- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

It was bound to happen. The quadrennial national political conventions have become so irrelevant that a presumptive presidential nominee actually gave serious thought to not accepting his prize until a later date to even out the money gap between him and his opponent.

But the prospect that at least one major television network might skip the whole thing under the circumstances caused John Kerry to bag a very bad idea.

After several decades of dwindling public interest, as reflected by diminishing television coverage, the conventions have become expensive pep rallies with more hot air and staged fireworks than drama — decrepit relics of the days before events like the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary decided who would represent the Democrats and the Republicans in the race for the White House.

Now they are not only anachronisms, they may be inviting targets for al Qaeda crazies who would like nothing more than to cause a big bang before the November election.

The terrorist possibilities for this summer are being taken quite seriously, and the cost of security alone for the Democrats in Boston and Republicans in New York may exceed the entire spending on past conventions.

Mr. Kerry contemplated slamming down the coffin lid on the tradition by showing up but not uttering the words “I accept the nomination” as a means of not having to start spending down his $75 million limit in public funds a month earlier than George W. Bush. Under the law, public financing kicks in at the moment of acceptance, and from then until the election the candidates for president will be held to that amount.

Because the Republicans don’t officially nominate until a month after the Democrats, Mr. Bush can spend unlimited amounts from his private war chest on expensive TV advertising for 30 days or so longer.

The whole business was disingenuous; even its consideration was a good example of why Americans have become disillusioned with the entire political process.

The horrendous amounts of money spent despite every effort to contain the costs and the months of increasingly acrimonious wrangling — first among candidates for the nominations and then between the ultimate nominees and their campaign teams — have resulted in fewer and fewer voters showing up at the polls.

It would have been difficult to come up with an idea that would put the whole mess in more perspective than Mr. Kerry’s — a plan where the nominating convention finally would be such a complete sham that the nominee is not nominated — officially, that is. It’s a scenario Blake Edwards would love if only Peter Sellers were alive to play the lead role

But in the end, the hint as expressed by NBC’s Tom Brokaw that his network might not bother with the convention convinced Mr. Kerry’s team it would be folly to pursue anything quite so cynical, no matter how enticing the thought of saving that money.

Even without the huge security price tag, the cost of these dumb conventions beginning July 26 for the Democrats and Aug. 30 for the Republicans will be enough to cut a big hunk out of the national debt or, better yet, considerably lower the poverty rate in the United States.

If the Democrats had thought ahead, perhaps they would have scheduled their glorified tent meeting closer to the Republicans’ without concerning themselves about the Athens Olympics, which also is expected to be a security nightmare.

About all the time needed in the past was a couple of weeks to get one party out of the way and the other started, sometimes in the same city, like Miami in 1972, when Republicans had to switch sites at the last minute.

Isn’t it about time to consider a joint convention, with one party meeting in the morning or afternoon and the other at night in the same hall? Set changes would be minimal. They both use red, white and blue bunting, after all.

To be fair, they could alternate afternoon and evening slots for the few prime-time minutes television will devote to either convention anyway. Certainly, the media would love this, particular the TV people, who would need set up only once, thereby saving millions on two nonevents.

Whoever said smoke-filled rooms were bad? I would vote to bring them back, minus the smoke. Then there might be a legitimate reason for the conventions.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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