Richard Padova of Andover, a professor of history and government at Northern Essex Community College, will give a talk tracing the evolution of national party conventions from the 1830s, weaving in some local connections and offbeat trivia along the way.
The free talk, offered by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, will be held Wednesday at 10 a.m. in the third-floor community room at Lawrence Heritage State Park.
Padova, a historical tour interpreter at Lawrence Heritage State Park during the summer who has volunteered at the past two Democratic National Conventions, said conventions don’t capture the public's interest like they used to because they have become scripted, tightly controlled affairs.
“There's no suspense left, no spontaneity,” Padova said. “The conventions used to be rowdy and unpredictable, but now it’s all about whether the candidates get a week of good publicity and press leading into the fall election.”
When tens of thousands of visitors pour into Tampa for the Republican National Convention Aug. 27, the GOP’s nominee for president will have effectively been chosen, the party platform laid out with little wiggle room, and the delegates and dignitaries watched by a cadre of hawkish Secret Service agents, Padova said. Likewise for the Democrats who will pack Charlotte, N.C., for the Democratic National Convention Sept. 3.
But history reminds us that the conventions haven't always been a sequence of foregone conclusions, Padova said.
He cited the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago, during which dark-horse candidate Abraham Lincoln was propelled past front-runner William H. Seward of New York, as an example of the last-second upheaval that national party conventions were once capable of producing. The 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York dragged on for 17 days and took 103 ballots to select John Davis as the nominee. The televised display of violent clashes between police and anti-Vietnam War protesters in Chicago defined the 1968 Democratic National Convention and sparked reforms in the delegate selection process.
But in recent years, television audiences have been shunning the conventions, which many see as nothing but four days of political pageantry, according to Padova. Others are just fed up with politics. “A lot of people don't like either party, and there's dissatisfaction in the electorate,” he said.
The proliferation of online news consumption, complete with real-time Twitter updates from pundits delivered on cellphones and computers, has also drawn away TV viewers, Padova said.
Padova said his goal is to use his talk to help people better understand the importance of the conventions, retained in the laying out of both parties' platforms, which will affect Americans for the next four years.
“Viewership is down, but the conventions are not going to go away,” he said. “So we might as well understand them.”