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Jay Paterno: Election Season Soon to Heat Up with Political Conventions

by on August 16, 2012 6:13 AM

By the time the end of August rolls around, our thoughts turn to the approaching school year. On campus, signs have sprouted up with directions to the various dorms, but soon we’ll also see signs of political expression.

This year, as with every presidential election year, the summer’s end means several days of the national political conventions.

A couple of weeks before we hit Labor Day we already know the vice presidential candidates. Norfolk, Va., was the site of Mitt Romney’s announcement of his running mate, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan. Defining Ryan for the national media quickly became job No. 1 for both parties a good two weeks before convention time.

Eroding ratings provide evidence of the changing dynamics of the conventions. Most of the excitement of the conventions were when the presidential nominee was still in question, or if the vice presidential nominee was still undecided. Many people in this country will already have formed an opinion on Paul Ryan’s selection before he even gets to Tampa.

Eventually the undecided people in the middle will make up their mind, but increasingly the conventions have less impact than they once did. Republicans and Democrats both run highly scripted conventions, relying on repeating the same talking points over and over.

There were times, and not so long ago, when important things still happened at the convention. Ronald Reagan named George H.W. Bush as his running mate at the 1980 Convention, while at the Democratic Convention Senator Ted Kennedy delivered a memorable speech ending his challenge to President Jimmy Carter.

Even in 1988 when I was attending the 1988 G.O.P. Convention in New Orleans with my father, we got off our plane as Senator Dan Quayle and his family walked across the same tarmac. Senator Quayle had been named the running mate just two days before that night’s nominating speeches and roll call in the Louisiana Superdome.

I recall as my father stood and delivered a speech, seconding then-Vice President Bush’s nomination, that the convention was live on the three major networks. Giving nominating speeches that night were Oscar-winning actress Helen Hayes, Evangelist Pat Robertson, and New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean (who later chaired the 9/11 commission issuing a report very critical of the F.B.I. director). Not only were more people watching then, but the conventions occurred earlier; that convention went from Aug. 15-18.

Subsequent to the nomination of George H. W. Bush, I was fortunate to be witness to a tradition that was still a part of the convention after over 150 years. The party leaders, once they secured the nomination, would draft a group of people to notify the nominee that he had been chosen as the winner.

Once, before the days of television and radio, a committee was formed to go to where the nominee was staying and inform him that he was the party’s presidential nominee. Prior to the committee’s arrival, the nominee did not know until they came to knock on the door. But even in the television age, the 1988 committee, which included my father and my childhood pro football idol Roger Staubach, they still went to inform the nominee.

Luckily I was allowed to tag along as the group was whisked by van from the Superdome to the suite where Vice President George H.W. Bush was waiting to hear the news he and countless millions of others around the nation and the world already knew. Amazingly we did not stop at a security checkpoint between the convention, the van ride and up the elevator into the Vice President’s room.

Much has changed since that day, most noticeably the security around the President and Vice President. I spent some time with both Vice President Biden and President Obama on their Penn State visits, and security is a lot different in the post 9/11 world.

Now as we look past the conventions to the fall campaigns, Pennsylvanians will once again find ourselves receiving a lot of attention as one of the “battleground” states. Generally this means a lot of visits from candidates. Just one major downside; we will be inundated by countless ads from both campaigns as well as ads from Super PACs and third parties all trying to convince the small group that remains undecided.

Our government and our democratic process are not perfect, not always pretty, but they do give us a voice. Each one of us has an equal say in this election, and despite the changes through the years, some for the worse and some for the better, we still all stand equal in line at the polls.

Perhaps nowhere else in the world is that right as safe as it is here, but with new laws in this state it is more difficult to let our voice be heard. As the fall election season arrives, we should be thankful for that right, and more eager than ever to exercise that right.

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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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