08/24/2012 08:50 am ET Updated Oct 24, 2012

Convention Season! The Triumphs and the Calamities

If you've ever watched a political convention on television, I'm sure you've thought it looks like a circus. People are running around, wearing funny hats and yelling at each other. And, yes, there are clowns.

And that's exactly what's it like when you're there. In the summer of 1972, I was there -- I had been elected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach. That year, the party gathering was a special one, with all-night debate sessions about the explosive social issues of the day, and political activists joining elected officials as part of the delegation. They called it "The People's Convention," and it was an honor to be among citizens of all stripes -- from all across the country -- occupying one of the delegation's coveted seats.

I'll never forget one particular fellow delegate. She was in her 70s and a farmwoman from Sacramento, who'd sold two cows in order to finance her trip. Talk about your American dream story.

For all the fireworks and partisan posturing of campaign season in this nation, our electoral process remains a thing of brilliance -- a living, breathing embodiment of the Founders' vision of representative government. But to my mind, nothing illustrates the true magic of that singularly American process than those quadrennial gatherings of the party faithful -- the conventions -- which begin this week with the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida.

Sure, there's lots of screaming at each other on the convention floor during those first heady days -- not to mention trash-talking the "enemy" from the podium throughout the week. But political conventions are also places where dreams are born, hopes are realized, and careers are made. As messy as the proceedings can be, American electoral conventions are the shining model of democracy in action, and I know of no other country on earth that celebrates them with such noisy pride.

Like most conventions, the one I attended in 1972 had a little bit of everything. There was drama in the back room debates, as Democrats of varying shades of blue fought over whether to include a women's right to choose in the party platform. (The measure was defeated -- Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and all of the women there were crushed.) There was excitement, as delegates rallied behind our presidential nominee, candidate George McGovern, convinced he was the one to evict Richard Nixon from the White House. (Despite our enthusiasm, McGovern would go on to lose the general election in a humiliating landslide.)

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Memorable Convention Moments

And, of course, like in any thriller, there was a surprise twist when McGovern nominated
Missouri senator Thomas Eagleton as his vice presidential running mate to roars of approval from the delegate floor. Little did any of us know that, less than one month later, Eagleton would be under siege when reporters revealed he had been seeing psychotherapists for emotional problems and had even received electroshock therapy. McGovern vowed to stand behind his running mate "one thousand percent" (I'll never forget those words), and the next day Eagleton was off the ticket. Hardball politics.

But the 1972 Democratic convention was just one in a long list of historic weeks in American politics that were at once dramatic and historic. Who can forget the 1960 Democratic convention, when a handsome young senator named John Kennedy rose to the lectern and vowed to lead a new generation of Americans across a new frontier? Or the 1976 Republican Convention, when California Governor Ronald Reagan delivered a speech so energizing to those in the stands that he ended up upstaging the nominee himself, President Gerald Ford? Or both the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1988 -- the former starring Vice President George H. W. Bush, who likened the nation's future to "a thousand points of light;" the latter featuring an Arkansas Governor named Bill Clinton, whose nominating speech went on for so long that weary delegates actually broke into applause when he said the words, "In conclusion...?"

And, of course, there was the 2004 Democratic convention, whose partisan pyrotechnics came to standstill when a young, black Senator from Illinois delivered a keynote speech so galvanizing and pulsing with hope that it would catapult him to his party's nomination -- and the presidency itself -- just four years later.

So whatever your party, wherever your loyalty, I hope you'll tune in to the Republican convention this week and witness history as it happens. And I hope you'll do the same in September, when the Democrats don red, white and blue for their gathering in Charlotte, NC. Both lineups promise to be lively this year -- so keep your eyes peeled. You never know who may be warming up in the wings, preparing to make his -- or her -- big entrance!