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From telegraph to blah-blah-blog

Technology and the 2004 Democratic National Convention

By Leigh E. Rich

Much has changed in the realm of the political convention. They haven’t always been the minute-by-minute scripted production and party they’ve metamorphosed into since the late 1970s and early 1980s, says Polly Baca, a longtime convention attendee and a former member of the Colorado House and Senate.

“We didn’t know who the candidate was going to be in ’72 and ’76,” she explains.

At the 1972 convention in Miami Beach, for instance, presidential candidate George McGovern wasn’t able to deliver his acceptance speech until almost 3 a.m.

Baca says the conventions in the previous three decades are “180 degrees different from the 1972 convention, which was the last convention not scripted.”

That year, McGovern accepted the nomination when America wasn’t watching.

“That was the reason everything changed.”

By 1984, she adds, “it was a different convention” with very few surprises.

As a result of technology and, particularly, television, conventions have transformed into shows, Baca says. “You don’t make any decisions there.”

Instead, they are a means of showcasing the party’s candidate.

“Technology has made it totally different. Both Democratic and Republican conventions are scripted” down to the minute, from the buses to the makeup to the music—all before the gavel resounds in the hall and officially opens the political event.

But national conventions still serve an important purpose, Baca emphasizes. “The conventions do impact on how you are seen as a party and a candidate. … It really is an opportunity to show the world who the candidates are from your perspective.

“It’s not the decision-making that took place prior to television. It was television that caused that change.”

Some blame McGovern’s loss in the 1972 election on the convention. The kind of debate and political vying that occurred during the McGovern convention, Baca says, can make a party look disorganized.

Thanks to the McGovern legacy and the need for candidates to “look good on television,” there won’t be any major surprises at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Baca says. “There won’t be anything that will be out of the ordinary.”

While there could be some minor surprises just to make each party’s convention a tad more interesting, Baca rests assured there will be “no rocking of the boat.”

In addition to the television magic the political parties now wield, other technology has become crucial to a convention’s execution. Baca remembers the instigation of walkie-talkies so convention staffers could remain in constant contact, and she assumes these antiquated behemoths have been replaced by less obtrusive cell phones.

With the help of CNN, the 2000 Democratic and Republican conventions in Los Angeles and Philadelphia went “virtual,” featuring live webcam shots and streaming video. The Web sites for this year’s national conventions have upped the technological ante, with both parties offering combinations of Web chats, radio and video interviews, greater behind-the-scenes access, streaming video during the conventions, and blogs (or the Republicans’ version—the “flog”).

But technological gadgetry is nothing new when it comes to national conventions. At the 1844 Democratic convention in Baltimore, according to a CNN Web site, vice-presidential candidate Sen. Silas Wright of New York was informed of and refused the party’s nomination “via Samuel Morse’s new invention—the telegraph.”

While virtual visitors have gained greater access over the years, actual convention-goers have not. Security has evolved over the decades as well, Baca says.

During the 1964 convention, she and a friend managed to find their way onto the floor.

“We got in behind a curtain of some sort,” Baca laughs at the thought of crashing a national convention. They were “eventually told to leave” and “kindly ushered out.”

“In those days, security wasn’t tough,” she recalls, seriously reflecting on how much has changed since then.

At the 1980 convention that nominated Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, Baca remembers enduring a security briefing for the first time—a series of codes conveyed through lights that could be seen from the convention stage. A steady white light, Baca says, meant all was OK. A flickering white light denoted some type of threat. When the light turned blue or flickered blue, the threat was being taken seriously. And if it turned red and then flickered red, convention security would evacuate the building and its thousands of participants in three minutes.

“And they knew how to do it,” she states unequivocally.

Though she says was a little shaken by the security briefing, Baca—who would later be in charge of securing the courthouse during Timothy McVeigh’s trial in 1997 as a regional director of the General Services Administration—remembers feeling reassured.

At one point during the convention, however, Baca recalls John Glenn leaning over and saying, “Have you noticed how often those lights have gone to blue?”

Baca says that just showed “the difference between John Glenn and me. Given his background, he was very aware of security.

“You always get threats,” Baca adds, though acknowledging this will be the first national convention since Sept. 11. “They don’t take anything for granted.”

Rich, L. E. (2004, July 23). From telegraph to blah-blah-blog. The Colorado Statesman, p. 11.

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