Getting Through The Glass

By now we've well established that these conventions - Democratic and Republican - are four-day infomercials. They exist as live events, sure, with tens of thousands of spectators inside the Philadelphia and Los Angeles arenas, but they are intended for an audience of one - the American Voter, multiplied millions of times over in living rooms across the country.

To use an old acting term, one coined long before television, anyone who takes a turn at a convention podium needs to concentrate on "getting through the glass." In television, you need to know where your key camera is and where your key light is coming from and how to work with both to maximum effect.

The Democratic convention's opening night provided a study in this principle - a study in contrasts.

Hillary Clinton made the classic green mistake of speaking only to those assembled in the hall, and ignoring the voters watching at home. She acknowledged the delegations to her right and to her left and in front of her. But she seemed to give the front-and-center camera short shrift. To cement her points, she raised her voice to a near shout and used that maddeningly pedantic tone that she shares with Al Gore.

It's a failing that's especially hard to fathom in the vice president and first lady, given that they've both had ample opportunity to learn from a true master of the craft.

Bill Clinton's oratorical gifts may be formidable, especially his ability to connect to a mass television audience, but they are not a mystery. And they were on full display on opening night in Los Angeles. He talks to the camera, and makes the folks in the hall his very effective props. He raises his voice only when it is in danger of being drowned out by applause and when he senses that a line has been lost to cheering, he'll pause and repeat it for the benefit of those watching at home. He does not harangue his audience; he converses with them.

As the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a man who knows something about oratory, said to your reporter last night, "I just hope he was paying attention." "He" being Al Gore.

If nothing else, George W. Bush's acceptance speech in Philadelphia showed that he had been working on how to connect with those watching on TV. He was obviously taking pains to enunciate, to speak in a measured cadence, and to avoid not only his trademark smirk but indeed any hint of the smile. The politics of image? Yes, but not merely. Rightly or wrongly, to those watching, this work demonstrates Bush's learning curve, his discipline, and even his humility in letting himself be tutored.

We've seen a lot of pictures, in the last week or so, of Al Gore working on the big speech he is set to deliver in accepting the nomination here Thursday night. He is putting his focus on the words, and will apparently use them to limn his policy proposals in some detail. It may be true, as the late Eric Sevareid once said, that "sometimes a word is worth a thousand pictures." But iGore isn't also putting some serious work into "getting through the glass," as Bush did before his big moment, all those words may not be worth a bucket of warm spit.