Jack Ohman

Political conventions can get weird when life imitates art

My first political convention was with the Democrats in New York in 1980, and it was the last classic political convention, replete with Peter Duchin’s orchestra, and the appearance of the last of the old bulls clinging to the rapidly changing political landscape that was about to usher in the Reagan era.

Before 1980, political conventions were covered continuously all day by the three major television networks, no matter how tedious the speaker (“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the lieutenant governor of the Big Sky State of Montana!”). CNN had gone on the air weeks before, but media éminences grises such as Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, David Brinkley, John Chancellor and Sander Vanocur ruled the convention floor.

Security was virtually nonexistent, and reporters sailed through the one or two New York cops and a metal detector at Madison Square Garden. A media credential got you virtually anywhere. Network floor reporters stood around, hoping to get an interview with the chairman of the Wisconsin delegation, or, maybe, if they were lucky, Billy Carter. Maybe he’d have a can of Billy Beer to offer to numb the boredom.

Carter had been challenged, remarkably ineffectively, by Sen. Ted Kennedy, who, for some reason, had forgotten basic elements of sentence construction on the campaign trail, even lacking a coherent answer about why he was running in a 1979 interview with CBS’ Roger Mudd.

“Well, I’m … uh … were I to make the announcement and, uh, to run, the reasons I would run is because I have a great belief in this country, that it is, there’s more natural resources than any nation of the world.”

It got worse.

I managed to get a coveted pass into the hall the night Kennedy was to give his valedictory, and the bar was pretty high. We expected a stumbling, staccato performance. His brothers were hailed as some of the great orators in American history, and Ted sounded like a man who had been awakened at 3 a.m. after six drinks.

It was stiflingly hot and damp inside the Garden, and Kennedy was the last act that night, and he was curiously low-key. He knew he would never get another chance. But as he rumbled along like a freight train, he accelerated into what turned out to be one of the great 20th-century political speeches.

Kennedy concluded, “For those whose cares are our concern, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” It was like a concussion grenade went off.

People were openly weeping. Screaming. My ears rang with the cheering, like being at a Blue Oyster Cult concert with extra cowbells. As he wound up, he had eloquently punctuated the last moment of the Kennedy era and the crowd knew it.

At the convention in Chicago in 1996, a small group of tiny, elderly women and a large white-haired man drifted by me like poltergeists in mist. I realized they were the last surviving Kennedy sisters, accompanied by their brother, whose dream of the presidency did not endure. It was a moment of pure poignancy.

In 1988 at the convention in Atlanta, I was standing at a tedious meeting of the platform committee one afternoon. Next to me was a somewhat pudgy but tall young guy in his early 40s. He had pale, laser-blue eyes and put out energy that could have been measured with a Geiger counter. A man next to me stuck out his hand to him and said, “Gov. Clinton. Nice to meet you!”

I called my then-wife that night and said, “I was just standing next to this guy who’s the governor of Arkansas. Weird. It’s like he was plugged into the wall.”

Perhaps the funniest moment in Atlanta was heading down an escalator and seeing David Brinkley coming up. A man directly ahead of me going down spied him, and called out, “Mr. Brinkley!”

Brinkley shouted, “NOOOOOOO!” The man ahead of me recoiled.

Brinkley then added in an exasperated voice, “I’m sorry! I just don’t want to talk!”

Right before Vice President Al Gore’s acceptance speech in 1996, I drew a cartoon with all four panels of Gore standing stock-still. The caption was “Al Gore does the Macarena.” All agreed it was very amusing.

That night, Al Gore stood stock-still and said, “Al Gore does the Macarena.” He continued, frozen. He then said, “Want to see me do it again?” I’d never seen life imitating art quite like that. I wasn’t sure my presence at these things was useful.

I’m sorry. I just don’t want to talk.

Good night, David.