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For 50 years, Howard Wilkinson has been covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. He's interviewed mayors, council members, county commissioners, governors, senators, and representatives. With so many years covering so many politicians, there must be stories to tell, right?

It's Time To Put The Traditional Presidential Nominating Convention To Bed For Good

ted kennedy
Cameron Bloch
President Jimmy Carter applauds Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) at the Democratic National Convention at New York's Madison Square Garden, Aug. 12, 1980.

So, the back-to-back presidential nominating conventions scheduled for later this month are apparently going to be virtual, bare-boned affairs with none of the manufactured hoopla of conventions in the past.

Thank goodness. May it ever be so in the future.

This year, the plans for the Democratic convention in Milwaukee and the rather confusing plans of the Republicans for a convention partly in Charlotte and partly in Jacksonville have been scrapped because of legitimate concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

Anyone who has ever been trapped in the sea of humanity on the arena floor of a presidential nominating convention can understand that. "Social distancing" does not exist in a situation where people are packed together nose-to-nose and you must fight your way through countless rows of human bodies to get on and off the convention floor.

Believe me, I know. I have covered 16 of these things since 1980, which seems like a life sentence, without possibility of parole.

But no more. You can party on without me.

This year, it's likely the nominees themselves won't show up – Joe Biden plans a remote acceptance speech and the Democratic National Committee is even advising delegates not to show up in Milwaukee. Donald Trump, who had planned a big outdoor speech in Jacksonville, has suggested that he might even deliver his speech from the White House, which has raised some eyebrows. Presidents generally keep partisan political events out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The fact is that in every nominating convention since the 1952 Democratic convention in Chicago (in the year I was born), the matter of who the nominee would be has already been settled long before the delegates and a media army descend upon the host city.

No drama there.

The conventions are four days long. In terms of actual business, most of that could be taken care of in one day – a day and a half, tops. The rest is just a never-ending campaign ad, with dozens of speakers taking the podium one by one, all pretty much saying the same thing: Our candidate, good; their candidate, bad.

During my run of covering these things, it took a natural disaster to shorten the length of a convention.

It was in 2012, and the Republicans were in Tampa to formally nominate Mitt Romney for president.

I was, as always, staying with the Ohio delegation. For this convention, they were staying in a gated resort near the Tampa airport, about 10 miles from the NHL arena where the convention was being held.

Republican National Committee (RNC) officials were scared to death because, in the days leading up to the opening of the convention, a hurricane was churning its way north through the Gulf of Mexico and veering toward the Florida coast. There was great fear that it would make landfall in or around Tampa on Monday morning.

I got there on Sunday, along with most of the Ohio delegates, and the hurricane was on everyone's mind. By Sunday night, it became clear that it would not make landfall near Tampa. But it was close enough to batter the Tampa Bay area with ferocious winds and unrelenting rain.

At the Ohio resort, you couldn't even walk outside without risking be blown over. I was once, flat on my face.

The RNC made the right move – they cancelled the Monday session.

It turned a four-day convention into a three-day convention and kept the delegates and media in their hotel rooms for the day.

Now, this was a convention that surely would have lent itself to becoming a "virtual" show. Delegates could have voted remotely on a nomination that was a foregone conclusion, with no drama whatsoever.

As I said before, I began covering presidential nominating conventions in 1980, long before there was the technology to hold a virtual convention. In fact, most of them occurred before that technology was readily available on that scale.

One of the first I covered was the 1980 Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York. That was one that I am glad was a four-day marathon, because there was something interesting to cover every day.

The incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, entered the convention in Manhattan with enough delegates to be re-nominated, despite a tough battle with Sen. Edward Kennedy during the primary season.

Clearly, there were Carter delegates in New York who would have preferred Kennedy, but they were bound by the rules of their state primaries to support Carter. The Kennedy forces were not licked yet; they mounted a campaign at the convention to convince delegates to support a motion freeing the pledged delegates to vote as they wanted.

It was a Hail Mary pass, a last ditch effort to snatch the nomination away from Carter.

I was a 27-year-old kid and couldn’t believe what I was seeing – a real contest in a presidential convention. It hadn't happened since the year I was born, when Democrat Adlai Stevenson was nominated on the third ballot in Chicago.

But, alas, it was not to be. The Kennedy forces failed to gather enough votes to release the delegates; and Carter was home free.

Even so, Kennedy's concession speech to the delegates was probably the single most memorable moment of my 16 conventions, equaled only by the nomination and acceptance speech of Barack Obama in Denver in 2008, an historic moment in American politics.

It was Kennedy's "The Dream Shall Never Die" speech, a powerful summation of what he believed he had accomplished with his campaign and what the future might hold. That man could make a speech – he ended his speech with words that nearly blew the roof off Madison Square Garden. You could feel the building shake.

"For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end,'' Kennedy said, as the noise from the crowd began to build. "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

The noise was deafening and went on and on. It was one of the great speeches of American political history.

It was one, too, where you had to be there to feel the full effect.

That's one time I was glad there was no such thing as a virtual convention.

tales from the trail
Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.