Two conventions " 48 years apart
September 17, 2008
Politically, 1960 was an energizing year, a year of surprises; 2008 is similarly charged with great energy. I was lucky to be involved with both years and their Democratic National Conventions.
Newscaster John Daly, an old friend of the family, set me up as runner for ABC News in 1960. It gave me a floor pass, so I became a young witness to the most exciting convention since the 1930s. Tony Welters, a ski client, asked me to drive his family and friends around Denver for the recent convention. He provided me with daily tickets to the Pepsi Center and Invesco Field. To say that Denver’s convention was exciting is to be at a loss of words. It was the political high of the past 40 years.
Both conventions broke new ground. In 1960, we watched a young man from Massachusetts emerge as a leader who could inspire the young to vote ” and they did. In 2008, we watched a young man from Illinois spring forth and capture the hearts of millions ” and bring a sigh of relief that maybe there was hope for America yet again. Time will tell if his effort will be successful, but once again it will be the youth of America that has the potential to bring these new changes.
One of the highlights in the 1960 convention, for me and countless others, was Eleanor Roosevelt’s appearance in the Sports Arena of Los Angeles. It was tumultuous and very emotional. The demonstration for our former first lady lasted a good 15 minutes. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s appearance on the stage of the Pepsi Center was equally long, emotional and rousing. She looked like a shining star standing there accepting the love of that huge crowd. And then she gave a speech, which many said was her very best, that brought down the house.
I felt an intimate exposure to history in the making in 1960. I was standing outside LBJ’S room at the Biltmore when he opened the door and announced to the awaiting press corps that he would accept JFK’s offer for the vice presidency. I felt that same sort of intimate connection to history in the making when serendipity put me at the Denver Athletic Club on the morning of the Invesco Field extravaganza. A young Chicagoan Ph.D. and close Obama associate, who happens to be the son of a mentor of mine from my Peace Corps days, asked me to deliver him to the Club for a “pick-up” game ” the plethora of limos and secret service detail made it clear that Barack was on the court. While I couldn’t get past the new homeland security entourage myself, it was a kick to be part of the inner circle activity. Barack didn’t play after all ” the games tend to be a tad aggressive and he didn’t think it wise to risk injury on this all-important day ” so he shot hoops alone at the other end of the court while his buddies worked up a sweat
In 1960 I was right down front for John Kennedy’s acceptance speech at the Los Angeles Coliseum, with somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 people witnessing the call to the New Frontier. It was my first introduction to that beloved Boston accent that became so familiar over the years, and it was a call for a new generation that was heard by me. I later went on to start a student organization at San Diego State University and eventually joined the Peace Corps ” events that were inspired by that night in L.A.
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On Aug. 28 of this year I was just off the floor of Invesco to hear the Senator from Illinois give his speech. It was amazing to sit among delegates and dignitaries of the Democratic National Convention and feel their reaction. Tears were shed. It felt like the long race conflict that exists in America might have an end in sight. The diversity of the crowd coupled with the oneness of the response was something I may never get over. The change it will bring for me will be profound. One thing is clear; I am committed to active participation this fall.
I worked for the media in 1960 and I scrutinized the media this time around. Gavel-to-gavel coverage of the convention was the name of the game in 1960. It was important for the big three networks ” NBC, CBS and ABC ” to try to keep the cameras focused on the podium, with occasional short pieces from the floor or remotes from other spots around L.A., and then the commentary by the anchors of the networks ” Huntley/Brinkley, Walter Cronkite and John Daly ” at the end. When you watched the coverage on TV you felt like you were present in the Sports Arena. The coverage was good and at times great.
Nowadays it has changed considerably. You are told what to think. The mainstream media decides what is important; it is too subjective. The “talking heads” were more interested in one another than the convention. Countless times I would look over and the camera would be on the announcer instead of the podium. The viewer’s loss. Only CSPAN covered Obama’s sister’s insights.
It was instructive for me to keep my binoculars focused on them. Fox News only covered five minutes of the keynote address by Mark Warner of Virginia, but don’t let me get started on Fox News.
In 1960 it seemed as if the egos only resided in the anchors and their approach to the news in front of them. Today it seems that the talking heads all are clamoring for their chance to voice their opinions; because of that there is no time to actually witness the event. In Denver I called friends to encourage them to watch CSPAN or public television to see what was really going on. Once again I have to report that it was the alternative channels that I visit in the early morning hours that offered the best insight to the convention.
My point on all of this is that the state of journalism is in need of re-education. Wouldn’t it be great if all the journalists in America were required to take a graduate level course in how to approach their craft, maybe a course in ethics and impartiality? Or as Jon Stewart pointed out, how to become outsiders again. We need to figure out where this is all headed because the current state of journalism is abysmal. My time in Denver more than underlined this, it shouted it out.
Two conventions, two different periods in American history, but very similar in impact. John Kennedy inspired thousands of young people into community service, set the stage for the end of Jim Crow and kick-started a great change into the American milieu. He set the tone of the 1960s and his dynasty sits well in the eyes of history. Barack Obama has yet to implement his dreams, but the hope and the dreams are strikingly similar. I have experienced one thing for certain ” it is possible to be optimistic in America once again.