In 1960, when he was still in his 30s and already a renowned novelist, Norman Mailer wrote about that year’s Democratic National Convention in an article for Esquire magazine. Mailer’s article was called “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” and it was later hailed as one of the most important forebears of the “New Journalism” movement of the ’60s and ’70s. Mailer was never known for understatement, and he declared in this article—written after John F. Kennedy had won the Democratic nomination, but before he had edged past Richard Nixon to win the presidency—that the 1960 DNC in Los Angeles, larded as always with forgettable political speeches, might turn out to be “one of the most important conventions in America’s history, it could prove conceivably to be the most important.”
Why and how? Mailer’s answer sprawled out over 14,000 words of observation, meditation, and digression. But the argument centered on the nature of the man the Democrats had chosen. The glistening young Kennedy—still then an aspirant, not yet an icon of history—was “unlike any politician who had ever run for President in the history of the land, and if elected he would come to power in a year when America was in danger of drifting into a profound decline.”
He carried himself nonetheless with a cool grace which seemed indifferent to applause, his manner somehow similar to the poise of a fine boxer, quick with his hands, neat in his timing, and two feet away from his corner when the bell ended the round. …
There was an elusive detachment to everything he did.
There is so very much more in this piece, which you can read in its full immensity at the Esquire site. (Jay Rosen wrote a wonderful, detailed assessment of the piece, back in 2004.) But during this past week’s convention, I thought of that one word in Mailer’s description: cool. Conventions have long been “hot”—loud, unsubtle, the political version of infomercials. The Democrats were forced by the pandemic to be cool, and every political gathering from now on will have to reckon with how effective they were. Starting this coming week, with the Republicans.
In the mid-’60s, Marshall McLuhan offered his famous delineation of “hot” versus “cool” media. To oversimplify and put it in contemporary terms, hot media would be the infomercial salesman barking at you “Wait, there’s more!” in a 3 a.m. cable-TV spot. Cool media would be a storytelling podcast, inviting (and requiring) the listener to fill in the details of imagined scenes beyond what the narrator spells out.
That Kennedy was cool—not just in his look and personality but also in his approach to politics and persuasion—was one of many marker points in our political history. Obviously, not all politicians who came after Kennedy could match his cool, or even want to try. (As a rule, Americans tend to choose as the next president someone seen as correcting the flaws of the current one. This often leads to our sequence of temperamental and stylistic opposites: Ronald Reagan, after Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton, after the first George Bush. Barack Obama, after the second George Bush. And then …) But everyone who followed Kennedy had to be aware of what he had done and how he had changed the terrain.
Mailer couldn’t have known any of this when he wrote. But he set out the idea that there could be political changes few people fully imagine before they occur—but that seem almost inevitable once they have happened. Sixty years after Kennedy’s convention, I think we may have seen another such shift.
Traditional conventions, with thousands of participants, scores of speakers, and countless opportunities to punditize and to schmooze, have been beloved by two kinds of people. Actually, they’re one kind—those whose business takes them to conventions—divided in two. One group is reporters who, like me, love the idea of seeing parts of history directly, with our own eyes, while mingling with others who share that passion. I consider myself lucky to have seen, in person, moments as consequential as the young Barack Obama making his debut at the Democratic convention in Boston 16 years ago, and the triumphant Donald Trump giving his acceptance speech in Cleveland four years ago. The vibe in each room was powerful and unforgettable, in their very different ways. (The group around me on the convention floor in Cleveland spent most of the evening chanting “Lock her up!”)
The other group is the participants—elected officials, staffers, volunteers, hangers-on, those already famous and those getting their start. People who go to conventions go precisely because of their messy spectacle and sprawl. What we love about conventions we would have loved if we’d been there to hear William Jennings Bryan give his “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic convention in 1896, or to watch Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller duke it out at the Republican convention in 1964.
But most people are not like us. Most have viewed the hot, sweaty, noisy, unsubtle conventions as inferior forms of entertainment, as out of date as William Jennings Bryan. Coverage hours have dwindled, and audiences have shrunk.
Because of the virus, the Democrats couldn’t deliver the standard loud, sweaty fare. Now that their week is over, it’s “obvious” to everyone how much better, for nearly everyone, the streamlined, virtual approach is. Better for the party, in distilling a message (and not having it chopped up by procedural folderol or pundit assessments). Better for the viewer, in having their public issues presented in more varied, comprehensible, and simply interesting ways. Better with shorter speeches; better with less delay for ritualistic applause lines; better in pacing and tightness and focus. Better with presenters generally speaking through the camera, conversationally, to viewers one by one at home, rather than orating at a crowd. Better with more showing than telling, more explaining than lecturing. Just, better.
It’s obvious now—though I’m not aware of anyone predicting how much better a virtual convention would be, before it kicked off. (This is a point I discussed last week on Social Distance with James Hamblin and Maeve Higgins.) And it will be obvious to the Republicans, as they ready their presentations for this week.
How can what we’ve just seen from the DNC be considered “cool”? In simplest terms, because, compared with previous conventions, the Democrats were able to convey their themes more coherently than usual, with less old-fashioned speechifying about them.
In one way or another, every single minute of the DNC programming advanced one or more of these points and ideas:
the trademark slogan “Build Back Better,” which was the most normal-convention-like, and thus least memorable, of the whole affair;
that Donald Trump is personally inadequate to the duties of office, yet also institutionally threatening;
that Joe Biden is an imperfect but decent person, with whom you might disagree but whom you would probably like;
that America is badly wounded but is not finished;
that the Democrats are in this together and are not sniping at one another; and
that you have to make sure to vote.
Think of the signature moments of these four nights, and how each was crafted to explain, to show, to underscore these ideas. It is churlish to pick out any one segment as “most effective.” Was it the fabulous reimagination of the roll call of states, which practically guarantees that this will never be done in the traditional way again? (Except perhaps in this coming week.) Was it Ady Barkan speaking through a computer because of ALS; or Gabby Giffords still relearning how to speak, nine years after her shooting; or 13-year-old Brayden Harrington magnificently persevering in his speech about stuttering? Was it Biden’s last major rival, Bernie Sanders, speaking with evident warmth for the man who had defeated him, or the Zoom-style panel of primary contenders sharing their memories of the campaign? Was it Jill Biden telling her story, or Kamala Harris telling hers, or Michelle and Barack Obama with their quiet-toned but deadly earnest message about the stakes in voting this year? Was it the tribute to John Lewis or the talk from Elizabeth Warren in a schoolroom, with children’s blocks spelling out BLM behind her? Was it Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general, on what it will take to deal with the pandemic, or Kristin Urquiza saying that her dead father’s “only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump,” or (as Megan Garber argued) the “In Memoriam” reflection on the many lives that had been lost? Was it Joe Biden’s implicit rebuke, in his closing address, to the constant Republican refrain that he had lost too many steps?
Was it—you can go on down your own list. The point for now is that the political world has seen something it hadn’t been aware of one week ago. The Democrats were forced out of the old, and figured out the new. They went from a hot medium, to one that was cool. In terms of political style, Donald Trump is pure heat. The rallies, the tweets, the boasts, the jibes. We’re about to see whether the party he leads will recognize the changed terrain, and how it might respond.