Michael S. Berman

National Conventions and Their Role

in Presidential Campaign Civility


The Inaugural Sieur du Luth lecture

was presented Friday, September 14, 2007 at 1 p.m.

in UMD’s Kirby Ballroom by Michael S. Berman.

The Sieur du Luth lecture/conference series was initiated by alumnus Richard Teske, nationally known researcher, consultant, and writer on health care policy.

Richard, thank you for the introduction and thanks so much for providing the resources that created this opportunity and this lecture series. Thank you to Chancellor Martin, and to Vice President and Mrs. Mondale. It is especially appropriate that the Vice President is here because, for me, it all started with him and I will tell you some of those stories along the way.

When I was first invited to speak today, I suggested talking about national conventions, and then I had a conversation with Wy Spano (from UMD's Master of Advocacy and Political Leadership program) and he suggested conventions and their role in presidential campaigns civility. I thought about that for a while and my first instinct was that putting presidential campaigns and civility in the same sentence is a little bit of an oxymoron. But I thought about it a little bit more and I’ll tell you at the end whether I changed my mind.

What I would like to do today is talk about conventions and then talk about presidential campaign and civility, and the role of conventions, if any, in presidential campaigns. My own experience was 11 Democratic conventions, and they have been listed by Richard earlier. I have had the distinction, if you will, of scheduling six of the last eight Democratic conventions, and by scheduling I mean what you see on the television. The 28 hours of plenary sessions float through my pen one way or another.

In addition, I have worked on the Humphrey campaigns, obviously, the conventions for him in ’68 and ’72, the Mondale campaign in ’84, and I was director of the network liaison program in the ’88 presidential campaign.

The History of Conventions

So let me start with kind of a short history of national conventions. The first Democratic conventions was held in 1832. The first Republican conventions was held in 1856. The lengths of the conventions have varied dramatically. The Democrats in 1924 took 16 days to endorse a man you all know, John Davis (laughter), that is all I know about him. He lost substantially to Calvin Coolidge.

The shortest convention in history was tied to World War II, not unexpectedly. The Democrats and Republicans had three-day conventions in ’44 and ’48. The current four-day schedule started with Republicans in 1956 and the Democrats adopted it in 1964. The very first convention at which the nominee actually showed up for the Democrats was in 1932 with Roosevelt and in 1944 with Dewey. Up until that time, the convention was held, the people were nominated, and a committee was sent off to tell them that they had been nominated. Obviously at that time they weren’t watching themselves on television. The number of delegates were roughly the same in each convention until about 1956; there were about 1300 in each convention. Since then there has been an expansion in the number of Republican delegates to 2500 and the Democrats have moved to 4300.

That’s how we got diversity. You couldn’t kick any of the old people out, but you could bring in a lot of new people. Notably, all of the increases in these numbers have occurred after the last convention in which the number of delegates made any difference. That is to say after the conventions in which they went beyond one ballot. It has been 55 years since either party had a multi-ballot convention.

The Republican’s last multi-ballot convention was in 1948, when Dewey was chosen with three ballots. The last multi-ballot convention for the Democrats was in 1952 when it took three ballots to choose Stephenson. Since that time there have only been three conventions in either party in which on the first ballot the nominee got less than 62% of the vote. So functionally, you could say that as a device for nominating people, the conventions have been obsolete for some substantial period of time.

Now when do we hold the conventions? When you think about timing of most things, you wouldn’t think about the Olympics, but when we schedule conventions we to think a lot about the Olympics because they happen to fall every four years, in the late Summer or early fall. In 2004 the Democratic chairman at the time looked at the schedule for the Olympics, picked a date five weeks before the Olympics, with the assumption that the Republicans would schedule their convention before the Olympics as well.

Under tradition, not any law, the party that controls the White House goes second. The GOP quite smartly decided to wait until after the Olympics and held their convention immediately thereafter, which functionally meant that the Democratic candidate was forced to run his campaign on federal/general election dollars five weeks longer than President Bush at that time. It was a very smart move. 2008 comes along and Howard Dean was not about to make that same mistake. So he scheduled our convention to begin 12 hours after the Olympics finished. The Republicans were then forced to do the only thing they could do, which was start Labor Day afternoon. This was the shortest period of time, except for one other case, between the two conventions: three days.

The length of the sessions varies. Republicans tend to meet for 16 to 23 hours. We meet for 28 hours in the Democratic Party, a schedule I created eight conventions ago, and have been trying to eliminate for the last four conventions, since it bores even the people that are putting the convention on.

