Dems Will Be Dems

88814 reality check eric engberg
Even though they are the party of Hollywood and even though they were almost in Hollywood and even though all acknowledge the political convention has been transmogrified into a tightly structured television commercial, the Democrats showed on their opening night that they're still the Democrats - undisciplined, unskilled at high concept productions, and unable to hit their marks.

Since this Reality Check is basically a theater review (it was theater we were looking at, after all) let's start with the sets. The podium is always the focal point for TV coverage of any convention, and the Democrats built a monstrosity that looks like the waiting room for a third-rate commuter airline. Cameramen, messenger boys and various political operatives are constantly moving around aimlessly as speakers lay claim to various party achievements, leaving the viewer at home to wonder if he hasn't mistakenly tuned into an airport security camera in some medium-sized town.

Then, the convention's production geniuses obviously failed to send a flash to the White House cueing them in on the pastels being used to decorate this junky set. That was clear when Hillary Clinton walked to center stage, in a powder blue outfit which almost exactly matched the background colors. She blended in from the neck down.

The Powers That Be in Los Angeles, in a display of over-producing, were not content to let the president, who spoke after his wife, make the traditional grand entrance onto the platform. Having seen too many episodes of Big Brother, they decided on a low angle, Steady-Cam shot of him walking down a series of long, nondescript slimy green corridors leading to the convention floor. Was this a Fellini-esque touch designed to show us the Great Man Alone, striding confidently into history? Do they really think we don't know that an entourage of speech writers, military aides, secret service agents, assorted aides and coat-holders wasn't just outside of the camera's eye? Who are they kidding. And why?

The ridiculously low camera angle and the focal length of the lens being used for this corridor shot combined to make Mr. Clinton look incredibly thin, almost gawky, as he conducted this pointless hallway ramble. I wonder if anyone on the White House staff raised the point that one needs to be particularly careful in connecting this President with hallway images.

Perhaps, as the Democrats' first two-term president since FDR, the president had demanded that the party provide him with a "Thin Cam" to knock off 30 pounds and make him feel better about all that jogging.

But the real bonehead production error of the night was not the set or the camerawork. On a night when there was almost nothing going on at the convention, the Democrats, knowing that no one does a better job of answering Republican attacks than Mr. Clinton, contrived to get the President on at 10:55 p.m. Eastern Time, just as prime time was ending in the ey time zone where about 228 electoral votes are at stake. This was not quite as large a blunder as the 1972 Democratic convention, where they failed to get the nominee's acceptance speech on until 2 a.m., but it's still a timing error that can cost votes among undecideds.

The First Lady, speaking just ahead of the President, delivered what can only be called a routine, unexciting political speech plumping for her election to the Senate in New York. For one who has delivered many speeches in many venues, she still seems to lack the ability to lift an audience with her rhetoric. She would have been better served here with less partisan, less self-serving remarks.

Mr. Clinton, on the other hand, was at the top of his game. Had there been any doubt before, we know why the Gore apparachiks were so determined to have him speak early and get out of town. They wanted as much distance as possible to minimize potentially invidious comparisons. It should be noted that if Mr. Clinton were a Republican, the Bush people would have been equally anxious to remove him from the Philadelphia landscape swiftly.

Since World War II and FDR's unprecedented four terms, the country has really had only two Presidents who were great platform performers, able to move a crowd with humor, emotion and occasional eloquence. Both of them were two-term Presidents, and both were in California last night, messrs. Clinton and Reagan.

When you think about it, last night was something of a milestone for the incumbent. We'll undoubtedly see that thumb jab skyward, that famous pointing forefinger ("I want you to listen to me….I did not have sex…"), that lip biting and little boy's smile again many times over the next five months. But chances are last night was the last time most people will give undivided attention to a leader moving inexorably into the past tense.