Smoke-Filled Nostalgia

Well, we're done with the conventions and for all the talk about how boring they were, that's not the problem.

What's become of the conventions is just a symptom of what's happened to our politics. Hear me out. Back in the 70's, we overhauled the system with the idea of taking away power from the political bosses who operated in the smoke-filled rooms.

Instead of selecting candidates in the long process that began in the precincts and culminated in the national conventions, we created the primaries.

Noble idea. More democratic. Candidates could bypass the bosses who controlled the old system and go directly to the people on TV.

We overlooked one thing. The bosses - the precinct captains, ward heelers and other local power brokers - were amateurs who had a stake in their communities and their way of picking candidates didn't cost much.

But running in primaries did. Because it required a whole new set of professional experts - pollsters and consultants - to tell the candidates how to make TV commercials - and suddenly politics was all about raising money to pay all the experts.

That's when politics changed. Under the old system when the amateurs still ran it, the final horse trading that brought us candidates like Truman and Roosevelt and Eisenhower usually didn't get done until the conventions. The professionals wired around all that.

I don't smoke, but I miss the old smoke-filled rooms. More people had a stake in the process, so they paid more attention - and campaigns were about more than just who raised the most money.

And yes, the conventions were more interesting.