The first televised convention was in 1940 for the Republicans. The amount of coverage and attention has dropped ever since. In 1952, the three national television broadcast networks each broadcast a total of 19.5 hours. In 2004, each one of those three networks broadcast three hours. TV ratings have dropped, for those of you who know anything about TV ratings, in 1960 29% of households tuned in with three networks. In 2004, with seven networks, only 15% of the households tuned in. Why? Because really, nothing happens anymore. The nominees are well known to everyone before the convention starts. In the early days when I started, there were four channels of television, if you were really lucky: three main channels and usually one independent. Now the average household has somewhere between a 150 and 300 channels of cable television available to them.

The modern conventions will cost $200 million a piece, one in the Twin Cities and one in Denver. Now where does all the money go? I looked at the numbers for the last Democratic convention, which was in Boston. The host committees had to raise about $70 million in private funds, most of it in cash. It had to be spent on various services such as providing halls. Extra city services cost another $25 to $50 million. Security cost the federal government $50 million for each convention. The campaign finance mechanism in the U.S. treasury gives each one about $15 million. The campaigns themselves spend hundreds of thousands of dollars getting there, getting ready, and doing various kinds of events. All of the above [happens] before the first delegate books the first flight, rents the first room, or eats the first meal.

So you can see, we are talking about extraordinary sums of money…to what end? Are they relevant? Are they useful? Lord knows, are they worth the cost? The instinct of many, probably including me, is that they have become both a waste of time and money, at best an interesting anachronism. A lot of resources could be better spent improving the voter turnout from 52% or 53% to 55% or 60% as it was in the early ’60s.

Why do parties do this? The number one reason is inertia. No party wants to be the first to go shorter and the argument is made that if we go shorter no one will bid on the convention. Well, not many people would bid but maybe that’s not such a bad idea.

It does provide one thing. It provides the largest single audience for each party’s nominee on television that he or she will experience, solo, until they are inaugurated. And it provides major exposure to the vice presidential nominee.

Now through 1980, the vice presidential nominees were big surprises. They were announced on the last day of the convention. I remember vividly in New York being called over to the hotel when president elect Carter had picked vice-president Mondale in 1976.

Starting with the Mondale campaign, however, in 1984, we went early. We announced Geraldine Ferraro 12 days before the start of the convention and since that time, the nominees are all selected at some period of time earlier than the end of the convention. We have all learned that you get a heck of a lot more publicity if, in fact, you give it a little more attention in those early days before the convention. And finally, now on the night before the presidential nominee speaks, the vice presidential nominee speaks. And that is the largest audience, solo, that person will ever experience unless they themselves, one day, are inaugurated president of the United States.

Do they make any difference in terms of public attitudes? Well, in getting ready for today’s talk, I went back and looked at the Gallup surveys for all the conventions from 1968 through 2004. I found that in six of those ten convention periods, one or both conventions moved the numbers for the nominee of their party. They moved the nominees for ’68, ’76, ’80, ’92, ’96, and 2000, the most dramatic being 1992. After the two conventions, Clinton jumped 16 points, Bush had dropped 14 points, and that is by far and away the biggest spread that I could find.

The Mechanics of Conventions

I spoke earlier of the fact that one of the things that I have done is schedule the conventions and it seems like a pretty modest thing. You have these people who kind of trot out to a podium, ad nauseam, in our case, over seven hours a day. We put about 280 speakers on the stage.

Let me tell you what’s involved in doing that project. The team that I had at the last convention was 105 people. I had an assistant, and she unfortunately is locked up in a room with me for three weeks, while I personally put each person into the schedule. I talk to very few people. I just sit there, eight to ten hours a day in my little room with my assistant, decide when people are going to speak, and then she sends the information onto people who have to know.

I had four scriptwriters. Every single word spoken by every single person on those podiums is scripted. When the various chairs of the convention get up and introduce someone or make an announcement, it is all scripted. The speeches are all on teleprompters.

At our convention there are 70 trackers. What does a tracker do? These conventions are a morass of people; you can’t get anywhere. There is security all over. Sometimes people are in the convention hall before they are supposed to speak, sometimes they are out of the convention hall. We assign a person to pick up a speaker two hours before they speak and stick with them until the moment they get off the stage after their speech.

I had 10 speechwriters who will write short speeches for some people. They review every single speech before it is put on the teleprompter to assure that the speech is consistent with the themes of the convention. I’ll get back to how that works in a minute.

