Conventional Wisdom

If John Kerry and John Edwards thought their convention would give

them some much-needed momentum, they clearly were mistaken. The vapid

proceedings in Boston did little to excite the public; in fact, the public, in

its wisdom, pretty much ignored the goings-on at the Fleet Center. Television

coverage reflected the voters’ apathy-the broadcast networks devoted a mere

three hours of coverage to the convention.

Conventions

once served a real purpose in American political life. It was where the parties

nominated their candidates for national office. It was where issues were

debated, where deals were done. These events were filled with drama and

unpredictable scenarios. The party platform actually meant something, and often

was the focus of heated debate. The sweaty, passionate and often unruly side of

politics was on display for all to see.

Now the

conventions are little more than infomercials-even worse, they’re like

infomercials you’ve already seen a dozen times. And the result is predictable:

The public tunes out, and candidates like Mr. Kerry, who is trying to unseat an

incumbent, actually lose momentum.

The

irony is that the political scriptwriters who have turned conventions into

Rotary Club meetings are afraid of the very drama that would inspire the

public’s interest. The last thing either party wants is any sign of dissent. So

platforms aren’t debated in public, and the Presidential and Vice Presidential

candidates are nominated without discussion. No wonder neither the media nor

the voters seem interested.

It has

been more than a half-century since the last contested convention, when Dwight Eisenhower bested Robert Taft-who

entered the convention with the most delegates-to win the Republican

Party’s 1952 Presidential nomination. And the last multiple-ballot convention

fight took place in 1956, when John Kennedy unsuccessfully sought to become Adlai Stevenson’s running mate. With the young

Senator from Massachusetts gaining momentum, the party’s insiders began

changing votes and trading horses. The result was Estes Kefauver’s dramatic,

second-ballot victory. Nominations have since been a one-ballot affair, a far

cry from the 104-ballot marathon that took place in New York in 1924, when the

exhausted Democrats nominated John Davis.

Conventions had drama back then. They had floor

fights and impassioned speeches and arguments over issues.

Conventions mattered, and now they don’t for any number of

reasons. Political consultants don’t dare allow the public to see anything

resembling argument. The explosion of primaries in the 1960’s took

control of the delegates out of the hands of free-wheeling bosses who traded

votes for favors. And the emphasis on fund-raising has led parties to

front-load their primaries so that a winner emerges by mid-March, allowing that

candidate to get on with the all-important business of collecting

contributions.

Conventions,

then, have lost their purpose. Stripped of drama and debate, they are unable to

inspire voters or generate excitement about the fall’s election. It’s time they

went the way of the Whig Party.

Bloomberg and Kelly Have the Right Stuff

Faced with warnings about new security threats, Mayor Michael

Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly have offered steady, reassuring

leadership. They have not downplayed the threat, nor have they said or done

anything to make matters more tense. That is no easy task, but they have

managed it and have set the right tone for the city.

Clearly

the government believes that the information about specific threats to specific

buildings warrants a ramping-up of security measures. But should we be

surprised to learn that terrorists would love to destroy the Stock Exchange or

the World Bank? It would be news to learn that, for some reason, the terrorists

have no interest in these institutions. The specificity of detail does not

necessarily make the threats any more credible than the generic threat we

already know about and live with every day.

The

terrorists’ goal is to create a climate of fear and to force Washington (and other Western governments) to spend energy

and money on anti-terrorism defense. Homeland Security Secretary Tom

Ridge justified the stepped-up measures by citing the specific nature of the

new (or, to be more precise, somewhat new) threats. But at what point are we

actually playing into the enemy’s hands by going to battle stations just

because specific buildings may or may not be in the terrorists’ cross hairs?

Information-or

rather, disinformation-may be the terrorists’ biggest weapon. With a

well-planned leak, our enemy can sit back and watch officials like Mr. Ridge

scramble. This ability to cause anxiety and to

disrupt the nation’s economy simply through words may be the terrorists’

most formidable tactic.

What’s

more, how can intelligence sources tell us about a suicide bomber in a truck?

Terrorist operations are not like D-Day, when the Allies had to marshal

thousands of men, vessels and vehicles along the coast of Britain. Terrorists

hide from public view. How can we gather information about people we can’t see?

New

York City has admirably learned to adapt to the post–Sept. 11 climate. Indeed,

it’s hard to imagine another city whose residents would have recovered as

gracefully. But there’s no denying that these are challenging times. The past three years have changed much of our day-to-day lives, with security checks at public

events and office buildings and restrictions at our bridges and tunnels.

All of which makes the leadership of Michael Bloomberg and Raymond Kelly all

the more important.

The Dog Days of August

Many long-time New Yorkers will tell you that the city’s most lovely

seasons are spring and fall. What they won’t tell you, because it’s something

of a secret, is that August is also one of New York’s most idyllic times. The

streets are blissfully empty, you can always get a table at your favorite

restaurant and then perhaps stroll into a Broadway show just before the curtain goes up. Museums suddenly feel manageable;

books that have gone unread for months become an accessible pleasure

again. And for these precious weeks, you’re not subject to the usual aches and

pains of your friends-they’re all in the Hamptons, the Catskills, the South of

France or Litchfield County-and your own aches and pains recede, as your

therapist takes the waters in Wellfleet.

True,

you may be tempted to head to Long Island for a weekend, but such thoughts

evaporate like a summer shower when you remember the hours you’d likely spend

stuck in snarled traffic on the Long Island Expressway,

only to find the beaches and restaurants jammed with other bleary Manhattanites, and then to return Sunday

night more stressed-out than before you left.

So it’s

August in New York. Savor it. But please, keep it under your hat.

Conventional Wisdom