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CONVENTION '04 | THE ART OF POLITICS

These days, they're mostly electing to avoid drama

Political theater has a long, storied tradition, but the theater of politics, particularly the theater of poltical conventions, has gone the way of transistor radios and LPs.

While commentators mount their soapboxes to declaim how terrible it is that the networks have so sharply reduced their coverage, the fact is that the political powers have learned this: In the television age, he who provideth the most drama at the political conventions loseth the election.

After Barry Goldwater's "An Enemy of the People"-style defense of extremism in 1964, the protesters in Chicago in 1968 who made Hubert Humphrey look like Willy Loman, George McGovern's long day's journey into night with a 2:30 a.m. acceptance speech in 1972, and Pat Buchanan's "my kingdom for a right-wing horse" speech in 1992, the 11th commandment of American politics is now: Steer clear of anything that looks remotely like drama. These days the only theatricality you want at a convention is the presidential nominee's ability to perform well, and we'll find out how well John Kerry fits the bill when he auditions for the role Thursday night.

Conventions need at least a modicum of suspense to qualify as good theater, but as commentator Tim Russert said yesterday on NBC, "There's no suspense. There's no news. There's nothing." The parties have even figured out that it is to their advantage to have the vice-presidential candidate named in advance of the convention, so even that bit of excitement is gone.

Hardly, then, the ingredients for Shakespearean drama -- or successful reality TV, for that matter. Political conventions are more like un-reality TV, where all wings of a party get together, pretend they have no differences with one another, hope that nobody else tells a reporter to "shove it," sing "Kumbaya," and anoint the presidential and vice-presidential hopefuls.

Russert added that if it weren't for the speeches by the Johns (Kerry and Edwards) and the Clintons (Bill and Hillary), there would be little reason to cover the conventions.

Fortunately for the Democrats, a big finish can cover a multitude of longueurs. After speeches by Al Gore and Jimmy Carter that reminded delegates how they lost the White House, Bill Clinton galvanized the crowd with a neo-Will Rogers speech that reminded delegates how they kept the presidency for eight years. Many an actor would sell an arm to phrase as well as Clinton. "They need a divided America," he said, referring to the Republicans. And then, dropping his voice a homespun octave, he added, "But we don't."

Aside from his speech and Hillary Clinton's introduction, the oratory was predictable. But as predictable as the Democrats were, the protesters outside the FleetCenter were even more so. Antiwar protesters, antiabortionists, and Lyndon LaRouchers seemed to be competing to see who could make the most eyes glaze over. Not only were the protesters placed in pens, but a green tarp kept them isolated from both the delegates and the media. You had to walk about a half-hour from the FleetCenter to see the protesters, and once you did it was the typical "There is more democracy out here than in there" or "John Kerry, can you come out and play with us?" (He didn't.)

The antiwar protesters did break free of their assigned pens, but neither the police nor the passersby seemed to find much significance, never mind drama, in their equating Kerry with President Bush. Meanwhile the antiabortionists looked as joyless as usual, and the LaRouche supporters droned on in as incomprehensible a manner as ever.

People do pay attention to talk radio, and the talk flock finds drama in anything. The first floor of the FleetCenter has been given over to talk radio, and to walk down the corridor is to be barraged with a cacophony of "I'm scared of what these people will do to this country if they're elected"; "The liberal agenda is dangerous."

But in the end, even talk radio helped reduce the drama of the day. Thanks to the hysteria talk jocks had whipped up about what the Democratic National Convention would do to the city, the morning commute was one of the easiest ever. And thanks to Bill Clinton, the man the talk show folks love to hate, prime time turned out pretty well for the Democrats, too.

Theater critic Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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