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Conventions and the press: conspirators to a fraud Politicians convene: It is a ritual without real meaning, but everybody plays at pretending.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's convention time, and party invitations are really piling up. The "Melee for Haley" (Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour) at next week's GOP convention looks particularly promising. Wining and dining at sunset in a park overlooking San Diego Bay! The host committee advises taking along a light sweater or jacket. Nights can be surprisingly chilly on the California coast this time of year.

Goodies are rolling in, too. Mayor Susan Golding sent over a fat package, offering cut-rate food and drink at San Diego restaurants ("... you need only show your official press pass identification at the door ..."). She thoughtfully threw in a Shamu the Killer Whale towel to hang from my golf bag, if I had one.

But this is not about me. It's about us - the news media - and our co-dependency with the party hacks. How else to describe our role in perpetuating a fraud: the national political convention as major news event.

Current books about American government, such as Bob

Woodward's "The Choice" (Simon & Schuster, 462 pages, $26) and Eleanor Clift and Tom Brazaitis' "War Without Bloodshed: The Art of Politics" (Scribner, 400 pages, $25), focus on the true powers in politics, high-priced campaign consultants. They properly ignore the national party organizations, which are moribund.

Presidential primaries, as everyone knows, are to blame. They've stolen the nominating power away from party leaders and drained conventions of all suspense.

Months before the delegates arrive, we know who the nominees are. Even running mates are announced in advance. That way, publicity is maximized and a smooth-running convention (defined one that produces no negative news) is assured.

These trends are obvious, and apparently irreversible. Political parties in the late 20th century are little more than money machines, sucking up millions of dollars from corporations, interest groups and individuals and funneling them back to candidates and consultants.

A telling example of the parties' low estate can be found in the membership of President Clinton's brain trust, the two dozen aides and advisers who meet with him weekly at the White House to plot campaign strategy. The chairman of the Democratic National Committee isn't invited, a fact not even considered worthy of comment at the time the list of brain trusters was made public.

And yet, the national conventions live on.

Every four years, the rest of the world is allowed to slip into the background for a couple of weeks as the news media turn their collective eye toward these relics from America's political past.

Sure, there have been changes. TV networks and newspapers have cut back the resources they devote to the conventions. But local TV stations, always searching for ways to put their expensive satellite transmission trucks to use, have more than made up the difference. As a result, the conventions continue to attract a level of media attention out of all proportion to their diminished importance as news stories.

There are several reasons for this. One is inertia or, perhaps, nostalgia. Only the ancients can remember the last time a major party took longer than a single ballot to pick a nominee. That was the year Dwight Eisenhower, arriving in Chicago aboard a train from Denver, promised supporters at the GOP convention "a slugging match from beginning to end," as John Calvin Batchelor quotes Ike in "Ain't You Glad You Joined The Republicans?: A Short History of the GOP" (Henry Holt, 399 pages, $25).

Actually, it was the Democrats who had the real slugfest, taking three ballots to choose a nominee in 1952. That campaign, and every other, for that matter, gets a lively summary in the revised edition of Paul F. Boller Jr.'s very readable "Presidential Campaigns" (Oxford Paperbacks, 458 pages, $13.95), in which H.L. Mencken's love for conventions is also noted.

"There is something about a national convention that makes it as fascinating as a revival or a hanging," wrote Mencken, who covered conventions from 1900 to 1948. "One sits through long sessions wishing heartily that all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell - and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour."

No longer. Having secured their nomination long in advance, today's winners have plenty of time to script their coronations.

There is a traditional argument that conventions deserve lots of news coverage, if only as a quadrennial civics lesson. But that argument looks weaker all the time, especially as convention organizers work hard to prevent any spontaneity (if not democracy) from taking place.

Haley Barbour unapologetically refers to the modern convention as "mostly a big TV show." Or an infomercial, as it turns out. In a troubling development that further blurs the line between real news and the ersatz stuff, the Republicans were bold enough to find a friendly corporation (Amway) that would cough up $1.3 million so the party could air its version of the 1996 convention, complete with the party's own announcers, on the Family Channel each night.

There's a certain Catch 22 (and 1984) quality to all of this. The Republicans are producing their own broadcast, at least in part, because the major networks no longer are willing to surrender four nights' worth of prime time to the proceedings, as they once did. (The networks do plan some coverage each night. Broadcasters are understandably squeamish about dropping the conventions altogether, since their free use of the public airwaves depends upon the continued goodwill of the same Washington politicians who are gathered inside the convention hall.)

Every so often, some insider floats a sensible proposal to revamp the conventions. In 1992, longtime Democratic national committeeman Don Fowler wrote a memo proposing to compress his party's convention into one weekend, instead of the usual Monday-to-Thursday run. He was ignored.

Now Fowler is the national Democratic chairman, but his plan hasn't gotten anywhere. The party is following the same old format. And the media will dutifully overcover it, even though chances are extremely remote that anything truly unexpected will happen inside the hall (or outside, for that matter, given Mayor Richard Daley's determination to clear his family's name by keeping any demonstrators safely away from the convention area). This year's Democratic delegates aren't even a cross-section of their party; they were chosen mainly for their proven loyalty to Bill Clinton.

Why, then, do we in the press continue to go along with this charade? Maybe because political conventions are our conventions, too, a chance for thousands of media types to get together with friends and colleagues from around the country.

And the politicians, bless their hearts, work hard to show us a good time. After all, catering to the press makes eminent good sense. Consider what happened at the Olympics when the assembled journalists became cranky over the low quality of bus transportation for reporters and athletes. The result was a furious worldwide media bashing that damaged Atlanta's image far worse than anything General Sherman did.

So don't look for big changes at the conventions any time soon. As Democratic Chairman Fowler cheerily admits, "We'll continue have it, as long as you keep covering it."

Paul West is The Sun's Washington bureau chief. Before joining the paper in 1985, he was a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution and Dallas Times Herald. He will be covering his fifth set of national conventions this year.

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