Are we really missing the ‘drama’ of an in-person convention anyway?

Other than a memorable run-in with Don King and Rudy Giuliani at a past convention, WisPolitics.com Editor JR Ross won't miss much about an in-person event as the DNC goes digital this year.
Dnc Graphic
Graphic by Andrea Behling; Illustration elements by Mohamed Hassan from PxHere

There was no drama at either of the two national conventions I covered.

No deals in smoke-filled back rooms. No tension-filled votes from the convention floor.

But I did cross paths with Don King at Madison Square Gardens right before Rudy Giuliani and his entourage walked by me.

So it wasn’t exactly dull, either.

Modern political conventions rarely carry moments of true drama. Oh, there’s the suspense about what Bernie Sanders would say at the 2016 convention after his bitter contest with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination or how Ted Cruz would handle his moment in the spotlight that year after losing the GOP nod to Donald Trump.

But the last brokered convention was in 1952 when Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson both secured their parties’ nominations during a floor fight. Since then, the national conventions have largely become four-day infomercials to deliver symbolic messages coordinated by presidential campaigns to appeal to the swaths of voters they think they need to win the White House.

That isn’t to say covering the Democrats’ virtual national convention this year didn’t carry at least a little bit of intrigue for me. After all, I’d never covered a national convention from my home office.

The two national conventions I covered — in person — had very different vibes.

In 2000, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush was running on a platform of compassionate conservatism, and he had former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson to help shepherd that message in Philadelphia.

With Thompson serving as chairman of the platform committee, the convention had a bit of a Wisconsin undercurrent as the then-governor brought several speakers from his home state to illustrate that message of compassionate conservatism he helped pioneer while running Wisconsin.

Being in New York for the 2004 GOP convention was like being under siege.

It was the first national convention season post-9/11 and Republicans chose New York City for the political and emotional symbolism as the city recovered from the terrorist attack. But it also meant a heavy police presence — and my first brush with training on how to survive a terrorist attack. (Hint, if you’re in a subway station when a bomb goes off, try to move to the outer wall before trying to get out. There’s less of a chance you’ll get trampled that way.)

The safety precautions made for an odd vibe in New York. I remember walking down the street and seeing what I assumed was a native New Yorker wearing a T-shirt with a bold statement. On the front, it welcomed Republicans to her city. It read on back, “Now get the (bleep) out.” It contributed to that feeling that it was a war zone, and we were the invading force.

Then there was my brush with King and Giuliani.

I only occasionally went on the convention floor while in New York to catch delegates one-on-one. But otherwise, there wasn’t a lot of attraction to roaming the floor because there wasn’t space to work — and there wasn’t much drama coming from the stage.

Still, during one of my passes across the floor of Madison Square Garden, I saw King — the famous, or infamous depending on your perspective, boxing promoter — coming from my left. I then turned right only to see Giuliani — then still America’s mayor and not Donald Trump’s attack dog — coming at me with his entourage.

It was one of those only-in-New-York moments. It also was the closest I got to anything dramatic happening that week.

The intrigue of this year’s Democratic convention was how the party would pull it off. It’s one thing to have a roomful of activists cheering every one-liner knocking the other side. It’s another trying to make sure it hits home with a virtual audience. But the ultimate goal is still about delivering a carefully crafted message and minimizing the number of times speakers who go off-script.

The big difference is I don’t have to wear a tie — or pants for that matter — while trying to parse what’s being said.

So, if this is how conventions are going to work from now on, I could get used to this, even if the drama is gone.