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Diplomacy in Action

How to Cover Political Conventions

David Lightman, reporter for McClatchy Newspapers
Tampa, Florida
August 27, 2012

 2:30 P.M. EDT


MR. LIGHTMAN: (In progress.) If you’ve never been to one of these before, you can’t help but let the mood, the momentum, the emotion carry you. When I first went to conventions in 1980, Senator Kennedy – Edward Kennedy – gave a riveting speech, just had the place enraptured. And it was a Kennedy. And if you’re my age, like or hate the Kennedys, there’s still that sort of magic about them. And I thought, “Wow, this is just amazing,” and then four years later, as you say, Mario Cuomo did that, and four years after that, Jesse Jackson to the Democrats.

Now since then, we’ve had a number of riveting speeches, including Barack Obama in 2008. Did they move me the way Kennedy did in 1980? Well, no, but I’m older and I’ve been to a lot of these, so it’s very hard for me to judge. And I think that’s something we all have to be on alert about, and that’s frankly the value of having veteran editors who sort of know where, on the emotion meter, this stuff stands. No question Obama riveted the country in 2008, but we also have to remember that even though it may not have been quite as emotional, Sarah Palin’s speech in 2008 really garnered a lot of support. We forget that John McCain and Sarah Palin came out of their convention leading the Obama ticket by, I think, 3 percentage points in the Gallup poll.

QUESTION: Hi. No, I just wanted to know, then, speaking about good speeches, what do you expect about the speech of Romney on Thursday? What does he have to accomplish?

MR. LIGHTMAN: Don’t quote me. (Laughter.) I have to save it for my own story.

QUESTION: Yeah, I know. (Laughter.)

MR. LIGHTMAN: Yeah. No, I mean, it’s the same thing others have said. He’s really reintroducing himself to the American public. And it’s always the challenge of a challenger to an incumbent president that they have to show they can be President of the United States. Because like or hate President Obama, like or hate President Bush, et cetera, people in this country still have a very healthy respect for the institution. He is still the President, and you have to show that somehow, you too could be the President. And it’s often – actually, it’s a bigger storyline in debates because they’re side by side. And here, you have, again, the President of the United States versus the former governor of Massachusetts. So we used to call it the stature gap. Romney has to come across as presidential.

Now analysts will tell you he certainly has the look. Does he have the sound, does he have the gravitas, does he speak in lofty, visionary terms? That’s his challenge. In my experience – again, since 1980, and please feel free to disagree – every time I’ve been to a convention where somebody was challenging an incumbent president, they have risen to the occasion. I mean, going back to 1980 with Ronald Reagan in Detroit, continuing on with Mondale in ’84, I mean, et cetera, et cetera, they do rise to the occasion. They know the stakes. They practice. That’s why we always say challengers are – actually, incumbents as well come out of these things with a bump in the polls. That’s why. The more important question is going to be after that first debate, is the stature gap still there?

Ma’am, please.

QUESTION: Thank you. A follow-up: If he has to show – if Romney is supposed to show that he can be the president in this speech, which ones would you say that are the points that he has in favor, and in which areas is he weak? With that, we have the story. Thank you. (Laughter.)

MR. LIGHTMAN: I’m not going to go there. (Laughter.) And I’ll tell you why. Like you, I’m a reporter. I gotta be fair. I gotta have credibility on all sides. I keep my opinions to myself. I mean, I think you know what analysts say, where he’s strong and where he’s weak. What he wants you to know, Romney, is that he has experience at managing businesses, managing economies, if you will. Okay? And I think that’s where he’s going to play to his strength. I’m sorry.

Oh, thank you.

QUESTION: I have a fundamental and basic question: How do you think these conventions are important on the public opinion – American public opinion just before the election? As you say, I mean, the last – four years ago, the Palin and McCain was good in the convention and three points ahead of Obama, but they lost it.


QUESTION: How – this – what is the importance of this convention?

MR. LIGHTMAN: That’s a good question. It goes back to the point I was making earlier. I mean, you can never re-fight the last battle, if you know what I mean. Every convention is different.

Yes, McCain and Palin came out of the convention ahead. However, two, three weeks later, the economy imploded. That’s when we had the TARP. That’s when we had the banks problem. So all the sudden, the narrative changed dramatically, number one. Number two, Palin, as you know, stumbled. People took a look at her and said, “Gee, could she be president?” Because that is the question they ask of a vice president. And I think you know how that played out.

So the convention’s important in, again, reintroducing the American people to these candidates. There’s an argument to be made that even though we write about it constantly, people don’t really start focusing on this until the conventions. So now they will, and that will be the topic of discussion all week. That’s why, as a footnote, the hurricane is a real problem for the Republicans because it’s going to take the coverage away.

