Friday, August 30, 1996
Conventions lack pizazz of politics

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Four more years.

Four more years.

I love that chant.

Beginning today, I can look forward to four more years of not being bored out of my skull by another presidential political convention.

If 400 more years would pass before the Democrats and Republicans convened again, it would still be too soon.

These political gatherings have become bad, made-for-TV miniseries, where everybody knows the cast of characters, the dialogue and the outcome from the get-go. Every detail, every word is scripted and stage-managed. Drop the balloons in prime time. Wave the placards on cue. Nominate the candidates. Let's go home. And never come back.

I'm not sure when and why conventions became so dull and predictable. So I asked two seasoned experts: Sidney Weil and George Eyrich.

Mr. Weil co-hosted the Hamilton County Democratic Party from 1968 to 1982. He went to the riot-torn Chicago convention in 1968.

''In that most awful of awful years,'' he recalls, ''that convention was my first.''

And last.

''I got a snootful of politics at that one,'' he says of the convention he attended when he was 41. ''It was enough to last a lifetime.''

Mr. Eyrich was Hamilton County Republican Party chairman for nine years, between 1977 and 1986. In his 78 years, he's attended conventions from the one that nominated Richard Nixon in 1960 to Ronald Reagan's second coronation in 1984.

''I once worked a crossword puzzle while I sat on the convention floor,'' Mr. Eyrich recalls. ''There was some commotion in the Louisiana delegation across the aisle. It was only mildly interesting. So I got out my crossword. Got on TV for doing it, too.''

Both men use the term, ''a show,'' when describing this year's conventions.

''Everything's cut and dried,'' says George Eyrich. ''They're both playing to the media. Conventions used to be a little deeper.''

And rowdier.

''Those were the days of floor demonstrations, marching in the aisles and name-calling,'' says Sidney Weil. ''They were more interesting than this year's one-hour TV commercials that were as boring as all get-out.''

As a kid, I watched some conventions on my mom and dad's black-and-white TV. They were wild and woolly sessions of high drama and high camp. Old, red-nosed politicians belching hot air into the camera. Warring factions jousting with their candidates' campaign signs. When the show was over, I half-expected to see confetti and a balloon or two on the rug in my parents' living room.

I didn't need a color TV to figure out who was on the tube.

''The delegates from both parties,'' Mr. Weil notes, ''were overwhelmingly white and male. Today, the mix of races and genders is much more democratic.''

Sidney Weil says the convention's excitement level started going south after the Democrats went to Chicago in 1968 and riots ruled the day.

''That convention established in the minds of both the Republicans and Democrats that you could lose an election by what you did at the convention. After that, the parties became increasingly careful about who they were going to put on camera and let set foot into millions of living rooms.''

Sidney Weil is speaking in his downtown law office. A ballot from the 1932 presidential election hangs on the wall behind him.

The framed, yellowing piece of paper carries slates of candidates from the Republican and Democratic parties as well as Socialist, Socialist Labor and Communist.

''Those parties were on the ballot and nobody thought anything about it,'' he says. ''I've kept that ballot as a constant reminder of where we've been. It's a voice from another day.''

The conventions of 1996 had a voice. It was soft-spoken, homogenized and not wanting to offend a soul. To me, that voice didn't ring true.

''That's because,'' Sidney Weil says, ''it isn't.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.