Jubilant Dole rides high on media hype

Rupert Cornwell on the Republican Party's triumph of administration over substance
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The Independent Online
San Diego - Never have so many spent so much to communicate so little of importance. All week, the handsome city of San Diego has been host to 2,000 delegates attending the Republican national convention, a formidable contingent but swamped by 15,000 members of the American and world press. The invasion has brought $160m (pounds 104m) into the coffers of one of the most affluent municipalities of the US. But for what?

Before Bob Dole's acceptance speech on Thursday evening, this mighty media army had been tossed scarcely a crumb of news: not a single decent row, barely a visible split, not a serious gaffe, not even a juicy rumour to chase; nothing, in short, that had not been programmed in advance.

By day one, the erstwhile rebel Pat Buchanan had made peace with the Dole camp. Podium speeches were timed to the nano-second and purged of the slightest controversy. Barring a few lingering spats over abortion and a less-than-surprising volte-face of the vice-Presidential nominee, Jack Kemp, on affirmative action and immigration, the high points have been those intended by the Republican high command: Colin Powell's rousing address; a vulnerable and compelling Nancy Reagan talking about her husband incapacitated by Alzheimer's disease; and the Elizabeth Dole show, featuring candidate's wife turned talk-show queen.

Among the few exceptions were a piece of splendid Newt Gingrich goofiness linking the Olympics to the Republican dream ("A mere 40 years ago, beach volleyball was just beginning, no bureaucrat would have invented it, that's what freedom's all about"), and a most undiplomatic crack by the suave former Secretary of State James Baker ("If Bill Clinton's a man of the world, who's been around, it sure ain't foreign policy they're talking about"). But these were rare moments. For the rest it has been pap: soothing, misleading, sometimes glorious, but pap - exactly as Bob Dole and his advisers intended.

San Diego will go down as the Republicans' Revenge. Television is the dominant currency of political coverage, and four years ago their party's Houston convention came across as a conservative war-dance that terrified moderate voters and may well have doomed George Bush. Never would such a mistake be made again, the new party chairman Haley Barbour vowed, and made no secret of the fact. But the networks committed a crucial error in disclosing their plans to limit prime-time coverage to one hour per night.

At once the Republican schedulers got to work. Less- than-popular figures such as Newt Gingrich were kept out of prime time, and the most divisive, like Pat Buchanan, kept off the podium completely. The cast was packed with women, minorities and, above all, moderates. A Martian in San Diego this week would have had no idea that the Christian right, accounting for 60 per cent of delegates, but considered dan- gerously extremist in swathes of the population, even existed.

And the Republicans, convinced (with some justification) that the media are biased in favour of the Democrats, made sure nothing would disturb the Martian's peace of mind. That hour of prime time was chop- ped up into snappy segments, each lasting a few minutes. Gone were the windy introductory speeches, during which a network could roll out pundits to place their jaundiced spin on proceedings. Cleverly, the organisers built in a few "down" minutes for commercial breaks, but the rest was a seamless promotion of the party message. Take it or leave it, the networks were told. For the most part, they have taken it.

In terms of dictating what appeared on American TV screens, therefore, it has been game, set and match to the Republicans. Anchormen whose fame is eclipsed only by the President himself have been reduced to crying foul. One of them, Ted Koppell, host of ABC's admirable Nightline programme, stumped out of San Diego saying there was "no news to report".

But the victory may prove Pyrrhic. A political party needs positive coverage - but above all it needs coverage. Goods news is no news, and modern conventions may be sweet-talking themselves into network oblivion. ABC's convention viewers on Tuesday were just 4.5 million, compared with the 15 million who tuned into its Home Improvement sitcom an hour earlier at 9pm. NBC and CBS did no better, and even Colin Powell on Monday could not prevent a 20 per cent drop in total opening night audience, compared with Houston in 1992.

In truth, 1996 may be the last year in which the major networks bother with the conventions. Conventions are not only a ratings bomb, but in this era of contested primaries and candidates' debates, no longer a vital component of the election process. Nevertheless, full coverage of them is available on CNN and the specialist public affairs channel, C-SPAN, which reach more than two-thirds of American homes. Herein surely lies the future of convention coverage. And perhaps 15,000 media folk will find better employment for their time.

Nation's gun crisis, page 9

'I will betray nothing'

Rising in the polls and bolstered by $62m of new federal funds, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole headed out yesterday for the campaign trail, promising sweeping tax cuts and and a return to vanished old-time values as the cure for America's ills, writes Rupert Cornwell.

In a rousing finale to a hugely successful convention here, Mr Dole placed the issues of trust and honesty at the forefront of his forthcoming election battle with Bill Clinton - "not merely whether the people trust the President", but whether the President and his party trusted the people. "I will betray nothing," Mr Dole told 2,000 cheering, flagwaving delegates.

Hitting what will be a key theme this autumn, Mr Dole contrasted a "Clinton administration elite who never grew up, never did anything real, never sacrificed and never suffered", with his record as a man "tested by adversity, made sensitive by hardship". He presented his 73 years as the key to recapturing a lost golden age.

Yesterday Mr Dole and his running mate, Jack Kemp, held an oceanside departure ceremony before starting a cross-country swing through Colorado, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania, all states the Democrats won in 1992.

The ticket must now build on the momentum of San Diego. But Republicans are taking heart from a CNN poll before Thursday's acceptance speech, showing a convention "bounce" which has already halved Mr Clinton's lead from 22 per cent to 11 per cent. The money shortage which has plagued Dole is also no more, with the arrival of federal funds for the official Republican nominee.

In his 56-minute speech, he stressed traditional Republican themes, promising lower taxes, a crackdown on crime, hardnosed foreign and defence policies, and higher personal standards: "Permissive and destructive behaviour must be opposed". The Republican party was "broad and inclusive" and resolutely opposed to discrimination. "If you don't agree, the exit signs are clearly marked," he told delegates to loud applause.