Twice in the television era have the pre-scripted proceedings of a national political convention been badly disrupted – and both times it proved catastrophic for the party that put on the show.
In 1968, chaos in the streets and on the floor of the Democrats’ Chicago convention – punctuated by the unforgettable image of Richard Daley shouting epithets at Abraham Ribicoff after the Connecticut senator decried the “Gestapo tactics” of the mayor’s police force – led many Americans to conclude that a party incapable of managing its own affairs shouldn’t be entrusted with the nation’s affairs.
Four years later, similar chaos reigned in Miami Beach, when an endless parade of procedural motions from the floor forced George McGovern’s acceptance speech – perhaps his best chance to win a reevaluation from the millions of voters who’d come to view him as a fringe figure – out of prime time and into the wee hours of the morning, limiting the television audience to a few hard-core shut-ins and insomniacs who might otherwise have been watching infomercials.
For different reasons, the carefully laid plans for this year’s Republican convention, the planning for which got under way two years ago, have now gone up in smoke. So far, the prime-time slate for the Monday session – which was to be highlighted by speeches from George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman – has been canceled. The rest of the week is up in the air, to be determined on a day-to-day, or maybe even hour-to-hour, basis as convention planners track the progress of Hurricane Gustav – and, perhaps more importantly, the media’s coverage of Gustav.
Unlike the Democrats in 1968 and 1972, the Republicans will not pay a direct political price for these disruptions, since they are utterly out of the party’s control. To have proceeded with a typical convention schedule would have been the politically costly choice, evoking memories of the Bush White House’s initial indifference to the hurricane that nearly destroyed New Orleans and the Gulf Coast three years ago.
And, in fact, a case can be made that the convention changes that Gustav has forced could actually be a plus for John McCain and the Republicans. For one thing, it has provided them with an excuse for not showcasing Bush and Cheney in prime time. Without the Gustav excuse, it would have been impossible to deny the sitting president and vice president their Monday night convention appearances, which would have reinforced the Democrats’ effort to tie McCain to the White House and to paint the G.O.P. ticket as “more of the same.”