By andrea Grossman
PHILADELPHIA – What would the this week’s GOP convention have been like if Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain were still grappling for the party’s presidential nomination?
“This place would be explosive,” said Haynes Johnson, a veteran journalist and a former columnist for The Washington Post. “It would be dynamite. Everyone in the world would be watching.”
Instead, delegates have known for months that Bush will be their hope to win back the White House. Most of them came to Philadelphia covered with pins that say “Dubya” or carrying George W. Bush signs.
Johnson said he has lost count of how many conventions he has attended, as both a reporter and commentator, but guesses it is somewhere around 18. Over the years, he said, party conventions have lost their luster over the years. Not only is the ticket locked up before they convene, but floor sessions are painstakingly choreographed, to the point that delegates are told when to cheer and wave their signs.
“It’s a TV spectacle,” he said. “It’s supposed to make you feel good.”
It is not a new phenomenon. It was 1972 when Johnson said he came across the actual script, showing specific times for speeches and applause, for the GOP convention that nominated President Nixon for re-election. Johnson, who is a commentator for the current Republican convention on PBS’ “The Jim Lehrer NewsHour,” said not much has changed since then.
“It’s opportunity with a purpose, a president with a purpose, renewing America with a purpose, strength and security with a purpose,” he said on the NewsHour, parroting the nightly themes of the convention. “And this is the theme that comes over, but it’s robbed of anything that’s spontaneous. . .robbed of any clash of ideas or emotions or the rest.”
Johnson is a regular member of the show’s “Historians” panel, along with residential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss and Heritage Foundation fellow Kay James. During the 2000 Republican National Convention, the group appears nightly, relating stories of past elections to the events on the floor.
Over the years, television networks have cut back on the time they give to conventions. Johnson notes that 43 percent of registered Republicans don’t even tune in anymore.
Of the three major networks, only CNN and PBS are providing full coverage this year. The move has paid off for PBS, which said it drew 1.5 million viewers Monday night to just under 680,000 for CNN.
“People who care about public events will tune into a show like Jim’s,” Johnson said.
In addition to his duties as a NewsHour historian, Johnson holds the Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of Maryland College of Journalism.