When television came to Mumbai in my youth and domestic news was limited to what Indira Gandhi’s ministry of information and broadcasting wanted people to watch, the dropping balloons and falling confetti at the end of presidential nominating conventions in the United States of America were scenes that men and women of my generation watched with wide-eyed fascination.
My memory of the 1976 Democratic national convention is especially vivid not merely because its venue, the gleaming and sprawling Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, had opened its doors only eight years earlier. It was the first political convention to be held in what has become an iconic indoor arena where history was repeated when the Democrats nominated Bill Clinton there 16 years later.
It was also the first American political convention, glimpses of which Indians could watch on TV at least in half-a-dozen cities. When the US had its previous presidential election in 1972, only Mumbai and Amritsar had telecasts, that, too, limited.
The nomination of Jimmy Carter as the party’s candidate in 1976 in free and fair primaries that at one point had 14 other Democrats competing against Carter was a process India did not have. Even a semblance of anything remotely similar had been lost. The country was under Emergency and a censor with the dreaded blue pencil had the power to decide what was printed in the newspaper that I helped bring out in Mumbai.
My recollection is that most Indians were partial about the 1976 US election, not that their views mattered to the political process in America. Memories of Richard Nixon’s infamous ‘tilt’ towards Pakistan when that country’s eastern part was fighting for liberation were still fresh in Indian minds and those like me believed, for obvious reasons, that Nixon got what he deserved when he became the only US president to resign after he was caught up in Watergate.
Although Gerald Ford, who replaced Nixon, was untainted by the blood of Bangladeshis, a Democratic victory was sweet revenge against Republicans as many Indians saw it. There was also the ‘Lillian’ factor: the Indian press had a surfeit of stories about Carter’s mother, Lillian, who cared for leprosy patients for nearly two years in the Godrej Colony not far from Mumbai as an American Peace Corps volunteer.
It was as perfect a political clip as any that Indians of my generation could hope to see 36 years ago on black and white television when balloons and confetti came raining down on Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter at Madison Square Garden. So, last week in Charlotte I was anguished when Barack Obama, his wife Michelle and their two adorable children stood on the stage of the Time Warner Cable Arena and waved to the Democratic Party faithful after accepting his presidential re-nomination.
The arena was bereft of balloons for the first time that I can remember at an indoor convention venue although confetti was there in abundance. Democrats had made no provision for balloons this year because Obama was to have made his acceptance speech at an outdoor stadium which could seat 74,000 people, as he did in Denver four years ago. Instead of balloons, they had planned for fireworks. But the threat of rain forced the presidential campaign to move the final event of their convention indoors and there was no time to organize balloons.
A week earlier, Republicans meeting in Tampa for their party convention had 1,00,000 blue, white and red balloons and an avalanche of confetti flooding their venue, the Tampa Bay Times Forum. The absence of balloons in Charlotte is only one reminder that America’s political conventions, an enduring institution that mixes symbolism and substance, are undergoing changes that may make them unrecognizable in the years to come. Sadly perhaps, especially for those with memories of 1976, presidential nominating conventions may be coming to an end as the world knows them in their current incarnation. Already this year, both Republicans and Democrats cut short their national conventions by one day instead of having them for the traditional four days. Democrats meeting in Charlotte did it by choice, but a truncated three-day meeting was forced on Republicans by Hurricane Isaac which threatened Tampa on the eve of their conclave.
The axing of one day’s programme at both party conventions may be a precursor to cutting down presidential nominating conventions to a one-day formality, forced on parties by a combination of 21st-century circumstances such as new technology and the social media. Terrorist threats and heightened security have already robbed conventions of much of their gaiety and opportunities for unrestrained fun.
The substantive business at presidential nominating conventions can actually be completed in a day, a matter of hours, in fact. Most important of those is the ‘roll call’ when, state by state, the delegates pledge their support to a candidate until he (so far there has been no ‘she’) has secured backing of the majority of party delegates. Then comes the adoption of the party ‘platform’, the US equivalent of a party manifesto in India. And finally the nominated candidate must formally accept his nomination: the acceptance speech.
When their leadership cut one day from the schedule of both conventions this year, no one complained in either party. In future, the only gripe would come from hotel owners in convention cities because they would lose one or two days of full occupancy. This year the hotel-owners had no complaints because there was a mandatory five-night stay requirement in both Tampa and Charlotte from those who had booked rooms during the convention period.
Other than hoteliers, the losers would be clubs and restaurants. In both Tampa and Charlotte, most decent restaurants and clubs were booked on every convention night for private parties and were not accessible to the public. Of course, Washington’s lobbyists would like the conventions to be a 365-day affair because they get unrestrained access to the ‘establishment’ in the informal convention atmosphere. And lobbyists, believe me, take care of their clients in both political parties and meet their needs in every possible way during the duration of the conventions so that they can continue to benefit from those IOUs later.
I found in the course of covering successive conventions that there are things to be learned on the margins of political activity: even from fellow journalists. At one briefing organized exclusively for foreign journalists by the US state department’s Foreign Press Center in Tampa, I met David Lightman of the McClatchy Newspapers. This was the 17th convention that he was covering!
Lightman made me realize why incumbency is rarely a liability for a US president unlike for chief ministers and prime ministers in India. Since World War II only three sitting presidents have lost their bids for re-election: which must give Obama great confidence in the final weeks of his re-election campaign.
As Lightman puts it, “[i]t is always the challenge of a challenger to an incumbent president that they have to show they can be President of the US. Because like or hate President Obama, like or hate President Bush, et cetera, people in this country still have a very healthy respect for the institution. He is still the President, and you have to show that somehow, you too could be the President.” That is a challenge for Mitt Romney or for anyone in his position provided by the televised party conventions and the presidential and vice-presidential debates.
He says that in the public perception, the coming election is a contest between the US president and the former governor of Massachusetts. “We used to call it the stature gap. Romney has to come across as presidential” during the conventions and post-convention, during the debates, Lightman said.
By that yardstick Obama may be deemed to have won the November elections.