COLUMN: Conventional wisdom

This is my Sunday column for the Sept. 9, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Conventional wisdom
By Aaron J. Brown

The two major parties just wrapped up their national conventions: the Republicans in Tampa, Florida; the Democrats in Charlotte, North Carolina. Now President Obama and Gov. Romney begin the sprint to Nov. 6, which is funny because it’s not really a sprint.

With the non-stop campaigning of our times Romney and Obama are really just gutting out the last mile of a marathon. Unlike a real marathon, however, in this scenario the runners are smiling and waving, while the audience is left glassy eyed, drenched in sweat, bleeding out our nipples because of chaffing.

But the conventions are a good reminder of the art of politics, the concrete skills that the best leaders have possessed throughout human history. Specifically, conventions are about speeches.

I’m biased because I teach and practice public speaking for a living, but there’s nothing more telling than a speech. You have to prepare, you have to adjust your preparations, and you have to deliver. Not everybody is good at it. Sometimes when you put a bunch of people together who are good at it, you realize that they’re really just good at modeling formulaic traits of good public speakers. Every once in a while you see a great speech. Some speakers are just naturally great.

This year was unusual in that both candidates were overshadowed by other speeches in their conventions: Obama by former President Bill Clinton and Romney by Clint Eastwood talking to a chair. That doesn’t normally happen.

But that brings me to the other thing I love about conventions. Even though they are highly scripted and orchestrated, speakers must contend with variables, not least of which are the several thousand delegates who each believe themselves to be very, very important.

I’ve actually been a delegate for a state party convention and have had friends serve as delegates for the other side. Republican or Democrat, certain elements always enter the picture. First of all, to be a delegate you have to spend several evenings or Saturdays attending local party gatherings, convincing the people around you that you believe the same things they do, only more. You have to scream a lot to be a delegate. That’s required.

After that you have to travel at your own expense to a place that was selected for the convention not because it is the most attractive, interesting place to hold a convention, but because the people who live near there are the most confused about how to vote. Perhaps 2,500 people wearing barbershop quartet hats will help them decide? Surely, it could not hurt.

Conventions used to be important political stories because they outcome was not assured. In fact, many U.S. party conventions have nominated candidates who had no idea they’d be running for president. President James Garfield, for instance, loudly begged delegates not to nominate him before being muzzled by nearby Republican bosses. Shortly after being elected he was shot in a train station. Point is, these things didn’t always end with balloons and Bruce Springsteen songs.

Today, as we saw these last two weeks, conventions are really more important as campaign marketing events. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t get rid of them or turn the cameras away. There’s a big difference between a 30-second TV ad and a 15-minute speech. Good speeches not only acknowledge the power of emotion in persuasion, they also inform. If you take time to watch or read the major convention speeches you will see the point of view from which candidates and parties emerge. In this, conventions remain historically significant.

Though it truly is high time for some better hats and less screaming. All those in favor, say aye.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes and hosts 91.7 KAXE’s Great Northern Radio Show on public stations, with a live show Oct. 20 in Eveleth.

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