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April 17, 2014

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Political memo:

All the theatrics, and a ‘killer speech,’ too

Democrats built drama into their convention through set design, furious flag-waving and soaring speeches

Image

TED S. Warren / Associated press

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech Thursday on a richly blue set built on Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium in Denver.

Memories of Denver

Sun Expanded Coverage

It was a dramatic story with compelling characters who read great dialogue and snapped out their lines on gorgeous sets.

That’s Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University scholar of the history of television, describing last week’s Democratic National Convention.

And Thompson isn’t joking. In the modern era, political conventions must be judged on whether they make for good television, and by most accounts, the Democrats set a new standard last week, using imagery, music and words to great effect.

“Any old vaudevillian would applaud the production,” Thompson said.

First, the scripted story line: The Democrats’ long campaign, as well as the inscrutable personalities of Bill and Hillary Clinton, created dramatic tension, as the pundits wondered whether they would give full-throated endorsements to Sen. Barack Obama.

It was all a bit phony, as the Clintons would obviously endorse Obama, for otherwise they might get blamed if he loses.

Nevertheless, the media played along perfectly, with an assist from Bill Clinton, who offered very little praise of Obama before the convention. In retrospect, it seems possible he did so knowing it would build tension.

Sen. Clinton helped build the suspense even more when she made a strong speech Tuesday thanking supporters but not praising Obama. So, on Wednesday, when she walked onto the convention floor and moved to nominate Obama by acclamation, the moment was moving while seeming spontaneous.

The richly blue set at the Pepsi Center added to the production value.

Ricky Kirshner, the executive producer hired by the Democratic National Committee, turned to Bruce Rodgers to design the sets for both the Pepsi Center and Invesco Field.

Obama’s task Thursday night was a big one, especially as the campaign of Arizona Sen. John McCain had attacked the Democrat as a vain celebrity. The event at Invesco Field risked cementing that image in the public’s imagination.

The Obama campaign, led by campaign manager David Plouffe and senior strategist David Axelrod, had three imperatives: Build a great set, keep 80,000 people excited all evening, and get them to sign up to work for the campaign.

Republicans mocked the campaign in advance for the Invesco Field set’s classical columns. What they didn’t consider were the TV angles. As the event unfolded on television, the columns were rarely shown. Instead, cameras caught a rich brown backdrop for the podium, making it plausibly presidential.

As for revving up the crowd: Jennifer Hudson sang the national anthem. Stevie Wonder sang “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” and asked God to bless Obama.

This was less political convention than Super Bowl halftime show.

The campaign passed out flags, co-opting a symbol the public has come to see as Republican-owned.

“We’ve been fighting this since George H.W. Bush went to a flag factory in ’88,” said Michael Meehan, a Democratic operative and convention volunteer. “Our party has been on the short end of that for 20 years, and Obama wasn’t going to allow that.”

Joe Erwin, an advertising firm president who blogged about the convention for Advertising Age, was impressed: “If you can grow your brand by stealing the best attributes of another brand, do it.”

As a result, every time the networks had a panel discussion, the backdrop was the crowd’s decidedly multiracial tableau furiously waving flags.

The event even had talented extras. The campaign saluted retired generals and admirals, then used regular people, many former Republicans, to offer the harshest attacks of the night on McCain.

Yet all of this still depended on Obama to transform it into more than entertainment. “It only works if you can follow up with a killer speech,” Thompson said.

Obama went head on at criticism that he’s offered too few policy details and isn’t tough enough by spelling out what he’d do as president.

Meehan said Obama has mastered the technique of looking directly into the camera at key moments. About Republican attacks on him, he looked into the camera said, “I get it.”

In another important moment, discussing the past eight years of Republican rule, he bellowed, “Enough!”

Erwin said it rounded out the Obama candidacy: “I think it dimensionalized the Obama brand. People who’d never seen him saw the complete package. He was friendly and smiled but he showed he’d stand up to anybody if America needed him to.”

Moreover, as Erwin noted, the convention rolled out with a slow build, showing its best moment when the most people were watching. (Nearly twice as many people watched this speech as viewed his 2004 Democratic convention appearance.)

Obama finished his speech, and a country song — of course — hit the speakers as his family and the Bidens came out to embrace him.

Then fireworks, set to music from the movie, “Remember the Titans.”

The visuals: Mountains, fireworks, the skyline, the stadium, the youthful and telegenic Obama family.

Not surprisingly, Obama is getting a healthy bounce out of the convention, Gallup tracking polls show.

With help of current Fox News impresario Roger Ailes, Richard Nixon pioneered politics as TV show in 1968. Ronald Reagan mastered it through his presidency. The Republican Party is filled with expert stage managers, and no doubt this week we’ll see that expertise in St. Paul.

Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected. In an earlier version the campaign of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama had provided a source to the Las Vegas Sun, Michael Meehan, who gave the newspaper incorrect information.

Meehan told the Sun the stage designer for the Democratic National Convention at the Pepsi Center in Denver was a former set designer for the Oscars, Ricky Kirshner. In fact Kirshner was the executive producer of the entire convention and did not design sets. Nor has he ever designed sets for the Oscars. The sets at the Pepsi Center and Invesco Field were designed by Bruce Rodgers. Meehan, it turns out, had no official role in the convention.

Also, the Sun itself erred in reporting that Bobby Allen was set designer at Invesco Field. In fact, Allen was head carpenter.

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