But anyway, people focus on this. Next week, we’ll all go to Charlotte for the Democrats. The game is on. Four weeks later, first debate, and then there’ll be a debate each week in October. So it’s all part of the narrative, the – in baseball parlance, the first inning. Or I guess I should say in soccer parlance, the first period. But you get the point.


QUESTION: Everybody is talking about Jeb Bush speeches. For example, if he gives a good speech, he will be the candidate in 2016 in case of Obama wins again. I mean, I’m trying to understand – it is an internal party convention --

MR. LIGHTMAN: Very much so.

QUESTION: I mean, which one is --

MR. LIGHTMAN: Yeah, that argument’s been made in the past because Barack Obama gave the keynote speech, I believe, or a good speech in 2004 and it gave – people gave that credit for helping propel him to the national stage.

There are other examples of that where it went the other way. I remember one year John Glenn, the astronaut, former senator from Ohio, made a keynote speech that seemed to fall flat and people began writing him off. That’s tough to gauge for a lot of reasons. First of all, how many Americans remember a keynote speech? Even in this room – don’t raise your hands – can you remember who gave the keynote speech at the 2008 Republican Convention? No. Giuliani, I think. People just don’t remember, number one.

Number two, 2016’s a long way off. And if you start looking at all the variables – I mean, will Obama be re-elected? If Romney’s elected, what happens to the Democratic field? Does Biden run? Does Clinton run? Do – does Andrew Cuomo of New York run? Martin O’Malley of Maryland? There’s just so much here. If Romney loses, does the more conservative wing of the party become ascendant? Does that open the door for a Rand Paul or Paul Ryan, or do Republicans say geez, we need to move closer to the middle to get elected? I don’t know. I mean, these are all themes to explore, I think, this week. But there are no pat answers.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. LIGHTMAN: The keynote speaker is Governor Christie of New Jersey Tuesday night. And I guarantee you the third paragraph of a lot of stories will be raising the question: Is he a 2016 candidate? Which, again, there’s no answer.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Yeah, I just want to – well, let her go first.

MR. LIGHTMAN: There’s plenty of time.

QUESTION: A purely logistical question: How do we know, for example, Chris Christie’s speech tomorrow night – I’ve seen that the nightly sessions are from 7 p.m. till 11 p.m. – how do we know what time Chris Christie’s speech is if we don’t want to watch four hours of speeches?

MR. LIGHTMAN: It’ll probably – my educated guess is it’ll be at the end. Ann Romney is also speaking, so I’m – I can say this with some certainty, that between 10 and 11 p.m. Mrs. Romney and Governor Christie will speak.


MR. LIGHTMAN: The Republican National Committee usually puts out a very detailed, almost minute-by-minute schedule. But the main events will almost always be between 10 and 11, because that’s when the major broadcast networks will be televising.

QUESTION: Where does one find that detailed schedule? And also, do you know where we can get copies of the party platform?

MR. LIGHTMAN: I wish. Yeah – no, we all would like that. There’s a press office – the Republicans have a press office in this building. I would go there. There’s an email list – will send you advisories on all this stuff. And I’ve found the Romney campaign is very good at keeping you informed about all that. So there’s plenty of information in this building. Check the press office. I don’t know the room number, but maybe – yeah, it’s here, and they’re very good.

QUESTION: Okay. I just want to ask you about – I mean, in the primary campaign – can you hear me?

MR. LIGHTMAN: Yeah. It’s a little muted, but yeah.

QUESTION: Yeah. In the primary campaign, everybody was so much focused and almost obsessed with the unity of the party going into the convention, and we were all writing about how hard it’s going to be for Romney to get the Ron Paul supporters, the Libertarians, the Tea Party around. And I just wanted to know whether you think that it’s going to be a unified party; we’re not going to see any boo – hear any boos, we’re not going to see any Ron Paul supporters stand up with their posters. What do you think is going to happen?

MR. LIGHTMAN: Okay. Once again, I’ve got to refrain from offering my opinion, okay, because I’m a reporter who does try to play it fair.

The point you raise is good. I mean, there are, as you know, challenges, sometimes bitter challenges, during the campaign. That’s something we’re looking for. That’s something we’re asking people on the floor. I mean, how enthusiastically are you behind Romney? It’s a question better asked, frankly, Thursday, and there’s no easy way to measure it. I mean, if one person jumps up with a Ron Paul sign, I’m not sure what that means. But I went to the Ron Paul event yesterday at University of South Florida. There were 8,000 people there and they were excited about their guy, but they also were savvy enough to say: You know what? We have maybe 160 of the 2,286 delegates; we’re not going to win anything. But we can make our presence known, try to influence the platform, and our movement goes on.

