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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Conventional Wisdom: Why Bother?

With 40 miles of city roads closed, all the people and the searching of bags on the MBCA [Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority] — that’s why we’re here.
—Bostonian Laura Harrington as to why she and her two-and-a-half-year-old son Ian Tacey
fled their home city for Maryland this week.

Hey Laura, can’t say as I blame you. Even your beloved Red Sox abandoned Fenway Park to come to Maryland, where they pounded the Orioles in the first of a series at Camden Yards. Too much commotion back home.

Tell you what, like so many others of the citizenry I’m not even bothering to monitor the goings on up in my native New England. It’s really not a convention, it’s a coronation.

Hey, I’m an equal opportunity writer — it’ll be the same next month when the GOP gallops into New York City. Political conventions of late have suspense akin to the weather in Hawaii. No surprises; same old thing day after day after day. All of which makes me quite content that I switched from covering politics nearly 50 years ago to primarily writing about the outdoors.

At least you get some surprises when you’re fishing.

Even before I made the switch, the only convention I covered was in July of ’52 in Chicago where Ike was nominated on the first ballot (after a stirring nominating speech by former Maryland Gov. Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin) to send conservative Robert Taft of Ohio back to the Senate. Ho hum: The tally was 845 for Eisenhower, 280 for Taft.

Chicago ’68: The Exception
Methinks the last interesting convention — from a different standpoint — was in the same city in 1968, when the Democrats nominated Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey. That, of course, was no surprise, but there was a newsworthy sideshow as more than 10,000 young students went to Chicago to protest the war — and to back Sen. Eugene McCarthy.

I only saw film clips of that one; I was vacationing in Mexico City, where at the time student unrest had become violent — though the Mexico City media chose to headline the blood on the streets of Chicago and buried on the bottom of the front page a short piece on events in that city.

Meanwhile, inside the Chicago Amphitheater, the results played out as expected. Dullsville.

Those Were Conventions
Whatever happened to the suspense of political conventions? Think of the drama back in 1852, in Baltimore, when it took 49 ballots to nominate Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire over the likes of James Buchanan and Stephen Douglas. Now that’s suspense. Excitement.

Or, in 1880, when James Garfield needed 36 ballots before beating out former president Ulysses S. Grant. Had Grant won nomination and the subsequent election, he would have been the first president to serve three terms. But that year, the convention was where the suspense, excitement and interest ended. No campaign trail for Garfield; he campaigned from his front porch at Mentor, Ohio.

The first campaign I recall was in 1932 when, as a six-year-old, I listened to the radio to hear Franklin Roosevelt beat out Al Smith of New York and John Nance Garner of Texas for the nomination on the fourth ballot. Four years later, I was more in tune with political affairs and listened again as Roosevelt won again, this time on the first ballot.

Roosevelt’s veep was Garner, who said something that Kerry’s V.P. candidate John Edwards should mull over. The Texan said the vice presidency was akin to a cup of warm spit. Back then, there was a bit of color in politics.

For several election years thereafter, there were some spirited debates in either or both parties, capped in 1948 when the Dixiecrats stomped out of the convention hall and Henry A. Wallace took on the banners of the Progressive Party. But Harry S Truman still prevailed.

Since then things have been ho-hum. You might say they’ve been like blowing bubbles without soap.

Boston Under Seige
So now there’s Boston from which Laura and Ian fled for the week. In pitching his home state for the convention, Sen. Ted Kennedy talked of all the moola and attention Boston would get. But …

Many small shops are closed: No business or one can’t get to them. Security precautions make it bothersome if not difficult or impossible to get anywhere. Fences have been erected around some buildings, and razor wire and concrete blocks surround the 28,000-square-foot areas set aside for demonstrations.

Some manholes are welded shut, traffic is a mess and some workers have been asked to stay home. I wonder if Sen. Kennedy ever thought all this might happen when he made his pitch for the convention. I also wonder — no, let’s say hope — Baltimore’s tourism boosters take note of all this, seeing they tried to bring the convention here. Egads!

Millions upon millions are being spent on security by the city and state, perhaps another $50 million by the feds, which is probably enough to wipe out any financial gains. And as for boosting Boston’s profile, why the networks are giving the convention at best three hours of coverage daily.

The only reason I’d be tempted to go is the Wall Street Journal report that Boston is second only to Providence, R.I., for the number of doughnut shops per capita. It has 1,050 of them not counting the little ones at gas stations or convenience stores and such.

That’s tempting, a doughnut shop for every 5,750 residents, and far enough away from Lois and my doctors that I could feast on all I wanted without fear. But the thought of enduring all the inconveniences and confusion — in addition to all the speeches — overrides my fancy for a batch of peanut coated and jelly-filled pastries.

Why Bother?
There will be no surprises before the convention of Democrats winds down in Boston. Presumably none when the Republicans gather in the Big Apple, though that affair will be less noticeable in a city of 7.5 million as compared with Boston’s half million who enjoy 5,750 doughnut shops.

We can only hope there will be more excitement when the GOP faithful gather, something like George W. dumping Dick Cheney in favor of Sen. John McCain to give his campaign a much needed boost. But no longer are there surprises and suspense in the convention nomination process.

Things haven’t been so dull since John Quincy Adams was nominated in Boston in 1824 by the Massachusetts legislature, then gained momentum in the remainder of New England and went on to whomp Rep. Henry Clay.

Until Martin Van Buren’s campaign in 1836 in Baltimore, there weren’t even nominating conventions. Legislatures and caucuses picked the candidates. Today, we have primaries in enough states to settle the issue. So why not spare Boston, New York and even Baltimore all the misery and expense — and all that hot air? Enough said …

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