We have a rehearsal group of 10 people. They have two mock podiums back stage and each person, at sometime prior to their speech, will rehearse so they are familiar with the teleprompter and the podium. We have coaches that try to give them suggestions as they rehearse. There is a group of four people who do nothing 24 hours a day but input speeches and materials into the teleprompter system. And then if that isn’t enough, we have a TV production crew of somewhere between 40 and 50 people, directors, producers, stagehands, sound technicians, and related people. It’s a much bigger operation than you would ever expect watching it on television.

If you are the scheduler however, you only care about two things, maybe three. The first thing is that the presidential nominee starts his or her speech at the minute when primetime television is on, on Thursday night. The second thing is that the vice president starts his or her speech at exactly the right time the night before. And every once in a while you care about a particularly special speech. In the case of 2004, it was Senator Obama’s speech and that was timed to be sure that it was on at the perfect time, and obviously it did a lot of good for him.

Democratic and Republican Conventions

So let me leave the mechanics and talk about the conventions themselves. My first convention was 1968, in Chicago. I was 29 years old. I had been in Washington for about a year and a half at that time. Mondale was the co-chair of the Humphrey campaign. I had been privileged to be part of that campaign, literally the day it started. I actually went to a meeting that Mondale was supposed to go to, but couldn’t make. Eventually, I moved to Chicago for three months.

In that summer, Senator Kennedy was assassinated; there was a bus strike, a cab strike and a telephone strike in Chicago. There were demonstrations throughout the city against the war. The response of the city was rather strenuous to say the least. Happily, I was tear gassed only once. And I learned what I called the art of the advanced gratuity.

Now if you came from Minnesota, you paid for a service, it was performed, that was the end of it. It didn’t work quite that way in Chicago and I must say that it did not work quite that way in a whole lot of other major cities as it turns out. I found that out over time.

In the case of my work in Chicago, there were four separate organizations or companies involved in getting a single piece of equipment from downtown Chicago into our space at the convention center. I could buy things, I could pay for them, but I could not get them there, they simply did not come.

One night, in desperation, I took the assistant manager of the convention center out to dinner and I said, “Teach Me. What am I doing wrong?” He said “Have you been paying them enough?” I said “I had paid my bills” and he said “No-no, you don’t understand.” He sat down with a napkin and wrote the names of four people that were in charge of those four groups and he wrote down a number for each of them. He said that if you provide them with this money everything will be just fine.

It was $500 per person, which in 1968 was a reasonable amount of money. So the next morning I called a Humphrey fundraiser in Washington and I said, “I need $3000 in cash.” I could add, but I thought I better get a little bit extra. He wanted to know what the money was for. I was a young lawyer, I was talking on a regular telephone line, and I wasn’t about to say I was going to pay bribes, so we went back and forth for ten minutes. Finally I said, “Freddy, I have to pay the people that handle the deliveries something on the side.” He said, “Michael, if you had started the conversation that way, the money would already be on its way.” The next person who came from Washington brought me a little brown paper bag with 30 one hundred dollar bills. I distributed the first $2000 as I was supposed to, and everything was fine.

This was the last Democratic convention that was actually controlled by the big city bosses and the governors. But as my first convention, it is memorable to me. In 1972, the Democrats picked Miami. The convention site was the largest Quonset hut built in the history of the universe. The Republicans had a problem that year because one of the commercial funders of their convention was IT&T, which had gotten into some bribery scandal, so at the last minute, they decided to move their convention to Miami, following ours.

The highlight of that convention was that George McGovern gave his acceptance speech beginning at 3 a.m. in the morning. So not only did nobody else see it, most of the delegates were sleeping by that time.

1984 was obviously a very special time for us, and for me in particular. The vice president announced Geri Ferraro as a running mate on July 12th. The convention started on the 16th. A fellow by the name of Sister Boom-Boom led a parade down the main street of San Francisco just before the convention started, which got a fair amount of media attention. Interestingly enough, with all due respect, the only night that Walter Mondale led Ronald Reagan in the Reagan campaigns nightly tracking poll was the night that Mondale announced Geri Ferraro. Many years later, friends of mine in the Reagan campaign passed that information on to me.

There was extraordinary reception for Geri Ferraro. The Vice President will remember, as I do, when he brought the announcement before the women’s caucus at the convention. It was an extraordinary afternoon. You just cannot imagine what went on in that room.

