Press: Democratic National Convention might have been the best ever!
Confession: I’m a convention junkie. As nerdy as it sounds, my dream as a teenager was to attend a national political convention someday. I got my first chance in 1976, as a staffer for presidential candidate Jerry Brown. Once hooked, forever hooked. I’ve attended every Democratic convention, and all but one Republican convention, since – either as a party official or journalist.
And I have great memories of every one of them. Some noble: Teddy Kennedy’s “The Dream Shall Never Die” speech in 1980. Some hilarious: Ann Richards in 1988, accusing George H. W. Bush of being “born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Some poignant: A private dinner the final night of that same convention, where everyone called Michael Dukakis “Mr. President.”
But, as much as I enjoyed the revelries and hoopla, I also sensed that political conventions were getting stale and tired. It’s been decades since anything real was decided at a convention. The party’s nominee, his vice-presidential running mate, and the platform were all decided ahead of time. To become meaningful again, national conventions badly needed reinvention. Too bad it took a deadly pandemic to make it happen, but this year’s Democratic convention turned out to be the silver lining of COVID-19.
Like you, perhaps, I was nervous at first. This was the first-ever entirely online national convention. Everything we loved about past conventions was missing: no funny hats, cheers, boos, windy speeches, or balloon drop. In early spring, with no advance warning, the DNC had to scrap its initial plans and start from scratch to design a whole new, compact, online, made-for-TV-and-streaming format. It was a huge challenge – but the DNC passed it with flying colors. Sure, there were a few glitches (although still fewer than any live broadcast convention), but in terms of the three essential ingredients: programming, messengers, and message, the DNC delivered perhaps the best and most effective political convention ever.
Programming. Each night, convention coverage moved at a very fast pace. Videos, covering a wide range of topics, were very professional and upbeat. The average speech was two and a half minutes long, perfect bite-size for TV. Which made it possible, according to Axios, for the DNC to feature 49 live speakers and 287 on video: double the number of speakers in less than half the time. Bravo!
Messengers. The DNC offered more than its share of political rock stars: Bill and Hillary Clinton, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jill Biden, Kamala Harris, Barack and Michelle Obama, both of whom gave the most scathing indictments of Donald Trump, and Joe Biden, who gave the best speech of his life (still the shortest acceptance speech since 1984). But the most powerful voices to me were the hundreds of average working-class families – people we’d never heard of before, more women than men, more young than older, more people of color than not – who told stories of how they’ve suffered under the Trump presidency.
Message. By underscoring the four major challenges facing America today – COVID-19, the resulting economic collapse, systemic racism, and climate change – the DNC proved that this nation’s in deep trouble today. Donald Trump got us into this mess, and Joe Biden’s the one who can get us out of it. But the convention’s overriding message was much more down-to-earth. Simply this: Joe Biden’s a good man. Joe Biden has character. Joe Biden’s a man you can trust. Joe Biden cares about you. And Donald Trump’s none of the above. That’s the most powerful message of all. And that about sums up the entire 2020 campaign.
Press is host of “The Bill Press Pod.” He is author of “From the Left: A Life in the Crossfire.”