Conventional wisdom: Isaac aside, key to successful convention is don't make news

TAMPA, Fla. - It was August of 1976, a little more than a month after the nation celebrated its Bicentennial, that I sat in the hot dining room of the Philadelphia row home where I grew up, glued to the television.

I was 10, the black and white TV was older, it wasn't a prime time series or sitcom that held my attention that week but a real life drama playing out live before me from a stage in Kansas City.

It was the Republican National Convention to choose the party's candidate for president. It was a year that pitted President Gerald Ford against former California Governor Ronald Reagan.

It wasn't like a political convention was appointment television for a 10-year-old, truth be told it was just on in the background. Besides in the days before the Internet and in this case before even cable TV in Philadelphia, your viewing options were limited to four or five stations.

As I listened though I remember becoming slightly interested in what was going on inside Kemper Arena. Watergate and the resignation of President Nixon in 1974 brought American's knowledge of current affairs to a new level even among grade-schoolers so I became intrigued at the possibility that we might now have our third president in roughly three years.

This was, remember, the last convention where the nominee was not clearly known when the convention began. There was the drama of would it be Ford or Reagan and then there was the question of who then would be the vice presidential pick?

Vice President Nelson Rockefeller had already said he wouldn't be running on the ticket, leaving President Ford to choose a new running mate. Would it be Reagan by chance if he didn't win the nomination?

Ford as we know would eventually best Reagan that year and select Kansas Senator Bob Dole as his running mate. But it was Reagan's impromptu convention speech that stole the show and set the stage for his own run for president in 1980, a convention again where the veep pick wasn't known until the convention itself. A pick that ironically was almost Ford.

The '76 convention started my interest in politics that would lead to me stuffing doors for candidates, volunteering on campaigns and eventually working full time in politics before putting the journalism degree I worked so hard for to use in television in 1989 when I left a position as political press secretary for my first job as a reporter.

Years later in 1996 I would get to cover my first convention, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. By that time conventions had changed so much that I remember saying to ABC's Sam Donaldson that I waited so long to get here and now that I'm here I feel like the bartender's yelling "last call."

There role today is so much different but still important for different reasons. This is the launching pad for the fall campaign, you can gain a little but you could lose a lot.

Candidates know it has to be smooth, if you make news you lose is the mantra that veteran reporter Jeff Greenfield told me about at that '96 convention. "If you go back in history and think of exciting convention vs. boring conventions, with possibly the exception of the 1952 Eisenhower – Taft fight at the Republican Convention, the exciting conventions produce candidates who lose," Greenfield told me.

Donaldson added "the party's have figured out that they still have business to conduct but it's like making sausage you don't want to conduct it in public view."

And with 15,000 sets of media eyes on you looking to write about something beyond the scripted message the party is providing, it's at times a tough rope to walk.

Yes those lessons learned in 1996 are valid today and I guess really were valid in 1976 as well. The drama that played out in Kansas City that year captured the attention of a 10 year old sitting in his parents' dining room and in turn led to a losing effort in November.

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