop for John McCain by replacing Walter Reed Hospital with Walter Reed High School (showing the hospital seems like a questionable choice, in the first place) and sending their nominee out on a fashion show catwalk thrust into the heart of the crowd that messed up his eye-line for the television cameras.

Still, it would be churlish -- and dishonestly partisan -- not to acknowledge that both teams put on a damn good show, doing one of the things that Americans do best: razzling and dazzling. And, according to the Nielsen people, the public ate it up with enormous American Idol-sized audiences tuning in for the major speeches culminating in an astonishing 40 million viewers for McCain's acceptance.

But don't bother congratulating the news media on the enormous triumph of the convention broadcasts. For the one group that should be most gratified by their popularity, success is more bitter than sweet, laced with the self-hatred and anhedonic disenchantment that is part of the reporter's standard toolkit these days along with pad and pencil.

One of the media's most tedious drones over the past two weeks is that the conventions are nothing but "infomercials," pre-packaged mediagenic events with no real suspense or excitement; not messy democracy laid out on the operating table but a sinister robotic simulacrum where foregone conclusions are presented as the spontaneous will of the people.

Well, feh.

I remember the gavel-to-gavel coverage of the 60s and 70s, supposedly the glory days of the television news business. Frankly, there wasn't much suspense or excitement at the conventions back then either (with the notable exception of Dan Rather getting punched in the stomach in '68.) Watching Frank Reynolds or Chet Huntley pull taffy while one party or the other struggled to choose a nominee or give Drunk Senator McBoring the hook was not an education in our political process. Even as a young geek, I found it deathly dull, although I would never have admitted it at the time.

Ask yourself, how is it a good thing to have to wait up until 2:30 AM to hear the nominee speak, because the party didn't bother to get its act together beforehand?

So, thank God for Michael Deaver who famously tricked the networks into running a short film about Ronald Reagan as content rather than advertising. Deaver opened the floodgates that washed away the convention anchors' role as interpreters of arcane rites. The priests would now speak directly to the congregation in the vulgate and the media middlemen were squeezed out. And as the media was being excused from explaining everything to the voters, they were simultaneously being excused from explaining ordinary people to the politicians. Instead, professional media advisors and television producers would decide how the message would be presented with the networks functioning as mere messengers.

What's wrong with using an hour-long primetime window to compress the speechifying and force the organizers select the highlights in advance? An hour a night should be sufficient time for either party to make their case with more nerdgasmic coverage available for those who long for the Huntley-Brinkley days on the cable news margins.

With the facetime they do get with the public, the television media love to harp in a we're-being-naughty-way on the informercial angle, as though their loss is also ours. As politicians trade the customary charges over which one thinks you're stupider, it's important to remember that the media thinks you're stupid, too, and treats us as though we're still living in the "Mad Men" days of general naivete regarding marketing techniques. The scolding nanny press never tires of reminding us that the candidates and the parties present themselves to their best advantage in the hope that we'll buy what they're selling. Duh. This isn't news either.