So it’s something you’ve got to be aware of. Do I know the outcome? No, nobody does.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MODERATOR: The mike’s not working.

QUESTION: Hello, hello. So the question is, from your point of view, how the conventions have changed since 1980. Some people say that emotion, the backroom dealing, is lost; there is no longer the negotiation; it’s just a presentation of the candidate. From your point of view, how did that – has this lessened the essence of the convention itself?

MR. LIGHTMAN: They’re much more scripted. In other words, in 1980, the Republican Convention had – there was still a very strong moderate wing of the Republican Party and an ascendant conservative wing, and they were fighting. They were fighting over the platform, over the candidate, number one. Number two, it wasn’t quite as tailored for television.

Now, as the woman mentioned here, seven to 10 – seven to 11, and as I said, 10 to 11 is where the big names are going to be. In 1980, it wasn’t that way. I mean, yes, Ronal Reagan went on to deliver his acceptance speech, whenever it was, 9:30 that night, but it wasn’t quite tight. So you had to pay attention because you didn’t know what was going to happen. In fact, either Monday or Tuesday night of that convention is when Reagan went on the floor at 11:30 at night, surprise appearance, and announced that George H.W. Bush would be his running mate. And in 1988 – some of you may have been there – Bush didn’t announce his running mate, Dan Quayle, until I think it was Tuesday of the convention. So there was news. It wasn’t scripted.

But as I said before, just because it’s scripted doesn’t mean things are happening. I mean, you’ve seen some things just here. This gentleman back here said: Is the party unified? We’re all going to be after that story. The hurricane impact. Paul Ryan, can he be sold to a more general audience? Will Romney rise to the occasion? Will Romney rise to the occasion? So there are still lots of story lines, just different.

My colleagues and I disagree, though, on whether things are better today with this tight scheduling or not. I mean, the good news is you’re pretty much done by 11 o’clock. That’s a good thing. The bad news is some of the best stories ever wrote at conventions developed after 11 o’clock for all kinds of reasons. So there’s no easy way to do it.

The other thing that’s quite different now – and I’m sure you see this in your reporting – is – now, I’ll sound like an old guy – in the ’80s, of course, there was no internet, no cell phone. You watched the speech, you had time – not much time, but time to analyze, think about it. People cared about your speech story. Now, anybody who cares about Romney’s speech is going to be watching it on TV or streaming it on the internet. They’re going to be commenting about it. By midnight Thursday, time to move on. So that presents new kinds of challenges for us.

Anyone else? Somebody – I have a question for you all. Can I do that? Okay. What do you find to be the biggest logistical problem you face? Because if you’ve never been to one of these things, I just it must be a logistical nightmare. Transportation to the hotels?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. LIGHTMAN: Well, here’s my advice. I shouldn’t say this, because you’ll – rent a car and get a parking space.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. LIGHTMAN: Yeah, I know, it’s too late now, but in 1988, the Republicans met in Houston, and the hotels were halfway across Texas. We stayed in one 20 miles to the west of Houston. And the people organizing it for us said, “You’ve got to rent a car. We’ll get you a parking permit.” And I said, “Oh, God, no. I can’t be driving in a convention. It would be a nightmare with all the roads closed and all that and parking.” He said, “Trust me, you’ve got to this.” I did it, it was great, because you have a permit, and you can park in the convention lot, and yes, you have to get through security, but once you do, you’re in. And ever since, with the exception of New York City, I’ve rented a car. I’ve rented one this year, and it’s great. Yes, it took 15 minutes for my car to clear security. Once I cleared, I’m parked right out there in the garage. It’s wonderful. So rent a car and get a parking permit next time or next week if you can do it.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. LIGHTMAN: Where do I stay? We’re staying out in Clearwater.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. LIGHTMAN: Yeah. If I had my druthers, I’d be staying walking distance, but no. It’s a – it’s going to be worse in Charlotte.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. LIGHTMAN: I’m sorry, I can’t --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. LIGHTMAN: Yeah. Let’s get a mike. Hold on. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Thank you.

QUESTION: Hi. They knew it was hurricane season in Florida. So it was pretty, let’s say, stupid to do a convention right now, right?

MR. LIGHTMAN: You have to ask the Republican Party that one. (Laughter.) What can I say?

QUESTION: (Inaudible) predictable.

MR. LIGHTMAN: Ask the Republican Party. Anybody else? More? Okay. I’m down the hall, if you can find it, at the McClatchy booth. Don’t hesitate to ask me or other reporters, particularly other gray-haired reporters, for help. Seriously. When I was a younger reporter, I was just as confused as you were. And I got lost just getting here. So much for being at 17 conventions. That’s why I was late. Ask, okay? We don’t mind, really, because we’re happy to help. Thank you very much.


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