The Political Theater Of The Absurd

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September 13, 2012

After photographing the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, and the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina back to back, Lucian Perkins shared his thoughts from on board a train to Philadelphia:

Buttons, Hats, Signs, Red, White, and Blue colors are everywhere. They aren’t kidding when they say that political conventions are a circus-like atmosphere. These are some of the familiar signposts that both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions share along with the excitement of being in a hall with thousands of like-minded partisans.

There were little or no policy or issue-oriented decisions made on the spot this year. There was little of the infamous smoke filled, backroom politics of yore or grand bargains that occurred in the storied past — JFK asking LBJ to become his vice-presidential nominee while RFK ran up and down the stairways of the Ambassador Hotel trying to stop it; Los Angeles, 1960 — or Ronald Reagan flirting with former President Gerald Ford before finally choosing George H. W. Bush at the last minute; Detroit, 1980. The biggest controversy was at the RNC in Tampa where many Ron Paul supporters were very angry with how their candidate and delegates were treated. For the Democrats in Charlotte, who have a greater reputation for intercenine squabbling, the only minor glitch was the wording of the party’s platform regarding God and religion. Supporting incumbent President Obama, everyone showed excitement with the hope of Four More Years.

Street protests at both conventions were billed as potentially big and explosive. But in Florida, no more than several hundred demonstrators took part in sporadic protests and marches throughout the week. They found themselves, as did many delegates and local residents, in an armed encampment. Downtown Tampa looked like a dead city — blocked by fences and barricades — full of police on vigilant patrol. When protesters did parade through the city, their biggest audiences were police and journalists. In North Carolina, the atmosphere was more festive and relaxed. A thousand demonstrators walked through the center of Charlotte, to be greeted by a friendly and curious crowd eager to photograph them. But the heavy police presence and physical obstacles shut down commerce in both cities. It is a grim reminder of the walls we’ve build around ourselves.

Bereft of substantive debate, the key is getting the message out.  Both Democrats and Republicans did this well. The most singular theme at either convention was the Republican meme of “We Built It,” based on an out of context quote from President Obama. Nevertheless, speaker after speaker talked about self-starting and creating their own businesses. In the end it mattered not what the President had meant in what he said. The RNC defined that for him.

If there is one area where the two parties are pointedly very different, it is in the demographics of who forms the crowds. The RNC is a sea of white faces. Compared to past Republican conventions, this may be somewhat less so, but it’s still very noticeable. Whereas the DNC comprises a heterogeneous collection of different cultures, religions and ethnic groups —  far more than ever before.

Neither party can afford to slip up on the opportunity of being on public view for three full days. On some levels both parties accomplished what they wanted — they broadcast their messages with passionate orators arousing their delegates and supporters.

Which was better? When I left the RNC, I thought the Democrats were in trouble. The Republicans worked hard to regain the votes of women and Hispanic-Americans. But the DNC countered those appeals with their own eloquent women and Latino speakers, and powerfully projected their belief that President Obama and the Democratic Party are propelling the nation forward with communitarian values. That vision seemed to carry out of their convention. Where this Presidential race will be in a few weeks is unpredictable, but for now the post-convention bounce gives President Obama a small lead over Governor Romney.


PHOTOGRAPHS + TEXT by Lucian Perkins /

Editors: MaryAnne Golon, Photo ; Alan Chin, Text

Lucian covered both conventions for The Washington Post.

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