Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

I don’t understand why the political parties are so upset that the networks, having shortened convention coverage this year, will curtail live broadcasts even more in 2004. The lesson from this season, politically speaking, is the fewer people who watch, the better off you are.

Take the Republican convention, please, as Joe Lieberman might say. It was designed to be unwatchable, lacking both conflict and suspense, and went largely unwatched.

Yet the millions of voters who preferred reruns to the Republican show knew about the convention. In newspaper front pages, in radio and TV broadcasts, the public saw and heard Republicans associated with “inclusion,” “education,” “diversity.”

These key convention messages were faithfully reported because there was nothing else to report. The less the public saw of the synthetic spectacle, the purer the message. Even the GOP right sacrificed itself to the cause. In short, it was a marketing communications home run.

While no Dateline (the show NBC broadcast instead of the quadrennial cavalcade of Kennedys), the Democratic convention had the misfortune of being marginally more interesting. It featured a few audience draws, although Al Gore wasn’t first among them. It had a few tempest-in-a-teapot conflicts, not to mention political street theater of the absurd outside.

The opening night draw was the farewell performance of Bill Clinton, for whom even the stingy networks extended coverage.

Over the years, the Comeback Kid has taken many a flaccid speech and wrung from it an effective political performances. This rhetorically banal valediction was the corker: a lip-biting, hand-on-heart, voice-breaking-on-cue tour de force.

It forced the Clinton haters to witness the happy and approving crowd sigh with nostalgia over the departure of this outsized personality, radiating the ambition and narcissism that is his glory and his woe.

Then there was the curiosity factor of Lieberman, who, in case you haven’t heard, is Jewish. Those who tuned in were not disappointed when he opened his speech with a Borscht Belt mother-in-law joke. It was a surreal moment, until one realized that from Groucho Marx to Jerry Seinfeld, the schtick-spouting Jew is a quintessential American figure, known to generations.

The Jew on the podium was not strange but familiar. Now if only someone from the Friars Club would take Lieberman under his wing and teach him not to grimace at the punch line.

Yet neither of these audience draws was an unmixed blessing. Clinton’s appearance allowed pundits to observe that Al Gore was no Bill Clinton. The Gores, it was widely reported, could not wait for him to leave town. Nor did Clinton do much good for Gore while he was in town, as the 17.2 million who watched him surely noticed. Lieberman, meanwhile, was challenged by the African American caucus.

As conflicts go, these were pretty small potatoes. The caucus and Lieberman, who will do what Gore tells him, made politically expedient peace. Clinton did depart, and by the time Karenna Gore Schiff revealed her father made her toast every morning, the party was as energized about Gore as it ever will be.

Add to this the irritant of anti-corporate protesters in the streets. The disturbances were so irrelevant they didn’t even merit mention inside the hall, a sad parody of the proud tradition of wreaking havoc at Democratic conventions.

The Democrats tried to put on as unified and freeze-dried a show as the Republicans, with a parade of personal testimonies that left me wondering when being a great dad became the highest qualification for presidential office. Like the Republican party, the Dems claimed there could be diversity without conflict, since that’s what Americans want to hear.

But the fissures in the ranks belied that illusion. Last week, the Democrats claimed they were the true party of diversity and inclusion. But politically speaking, in this age of conflict-phobic voters, they’d be better off being the fake version.