Lights, cameras, cue the politicos


From late July to mid-August, millions of Americans are about to tune in to two of the most ambitious and elaborate TV infomercials ever produced. These are not your ordinary infomercials -- they won't be about dieting or hair loss, and they'll air in prime time, not the middle of the night. Nor will their sponsors call them infomercials, claiming instead a high-minded purpose involving democracy. But if they look like infomercials and act like infomercials, then they must be the upcoming Republican and Democratic political conventions.

Welcome to the four-day political extravaganzas where the parties will meet to market George W. Bush and Al Gore as our next president. But they are political conventions in name only. Like much of politics today, they will be little more than focus-group-tested Hollywood productions designed for consumer consumption, slick and sophisticated sales pitches aimed at the unwitting voter. The delegates and speakers are mere props for the real event, the one that airs in our homes.

It used to be that conventions reflected the raw spirit of democracy, where parties wrestled with issues and candidates engaged in spirited debate. They were contentious, messy and disorderly affairs, and while they tried to put the best face on the nominees, they still reflected an unruly democratic passion that encouraged candidates to dig deep into their beliefs and embrace issues, not run from them.

But what the parties learned from the feisty conventions of old is that political friction doesn't go over well in the age of television. Though disagreement is the stuff of democracy, what it communicates on television is the image of a political party out of control. Vivid are the memories of Humphrey, McGovern, Ford, Carter, Dukakis and Bush undone by the televised dissension at their conventions.

Television as a medium exaggerates anger and magnifies discontent in whatever it covers, whether a political convention or a school board debate. A public that sees disagreement wonders whether a party that can't manage its own ranks would be able to govern the nation. Because television has turned us from voters to viewers, we prefer dazzling visuals and happy endings instead. Today's convention managers know this and it's what they'll give us this year.

Within each party are sharp divisions on such controversial issues as abortion, trade, gun control, affirmative action, health care, campaign reform, the death penalty and the Supreme Court -- divisions that should be aired in public. But we'll hear little of them because the parties will sand their rough edges and smooth over hurt feelings behind closed doors, before the conventions begin. For TV, what they want is the look of unity filled with feel-good images and generalities.

Precisely because of this scripting and sanitizing, Ted Koppel took his "Nightline" crew home midway through the Republican Convention four years ago, calling it "more of an infomercial than a news event."

Koppel's frustration is shared by others at the networks, who have limited convention coverage this year to a few hours per night. But the convention masterminds care little about offending the likes of Koppel. Their sole audience is the viewing public that will tune in each evening -- and it's a public so habituated to image-making and advertising that they won't find anything unusual about these contrived events.

Thus the majority of Americans who pay only scant attention to politics will walk away from these conventions thinking both parties equally support education, the environment, families, health care, Social Security, lower taxes, ethnic diversity, opportunity for women and a strong defense.

The Republicans, for example, will address concerns that their party is intolerant and captive to the religious right not by proposing new ideas and initiatives, but by manipulating the television image to create the illusion of an inclusive party. They'll keep the camera focused on the handful of minorities attending the convention, have the candidate say a few words in Spanish, and highlight the nominee's nephew, George P. Bush, whose Hispanic heritage and dark good looks have already made him a media darling.

The Democrats will likewise make Al Gore more appealing to suburban women, a key swing vote, by choosing women as convention speakers, showing videos about families helped by Democratic policies, featuring the effervescent Tipper Gore, and scripting all speakers with focus-group-tested lines about working parents, education and health care.

The parties also know they have to heighten the excitement and keep the press engaged, so they will manufacture some made-for-TV drama and faux suspense -- perhaps by sending up trial balloons about Cabinet appointments or leaking a "bold" theme or two from the acceptance speech, or tempting us with staged surprises such as the nominee's "unscripted" visit to the convention.

Most critical will be each party's need to turn their nominee into an American hero, someone whose rags-to-riches rise from humble origins fits nicely into our national narrative of triumphant individualism and epitomizes our dreams as a nation. That won't be easy given that both candidates are scions of privilege who grew up in comfort, attended elite private schools and had their paths to power greased by the advantages afforded their eminent families. But convention biography is about myth, not truth.

So the Bush infomercial will portray him as just another Fifties kid with big dreams who grew up in the middle-class town of Midland, Texas -- a name, like Clinton's Hope, Ark., that conjures up Norman Rockwell's America. We'll see him serving in the Texas Air National Guard -- no mention that he skipped service in Vietnam. We'll probably learn about the struggle that humbled and scarred him for life, the death of his sister when he was 7 years old. We'll hear about his loving family.

It won't show him as a rich kid who used family connections, but as an entrepreneur who worked in oil and built baseball's Texas Rangers.

In his speech, Bush will probably frame himself as the antidote to today's divisive politics. He'll say we need to work out problems together. And to drive home that he's a different type of politician, he'll take an easy shot at his own party for contributing to the problem. I'm not like that partisan Gore and all the others, he'll say. There will be no mention that he supports some of the most divisive leaders in Congress today.

And then he'll talk about trust, that we should elect someone who will make us proud, that we don't need a president who reinvents himself using polls and focus groups. He won't, of course, make mention of his own use of these devices. But his message will be clear: I'm not Clinton; Gore is, and we don't need four more years of that.

Gore's will be a parallel convention image. In America today we choose politicians based not on what they think, but on how they make us feel. It matters little that voters tend to agree with Gore's position on the issues. His is an image problem -- he's never made voters feel comfortable with how he looks on TV.

So the Gore infomercial strategy will be to soften his image, to make him seem more like us, less a product of Washington, someone not so strident and stern, someone who's on our side.

In his campaign video we'll see him in earth tones, with kids and seniors, walking arm-in-arm with Tipper and his family, poking fun at himself. It will feature homey scenes with golden sunlight, perfect as he conjures up images of Carthage, Tenn., the small town where he spent his summers as a youth -- no mention that he really grew up in a tony Washington hotel, the old Fairfax. He'll describe how he was ambivalent about the Vietnam War, but volunteered because he didn't want someone else serving in his place -- no mention that as a senator's son he spent his time as an Army journalist, away from the front lines.

He might not talk about his years at Harvard -- no snob he -- but he'll probably discuss his days as a newspaper reporter and his time at divinity school, both to symbolize his honest values and search for truth. And like Bush he'll probably humanize himself through a hardship story, in Gore's case how he struggled through his sister's losing battle with cancer.

No doubt he'll draw a contrast with Bush, and in his speech he'll reinforce his more popular stands on abortion, gun control, Social Security and the Supreme Court. But ideas will be less important in the Gore infomercial than presenting him as a humble and caring leader who makes us feel good about him and ourselves.

These conventions will air at a time when viewer disgust with formula television has led to a new trend in reality programming featuring real people making real decisions. Unfortunately, our elections continue in the opposite direction. They're all about scripting, staging, symbolism and sound bites -- and little about substance. But perhaps it's unfair to blame the politicians. After all, if we didn't like the show, we'd demand change. And that's the least likely election result of all.

Leonard Steinhorn, a former political speechwriter, is a professor of communication at American University and a contributing editor of the Internet magazine,

Convention info

Republicans: July 31-Aug. 3 at the Core States Center in Philadelphia.

Democrats: Aug. 14-17 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

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