In 1988, the Republicans had a surprise; they selected a man by the name of Dan Quail, a junior senator from Indiana, as their nominee for vice president. There was so much discomfort, apparently among Republican delegates, that for the only time in the history of conventions, the Vice President nominee was elected by acclamation, rather than by state-by-state vote, just for the purpose of making sure that Quail wouldn’t be embarrassed. For the Democrats, there was Bill Clinton’s first national foray, a 35-minute nominating speech of Michael Dukakis, that was suppose to have been eight minutes. He went on… and on… and on and I am sitting in a booth. I can remember this vividly, when he said “In conclusion” the place burst into raucous applause.

In 1992, on the Democratic side, the Clinton forces had control and there were three keynoters. Bill Bradley, Congresswomen Barbara Jordan, and Zell Miller — remember that last name. My high point of that convention was stopping Governor Casey from Pennsylvania from speaking, not allowing him to be on the program because he was not pro-choice and the decision had been made that no non-pro-choice speakers would be allowed to speak. I have yet to tell his son (who is now a United States Senator) of my particular role in his father’s evening that time. The other thing about that convention, of course, was that Perot was in the general election race. On the last day of our convention he got out of it. On the 16th of October he got back into it and actually got 19% of the vote. So Bill Clinton was elected by 43% to 37% with Perot getting 19%.

In 2000, the highlight seems to me, was the first father and son from the same party nominated as president, both Bushes. There was one other father and son team, obviously John Adams and John Quincy Adams, but John Adams was a federalist and John Quincy Adams was a Democratic-Republican at the time.

On the Democratic side, Gore was in complete control. There were two highlights. One was the nomination of the first Jewish vice presidential candidate, Joe Lieberman. The other event was what we call “the Kiss.” You may recall that after being nominated, the Gores were standing on stage waving to the screaming delegates. Suddenly the Vice President grabbed Mrs. Gore and gave her a backbending kiss. No person in America was more surprised than Mrs. Gore.

People also remember Lieberman for another kiss. In 2005, George Bush grabbed Lieberman and whispered something to him, but the camera angles made it appear as if it were a kiss, and that got to be a big deal for a short time.

There were two highlights for me in the 2000 convention. First of all, I had the privilege of telling Tom Daschle, who was the leader of the Democrats, and remember I am a lobbyist, that he couldn’t speak because his two of his colleagues, Mr. Biden and Mr. Kerry, had used up triple the time each one of them was allocated. Fortunately he was a gentleman, or my career would have been short lived.

In 2000, we had what I call, “I want one of those.” I learned, really from 1980 on, to always advise our nominee to call President Carter immediately and offer him position on the program. More often than not, he wouldn’t speak; but if you didn’t call, you heard about it in the newspapers. So Gore did, and President Carter said he didn't want to speak, thank you very much, but would come to the convention, etc.

The Republican convention was first and there was a truly lovely tribute to Gerald Ford. The morning after, I got a call from one of Carter’s people who said the president “wants one of those.” I asked what “one of those” meant. He said that he wants the identical tribute the Gerald Ford got. He wants the movie, he wants exactly the same length, and he wants it to start at the exact same time (eastern time) that Gerald Ford’s had started. I said, very quickly, that’s fine, send me the video and we will play it and we will run it.

I knew that getting into an argument wouldn’t work. First of all I had worked for the Carter-Mondale team in office and Carter had been really great to me, so if there was something I could do for him, I would do that. Two days later I received a large box, it had a hundred videos in it, from which I then, with the convention five days off, was to make the Carter video.

Fortunately there was a really talented guy in our production crew. I brought the box to him, and he made a truly lovely film. The film was to be introduced by Senator Diane Feinstein, and the Senator reminded me of this again this past weekend when I was at her home for an event. The producer made a mistake and instead of waiting for Diane to introduce the film, he started the film. It was a really great film; it was a very special moment. When it was over Senator Feinstein was totally in an uproar about her introduction, but there was no value in putting it on at the end. I will not share directly with you the things she said to me, but she has obviously not forgotten.

In 2004, the first ever Boston convention was held. Ronald Reagan’s son spoke on our podium on stem cell research. It was Barak Obama’s coming out speech. We had, on the Kerry side, what I call, “thou shall not take the president’s name in vain,” which was to say, there was very explicit instruction that no one was to be allowed on the podium who would in any way, shape, or form, attack president Bush. And every single speech was reviewed for those specifics, and many things were cut out, including a long-long interaction with President Carter’s folks because he had several things that he wanted to say about President Bush. Fortunately, at the end of the day, we control the teleprompter and it worked out okay.

Then, if you will remember, we had this keynoter several years earlier, his name was Zell Miller. He was still a Democratic senator but he turned up to be a prominent speaker at the Republican convention, attacking Mr. Kerry. Kerry tried to make nice, it didn’t turn out quite the way he had planned.

