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Commentary: Comparing the Conventions
By Brian Reich
Special to WestportNow
St. Paul, Minn.—Having attended the Democratic National Convention in Denver and now the Republican one in Minneapolis/St. Paul, there is a stark contrast—and not just because the issues and rhetoric are different.
The Democrats and Republicans throw very different conventions, with very different goals and purpose.
I have been on the road for the past two weeks—first in Denver where I was on staff as a member of the Democratic National Convention’s online content team, and more recently in Minneapolis, where I was attending, and blogging, the RNC as special press, aka credentialed new media.
Why would anyone want to go to both conventions? Lots of reasons, actually: First, I love politics—and national conventions are as big as it gets in politics.
The best and brightest of the two political parties gather, share their thinking about the state of politics and the trajectory of the current election. As a longtime political operative, the conventions also present a unique opportunity for me to see old friends and get updates on people’s lives.
Both weeks I have been able to get access to all the media facilities and stars, gaining a different perspective on the proceedings as well as seeing some of my media idols (who I not so secretly obsess about).
Finally, if all goes as planned, I am able to see/hear/write/offer something interesting that maybe, just maybe, contributes to the discussion this election cycle, helps people to understand the issues, motivates someone to participate or vote, or even does something small to improve the political process as a whole.
Denver vs. Minneapolis: Denver is a small city, nestled in the picturesque Rocky Mountains, with a decidedly western feel (red rock buildings, old banks converted into restaurants, horse posts left over from the old days, etc). The view in every direction is stunning.
The air is crisp and clear, the temperatures very warm. The people are incredibly nice. And the city was alive, streets literally filled at all hours of the day, and signs for the convention welcoming delegates at every turn.
Most importantly, the Pepsi Center was just a few short blocks away from downtown (and even Invesco Field, where Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech on Thursday night, was reachable on foot - though it was a longer walk).
Minneapolis/St..Paul, by contrast is a sprawling metropolis—two cities in fact—separated by highways with flat lands extending in all directions. There are some beautiful old and new buildings, and some wonderful public art - but for the most part the city seems very plain.
During the day, the weather has been humid and sticky, while at night the temperatures drop and it becomes chilly. The streets are eerily quiet, with only a handful of people on any corner and few signs to welcome or direct visitors to any official (or unofficial) convention activities.
The XCel Center is in downtown St. Paul, more than 10 miles from the heart of downtown Minneapolis—requiring a vehicle (and a good navigator in my case) to find.
And though I know from experience that the residents of Minneapolis are incredible nice, I can’t seem to find anyone who lives locally to ask for directions or help—its all RNC staff and volunteers and none of them seem to be very helpful.
Democratic Delegates vs. Republican Delegates: I find the Republican delegates both more pleasant to be around, and more welcoming of outsiders—though I suppose that would be different if they knew I was a Democrat (or worse, a blogger!).
I also find the Republicans who have gathered in Minneapolis to be more interested in talking than the Democrats I met in Denver—and more talkative once you get them started. Interestingly, the Republicans I encountered spend more of their time talking about the Democrats—the latest rumors or accusations about Barack Obama are a popular topic—than about their own candidates or proceedings.
This is, of course, something the Democrats and Republicans have in common, since the Democrats love to talk about themselves.
The majority of the attendees to the GOP Convention, it seems, are white, and older by comparison to the Democrats – who. it seems, have actually achieved (more this convention than in past years) to build a truly big tent.
Convention Proceedings: The convention programs differ greatly as well. The structure is basically the same—real person speaker, elected official or high-profile candidate, video montage, repeat.
But, the Democrats put on a glossy, glitzy, high-tech show with a sprawling multi-screen interactive stage setup, while the Republicans were more subdued, with a simple stage and a flowing American flag graphic behind most speakers.
(Note: This very basic presentation was not just because their plans had to be changed in the wake of Hurricane Gustav; that was the aesthetic they had planned before the schedule was changed). The Democrats music was loud and raucous, prompting even members of the media (who of course are accused of having a Democrat-leaning bias) to literally dance in the aisles alongside delegates.
And, on the speechifying and rhetorical front, it wasn’t until the final speech of the second night of convention proceedings that any speaker at the Republican convention referred to the Democratic nominee by name.
The person who first uttered the word Barack Obama, of course, was former favorite-Democratic-son Sen. Joe Lieberman. In fact, he used the Democratic nominee’s name twice, in two consecutive sentences.
Meanwhile, Barack Obama used John McCain’s name four times in his acceptance speech. Joe Biden used John McCain’s name more than a dozen times in his speech at the Democratic convention, even going out of his way to call the senator his ‘”riend.’”
In fact, with the exception of Bill Clinton’s speech (which focused far more on bolstering Obama’s candidacy than breaking down McCain’s), no major speaker (and possibly no speaker at all) failed to mention McCain by name, and most linked him directly to President Bush and even Karl Rove.
There are other comparisons I could make, some more flattering towards one side or the other, but you get the idea. The point is, for Democrats last week, and Republicans this week, the convention is the center of the political universe.
They each have their own perspective on what makes for a good party, and what will present their candidate and their agenda in the best light. They each use the media differently to help tell their story, hoping that the millions of people around the country will get the right message. After all, this is a show.
Their candidates can do no wrong. Their opponents don’t know which end is up. And by the end of the week, the American people can see that the choice in November is clear. Well, sort of.
Brian Reich, son of Ann Sheffer of Westport, is a regular writer and speaker on the issues involving the impact of the Internet and technology on politics, society, and the media. A longtime political operative who was attending his fifth Democratic convention and second Republican convention, he is the editor of Thinking About Media (www.thinkingaboutmedia.com), a blog examining media consumption habits around the world. His book, “Media Rules!,” was published by Wiley & Sons in December 2007.
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