What continued to dominate the rhetoric of the campaign, however, was not this awareness of a new and different world but nostalgia for an old one, and coded assurance that symptoms of ambiguity or change, of what George Bush called the “deterioration of values,” would be summarily dealt with by increased social control. It was not by accident that the word “enforcement,” devoid of any apparent awareness that it had been tried before, kept coming up in this campaign. A problem named seemed, for both campaigns, a problem solved. Michael Dukakis had promised, by way of achieving his goal of “no safe haven for dope dealers and drug profits anywhere on this earth,” to “double the number” of Drug Enforcement Administration agents, not a promising approach. George Bush, for his part, had repeatedly promised the death penalty, and not only the Pledge of Allegiance but prayer, or “moments of silence,” in the schools. “We have to change this whole culture,” he said in the Wake Forest debate; the polls indicated that the electorate wanted “change,” and this wish for change had been translated, by both campaigns, into the wish for a “change back,” a change to that “gentler nation” of which Vice-President Bush repeatedly spoke.
To the extent that there were differences between the candidates, these differences lay in just where on the time scale this gentler America could be found. The Dukakis campaign was oriented to “programs,” and the programs it proposed were similar to those that had worked (the encouragement of private sector involvement in low-cost housing, say) in the boom years after World War II. The Bush campaign was oriented to “values,” and the values to which it referred were not postwar but prewar. In neither case did “ideas” play a part: “This election isn’t about ideology, it’s about competence,” Michael Dukakis had said in Atlanta. “First and foremost, it’s a choice between two persons,” one of his senior advisers, Thomas Kiley, had told The Wall Street Journal. “What it all comes down to, after all the shouting and the cheers, is the man at the desk,” George Bush had said in New Orleans. In other words what it was “about,” what it came “down to,” what was wrong or right with America, was not an historical shift largely unaffected by the actions of individual citizens but “character,” and if “character” could be seen to count, then every citizen—since everyone was a judge of character, an expert in the field of personality—could be seen to count. This notion, that the citizen’s choice among determinedly centrist candidates makes a “difference,” is in fact the narrative’s most central element, and also its most fictive.
The Democratic National Convention of 1968, during which the process was put to a popular vote on the streets of Chicago and after which it was decided that what had occurred could not be allowed to recur, is generally agreed to have prompted the multiplication of primaries, and the concomitant coverage of those primaries, which led to the end of the national party convention as a more than ceremonial occasion. A year and a half ago, as the primary campaigns got underway for the 1988 election, David S. Broder, in The Washington Post, offered this analysis of the power these “reforms” in the nominating procedure had vested not in the party leadership, which is where this power of choice ultimately resides, but in “the existing communications system,” by which he meant the press, or the medium through which the party leadership sells its choice:
Once the campaign explodes to 18 states, as it will the day after New Hampshire, when the focus shifts to a super-primary across the nation, the existing communications system simply will not accommodate more than two or three candidates in each party. Neither the television networks, nor newspapers nor magazines, have the resources of people, space and time to describe and analyze the dynamics of two simultaneous half-national elections among Republicans and Democrats. That task is simply beyond us. Since we cannot reduce the number of states voting on Super Tuesday, we have to reduce the number of candidates treated as serious contenders. Those news judgments will be arbitrary—but not subject to appeal. Those who finish first or second in lowa and New Hampshire will get tickets from the mass media to play in the next big round. Those who don’t, won’t. A minor exception may be made for the two reverends, Jesse L. Jackson and Marion G. (Pat) Robertson, who have their own church-based communications and support networks and are less dependent on mass-media attention. But no one else.
By the time the existing communications system set itself up in Atlanta and New Orleans the priorities were clear. “NOTICE NOTICE NOTICE,” read the typed note given to some print reporters when they picked up their credentials in Atlanta. “Because the National Democratic Convention Committee permitted the electronic media to exceed specifications for their broadcast booths, your assigned seat’s sightline to the podium and the convention floor was obliterated.” The network skyboxes, in other words, had been built in front of the sections originally assigned to the periodical press. “This is a place that was chosen to be, for all intents and purposes, a large TV studio, to be able to project our message to the American people and a national audience,” Paul Kirk, the chairman of the DNC, said by way of explaining why the podium and the skyboxes had so reduced the size of the Omni Coliseum in Atlanta that some thousand delegates and alternates and guests had been, on the evening Jesse Jackson spoke, locked out.