Presidential Conventions and Civility

Now let me turn for a second, to presidential campaigns and civility. To be serious, it is pretty hard to do. It’s not that campaigns are totally uncivil, because they are not, but personal attacks on presidential campaigns have been with us for a very long time and some people might argue that the attacks we see nowadays are kind of tame as compared to some of the things we saw in the past.

Let’s take 1828; Andrew Jackson is running against John Quincy Adams. Adams attacked Jackson’s marriage, accusing him of living in sin with his wife Rachel because Rachel’s divorce had not been finalized. They referred to Rachel as the American Jezebel and branded her as an adulteress. This was all in public. Adams, on the other hand, was accused of providing the Russian Czar with American virgins to serve as his servants while Adams had been minister from the United States to Russia.

In 1884, Grover Cleveland was accused of having a child out of wedlock, abandoning the child at an orphanage, and placing the mother of the child into an insane asylum. Just in case you think this is ancient history, you may recall the Willy Horton ads of 1988 showing an African American convict going through a revolving door in and out of a jail. Interestingly enough, many years later, the Republican operative who we thought was responsible for those ads, actually admitted that he was responsible for those ads.

In 2000, John McCain in South Carolina faced a variety of rumors including that he had fathered an illegitimate black child. In 2004, you will probably remember the Swift Boat veterans who alleged that Kerry had falsified his war record.

In 2007, the employee of a top adviser to Republican Mitt Romney appears to have been behind the launch of a website that attacked Fred Thompson during his first week on the trail. The website is called Phony-Fred.org and accuses Thompson of a variety of sins. Interestingly enough, the person behind the website is an employee of the same company that was doing the Bush campaign in 2000 when it faced John McCain.

What is happening now is the web is really accelerating and expediting incivility when it is attempted. It costs nothing to spread false information, without attribution, to hundreds of thousands of people on either side of the aisle. Web based content, more often then not, ends up on news cable television, and some of it makes its way to the national networks. Independent groups are easily funded; you don’t have to advertise that much to get on the air.

Groups like Move-On.org simply can say what they want to say without having to use significant campaign dollars… and they get on the air. Finally, the internet and 24-hour cable really lets you get into a tit-for-tat battle. The speed at which the campaigns and public reactions travel, and the responses you must make, leave no time for reflection. There is no time for a campaign to decide “Do we want to let this one pass.”

You don’t get to decide whether you want to escalate. You just escalate, and worry about it later. Now we don’t have strategy sessions; we have war rooms on either side. The one thing that is true, however, and may be a saving grace, is that most web bloggers, cable news channels, and talk radio programs in particular, have audiences that are quite self selected. These are folks that already agree with the point of view that tends to shows up at these places and so it does not appear that they achieve a lot in terms of changing the minds of undecided voters.

The bottom line for me is that in presidential campaigns, civility is a worthy but unrealistic goal, more likely to be achieved in campaigns that are not highly competitive, if at all.

Finally, let’s discuss the role of conventions in campaign civility. In general, the public face of conventions is more civil than not. Attacks on opponents tend to be substantive, not personality based, and not particularly nasty.

There are exceptions. In 1988, Ann Richards, the Democratic governor of Texas, speaking at the Democratic convention, accused George Bush of having been born with a silver foot in his mouth. In 1996, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, also of Texas, speaking at the Republican convention, attacked Bill Clinton with a list of 23 phrases and insults including drug coddling, truth dodging, and FBI abusing.

I spoke to you about what went on in 2004. There are two places perhaps where there actually is rational, fairly civil discourse. One is the acceptance speech; the candidates are wholly responsible for them. They utter those words and they are accountable and they cannot blame it off on some campaign person or some third party. The second place is probably in the general election debates. While there is an interaction, again it is the candidates themselves that are interacting, and therefore they tend to be quite reasonable. However by the time these two events, if they are civil, happen, the campaigns themselves have been going on so long, the ferocity is so great that the efforts at civility are quickly lost. Finally, candidates want mileage from their conventions and humor may be used to capture audiences. Falsehoods are used to press a point, innuendo is used to cast doubt, all at the expense of civility.

So I will leave it to you to decide whether you think there is civility in these campaigns. Conventions may be the most civil moments in what are now often quite uncivil campaigns. But there is hope.

If Richard Teske from one side of the aisle can create this lecture series and introduce me here, clearly on the other side of the aisle, there is still hope for civility in politics and with that I thank you.

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