The party nominating convention is an anachronism, a holdover from another time when the conventions actually nominated candidates. Now the convention is only a playground for delegates, candidates, reporters, pundits and assorted hangers-on, class reunions to enjoy trading stories.
We shouldn't expect anybody to show up with big ideas. It's not that no one thinks them, but the big ideas are already out there. Democrats in Boston this week, and Republicans in New York City next month, merely aim to slip into the appropriate groove.
The groove is how the candidate wants the audience to identify with him, to connect with him with spontaneous emotion. He wants to give the voter reasons to like him, if not love him. Body language and facial expressions will be important. The close-up may reveal more than a thousand words. Is the smile shallow or genuine? Is the sincerity successfully faked? Are the eyes synchronized with the expressed emotion? When we read his lips, can we believe him?
Daniel Hill, who interprets facial expressions of consumers for Sensory Logic, a marketing firm, has studied the expressions of the presidential candidates and their wives. Of the four, he finds George Bush and Teresa Heinz Kerry to be the most expressive and spontaneous. The Bush smile is genuine, he tells the New York Times. "You can see that either as cockiness or smugness, depending on how you're oriented to him." Mrs. Kerry, on the other hand, displays a "super sneer," or social smile, rarely a genuine one.
Despite the words of affection that publicly flow between John Kerry and his wife, the not-so-dynamic duo looked positively adolescent on "60 Minutes," awkwardly trying to grasp the other's hand. They'll probably improve on that this week in Boston. When Mr. Kerry introduced John Edwards as his running mate, the two manly Johns acted more like two giddy schoolgirls who had just been inducted into a sorority than two seasoned pols embarking on a crusade. They hugged, nuzzled, cuddled and rubbed against each other in congratulatory embrace, but if they thought they were channeling the touchy-feely therapeutic culture that Bill Clinton uses so successfully, they were out of their depth, and it showed. Watch for attempts at dignity in Boston.
But there's a danger here. John Kerry is not Robert Redford's handsome celluloid presidential wannabe of "The Candidate." His demeanor and long, serious face call to mind what Julius Caesar observed about one of his rivals: "Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous."
George Bush is lean and fit, too, with a sunnier demeanor. His problem, however, is that he often seems to be thinking on his feet. This can be read as superficial, but it has served him well in the past against formidable opponents like Al Gore and John McCain, who underestimated his abilities in debate.
John Kerry won the competition for class orator his senior year at Yale, and his friends describe him as most capable when he's in the combative mode. But polls suggest that he's hard to empathize with; he looks uneasy in his skin.
John Edwards was chosen to be the Kerry beloved for many reasons, but his broad toothy smile was one of the big ones, a smile that could make a dramatic contrast in debate with the dour Dick Cheney. But as he becomes more confrontational in the campaign, his expression has changed. "Lately, for the first time, he's been narrowing his eyes in a mild expression of anger," says Daniel Hill, "as if he's working into the groove of being more combative."
Makeovers are popular on television, but they're cosmetic and dangerous for candidates who are trying to build trust with voters. The Republicans are showcasing a "truth squad" in Boston, made up of the likes of Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, and Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who took out Walter Mondale in a celebrated Senate race two years ago.
The nonpartisan National Journal rates Messrs. Kerry and Edwards as the first and fourth most liberal candidates in the Senate. "So we can expect to see a cosmetic convention, which will hope to take a far-left duckling and produce a centrist swan," says Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman.
This week we finally get Round One in the championship fight. The bookies will be busy refining their odds, but the Fat Lady won't warm up for the swan song for another three months. The candidates can't wait, even if the rest of us can.