Mayor Andrew Young of Atlanta apologized for the lock-out, but said that it would be the same on nights to follow: “The 150 million people in this country who are going to vote have got to be our major target.” Still, convention delegates were seen to have a real role: “The folks in the hall are so important for how it looks,” Lane Venardos, senior producer in charge of convention coverage for CBS News, said to The New York Times about the Republican convention. The delegates, in other words, could be seen as dress extras.
During those eight summer evenings this year, four in Atlanta and four in New Orleans, when roughly 80 percent of the television sets “out there” were tuned somewhere else, the entire attention of those inside the process was directed toward the invention of this story in which they themselves were the principal players, and for which they themselves were the principal audience. The great arenas in which the conventions were held became worlds all their own, constantly transmitting their own images back to themselves, connected by skywalks to interchangeable structures composed not of floors but of “levels,” mysteriously separated by fountains and glass elevators and escalators that did not quite connect.
In the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans as in the Omni Coliseum in Atlanta, the grids of lights blazed and dimmed hypnotically. Men with rifles patrolled the high catwalks. The nets packed with thousands of balloons swung gently overhead, poised for that instant known as the “money shot,” the moment, or “window,” when everything was working and no network had cut to a commercial. The minicams trawled the floor, fishing in Atlanta for Rob Lowe, in New Orleans for Donald Trump. In the NBC skybox Tom Brokaw floated over the floor, adjusting his tie, putting on his jacket, leaning to speak to John Chancellor. In the CNN skybox Mary Alice Williams sat bathed in white light, the blond madonna of the skyboxes. On the television screens in the press section the images reappeared, but from another angle: Tom Brokaw and Mary Alice Williams again, broadcasting not just above us but also to us, the circle closed.
At the end of prime time, when the skyboxes went dark, the action moved across the skywalks and into the levels, into the lobbies, into one or another Hyatt or Marriott or Hilton or Westin. In the portage from lobby to lobby, level to level, the same people kept materializing, in slightly altered roles. On a level of the Hyatt in Atlanta I saw Ann Lewis in her role as a Jackson adviser. On a level of the Hyatt in New Orleans I saw Ann Lewis in her role as a correspondent for Ms. Some pictures were vivid: “I’ve been around this process a while, and one thing I’ve noticed, it’s the people who write the checks who get treated as if they have a certain amount of power,” I recall Nadine Hack, the chairman of Dukakis’s New York Finance Council, saying in a suite at the Hyatt in Atlanta: here was a willowy woman with long blond hair who was standing barefoot on a table and trying to explain how to buy into the action. “The great thing about those evenings was you could even see Michael Harrington there,” I recall Richard Viguerie saying to me at a party in New Orleans: here was the man who manages the action for the American right trying to explain the early Sixties, and evenings we had both spent on Washington Square.
There was in Atlanta, according to the Democratic National Committee, “twice the media presence” that there had been at the 1984 convention. There were in New Orleans “media workspaces” assigned not only to 117 newspapers and news services and to the American television and radio industry in full strength but to fifty-two foreign networks. On every corner one turned in New Orleans someone was doing a stand-up. There were telephone numbers to be called for quotes: “Republican State and Local Officials” or “Pat Robertson Campaign” or “Richard Wirthlin, Reagan’s Pollster.” Newspapers came with teams of thirty, forty, fifty. In every lobby there were stacks of fresh newspapers, the Atlanta Constitution, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, The Washington Post, the Miami Herald, the Los Angeles Times. In Atlanta these papers were collected in bins, and “recycled”: made into 30,000 posters, which were in turn distributed to the press in New Orleans.
This perfect recycling tended to present itself, in the narcosis of the event, as a model for the rest: like American political life itself, and like the printed and transmitted images on which that life depended, this was a world with no half-life. It was understood that what was said here would go on the wire and vanish. Garrison Keillor and his cute kids would vanish. Ann Richards and her peppery ripostes would vanish. Phyllis Schlafly and Olympia Snowe would vanish. All the opinions and all the rumors and all the housemaid Spanish spoken in both Atlanta and New Orleans would vanish, all the quotes would vanish, and all that would remain would be the huge arenas themselves, the arenas and the lobbies and levels and skywalks to which they connected, the incorporeal heart of the process itself, the agora, the symbolic marketplace in which the narrative was not only written but immediately, efficiently, entirely, consumed.