Tuesday night at the Democratic convention was a case in point. Look at the roster that straitened circumstances forced the Gore campaign to put on. Union bosses. Jesse Jackson. Bill Bradley. Big ol' red-meat, rabble-rousin', poverty-fightin', national-election-losin' Democrats the same kind of people Bill Clinton screwed over at the last convention because he could afford to. For Al Gore, this was I-haven't-nailed-down-my-base night. It was for-the-love-of-God-please-don't-vote-for-Ralph Nader night.
And praise God for Gore's sake, the big networks passed on it. "What is a successful tonight for the Democrats?" Jim Lehrer asked Mark Shields, a touch poetically, on the "NewsHour." A successful tonight for the Democrats would happen if nobody watched, except on PBS.
It may be sad to define political power as the ability to keep the party members who actually believe in something besides winning elections chained in the basement as W. did so masterfully two weeks ago but those are the facts today. That too was the consensus among last night's panels of TV pundits, with the usual exception of presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose designated role is to point out how badly the country's gone into the crapper since there was a Roosevelt in the White House. "I've always thought the Democratic party overestimated the problems that liberals would have reaching out to independents," she commented. Tell it to President Dukakis, Dottie.
But there is a silver lining, if you're a Democrat, in taking this gunpoint march down nostalgia lane. It means you get to wheel out the Kennedys: two of 'em, namely Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and the batting-stuffed husk of Uncle Teddy. That means a predictable fit of Kennedymania among the press, high- and middlebrow alike, and with it, the hope that tomorrow's wrap-ups will focus on what a survivor Caroline is rather than, say, Jackson's whipping the crowd into a frenzy by decrying the death penalty. (Or Tom Daschle's telling Tom Brokaw, on MSNBC, that the Gore-Lieberman ticket had a "50-50" chance of winning.)
From JFK to JFK Jr., no subject can inspire the media to greater heights of fawning royalist bloviation than the Kennedys. They are our royalty, the cliché goes, and all of us in the press, their obsequious court minstrels. Los Angeles was, after all, where the Democrats met in 1960 to nominate a young Massachusetts senator named blah blah blah already the most abused factoid of this convention.
And the well-primed media corps did not disappoint. On MSNBC, Tim Russert dutifully transmogrified Caroline into Jackie: "She has kept a mystique of silence, an aura, very much like her mother." "How many of the people in this building, and how many of the people who cover this convention," gushed CNN's Jeff Greenfield, "were first drawn to it by John F. Kennedy?" When Haynes Johnson mentioned that Schlossberg is 42 the same age as JFK when he was nominated in this very city! PBS's panel of presidential historians gasped as if Jack's ghost had just pulled up and taken a swig of Michael Beschloss's coffee.
Of course, there was a tiny sense that a party seeking to demonstrate continued vitality might try to put a little less emphasis on glory days that unfolded before the Beatles played Ed Sullivan. CNN underscored this early in the night by featuring a panel of whippersnapper journalists The Weekly Standard's Tucker Carlson, Salon's Jake Tapper, TIME's Tamala Edwards who in this "Big Chill" context came across like the sullen kids' table at the Woodstock reunion. (So enough about the baby boom, Gen X: What do you think of the baby boom?) It's hard to believe Kennedy was addressing them when he declared, "Today, our generation faces its own New Frontier." Um, our generation, Grampa Ted?
But all in all, it was a successful deployment of political celebrity. The baby boomer pundit consensus by the end of the evening: The Democrats had made a solid, forceful argument that the American people should vote for their ticket. In 1960.