How To Fix the Conventions

Tom Brokaw,
NBC Nightly News
anchor since 1984, plans to leave his chair after this year's elections. Last week's convention in Boston was the last Democratic presidential coronation he'll oversee for the network. After covering the Republican Convention in New York and following up though the elections, he'll take a break, then return to NBC for special projects. In NBC's Fleet Center booth, he sat with
's Bill McConnell and reflected on the 10 elections he has covered, what's wrong with conventions today and how to fix them.

What was the most memorable convention you've covered?

Unfortunately, the great conventions were pre-1984. I was on the floor in 1980 when Teddy Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter. Being on the floor again in Detroit when Ronald Reagan was trying to decide if he'd take [former President] Gerald Ford as his vice-presidential candidate. It was a long evening with negotiations going on late into the night. Then there's 1976, when Reagan made a real run at [then President] Jerry Ford for the presidential nomination. Probably the banner year for me and reporters of my generation was 1968. In Chicago, the nomination of Hubert Humphrey for the Democrats in riot conditions, almost anarchy. In Miami, the turmoil surrounding the Republican nomination of Richard Nixon in which he held off a kind of stealth challenge from Ronald Reagan and then made the surprise choice of Spiro Agnew as vice-presidential candidate.

Most humorous moment?

The Mississippi delegation in Kansas City in 1976. They were trying to decide if they would go for Ronald Reagan or Gerald Ford. At one point, they were caucusing beneath the stairwell. They had pulled a curtain down and thought they were hidden from everyone. I walked by and recognized the shoes of chairman of delegation. I pulled back the curtain, and they shouted "How'd you find us?"

How did they vote?

They decided to go with Jerry Ford. It was a big triumph for him. It probably saved the nomination for him. If they had decided to go with Reagan, the South would have been Reagan's at that point. He would have stampeded the convention.

That kind of intrigue is gone forever. Still, the broadcast networks cover only three of the convention's 28 hours. Isn't criticism of the shrunken coverage justified?

I don't think it is entirely. If it were up to us reporters, we'd just seize the network and run all night long because we're so absorbed by all this. But then I look at what's going on down there on the podium or the floor. All the delegates have been pre-programmed not to do anything or say anything that's going to disrupt the idea of unity. No one challenges the platform or the views of John Kerry, and that will be true in New York at the Republican convention as well.

The immediate lesson was in 1996 when Pat Buchanan seized the convention for the right-of-center crowd. It was a take-no-prisoners style from the podium. And it turned off the country. [GOP nominee] Bob Dole had to start from a hole. Political operatives said OK, we're going to pass people through a fitness test before they get in to the conventions. The rest of us go through a security check. Party members here go through a litmus test of a different kind.

How would you fix the conventions?

Top organizers at the convention tell me they should be three hours over two nights. I happen to believe, with all these big issues today, there's no reason they could not be turned into town halls and have lively discussions of what's going on and have some challenging questions from the floor. We know not everyone down there believes absolutely in John Kerry's position on Iraq. They should be able to raise their voices about that. Some want soldiers to come home early. Others think it was a terrible idea for John Kerry to have voted for it in first place. Take the economy or the outsourcing of jobs versus global trade. These are real issues that exist even with the Democratic Party. We'll hear no discussion of that on this floor. It's even very hard for reporters to go down there and spark a discussion because delegates have been told not to.

Do cable news talk shows fill that role now?

No, not much. We try to create a dialogue in the course of coverage on MSNBC. Fox does the same thing, CNN does the same thing. But it's not the same thing as having party principals involved. But, at the party level, they have decided they want a carefully orchestrated, airtight convention where they control every semicolon.

Are politicians today so media-savvy they can spin the media?

That's a bad rap on politicians. Part of a politician's brief should be that they are able to communicate. One way to communicate is through us. If they understand what we do and how to deal with us, they can take our toughest questions and not be afraid, not blink and still have a thoroughly professional relationship with us.

What advice do you have for Brian Williams when he's in your seat four years from now?

I don't have to give him much advice. He knows you have to "load up the computer." I've got material in my mind. I've got my little black notebook filled with stuff. I collect anecdotes and along the way I keep track of rising stars and the fixed stars and try to work them into the conversation. Mostly, I try to remember this is not a sporting event down here. I'm trying to talk to the American audience. They want to know what's going on here that's so important that they should pay attention. I'm a kind of broker between here and the audience out there.