With the start of the Republican National Convention in Tampa Fla., on Monday, that once-every-four-years feast of political stagecraft is upon us. These conventions (the Democratic Party meets in Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 3-6) have their nominative functions, of course, but they're really elaborate theatrical presentations with the aim of seduction and persuasion.
Less than a month ago, director Danny Boyle's extravagant opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games in London did a remarkable global job of seducing, entertaining and persuading (with a healthy bit of confusing). So as the final hammers go into the softwood podiums designed to make Mitt Romney seem more cuddly and approachable and President Barack Obama more inevitably presidential, as the last touches are made to the emotional video montages for Tampa and Charlotte, what could the political convention programmers learn from Boyle and the other arty Brits at work in London this summer?
Wait, your inner voice cries. The opening ceremony for a globally revered, Apollonian, arguably apolitical, event like the Olympics is a whole different beast from a political convention designed primarily with the aim of making the guy at the top of the ticket more electable. Perhaps, but only to some extent. Let's stipulate that the venue was bigger, that Kenneth Branagh will always be a more enigmatic performer than Joe Biden, that the focus was international rather than domestic, and the financial parameters were very different. The budget for the Olympic opening ceremony was more than $40 million. Still, the Republicans spent $2.5 million on the stage alone for Tampa, according to The Associated Press. And the Democrats have spent $7 million in temporary renovations, reports The New York Times, to the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte.
More importantly, there's no question that Boyle had a product to push — in this case Great Britain — just as political parties have their candidates. And like most political candidates, Obama and Romney included, Britain is a product with some baggage, such as an expansionist mindset in the 18th and 19th centuries that was far more ravenous than Romney's Bain Capital at its most avaricious.
But Boyle's love letter to Britain triumphed, paying back many multiples of that $40 million in future tourist dollars, not to mention in the softening and, as the marketers say, the repositioning of all aspects of Britain: its people, its history, its businesses, its brands, its cultural contributions to the world. If there was a global general election for who should run the world, Britain would never have had a better shot at victory than in the hours after Boyle's ceremony. This was a political show, all right.
So what could Boyle teach those nervous political handlers in Tampa and Charlotte?
Let's start with humor. Queen Elizabeth is always at the top of the ticket in Britain, and her willingness to partake in a fake parachute jump alongside Daniel "James Bond" Craig was the single most successful monarchical act since her mother famously refused to leave London during the Blitz of World War II. The long-term benefits from the Olympic stunt for her image — and that of her descendants — was stunning, maybe even enough to persuade her subjects to forgive her grandson Prince Harry's recent, naked Las Vegas frolics. Humor terrifies political handlers for good reason; when it backfires, it sears. But Boyle showed us its enormous benefits, especially when it involves the high and mighty getting down from their podium. If they're smart, the handlers will be dreaming up something similar for these conventions, whatever the stakes and stresses of the political moment.
Boyle also showed us how to mix a little silliness into pomp and ceremony without undermining its benefits or emotional pull. Take, for example, Rowan Atkinson's amusing turn during Boyle's "Chariots of Fire" segment. It was funny, humane, even transfixing, because it seemed spontaneous and allowed us a way into the world of grand musicality and Olympic heroism. Atkinson was a stand-in for the disempowered individual, the functionary sweeping the floors. It signaled that Boyle had not forgotten the little people. Once we'd seen him, all the excesses of power became a lot more palatable. So, it might not be a bad idea to dream up a role for whoever is restocking the Diet Cokes in Tampa. If someone is bored, let the cameras show him. That would be counterintuitive and thus, as Boyle understood, far more effective than the usual mass euphoria on the floor.
Then there's the matter of cliches, or the lack thereof. Whatever you thought of Boyle's ceremony, there's no question that its images were strikingly fresh. Compare that with your memories of past conventions, where cliches abound. There is the disaffected Democrat declaring his party has moved too far to the left (bet you the Republicans have one of those), there is the worker who would have lost her job but was saved by an act of stimulus (bet you the Democrats have one of those). These tropes are limited in their persuasive power because they are so predictable. We could all write their scripts. Voters are smarter than political planners think; they see through these cliches quickly. Freshness requires risk, and a willingness to get away from traditional narrative structure, but the rewards would be surprising.
Boyle certainly made some reaches. Take, for example, the inclusion of Tim Berners-Lee, the "inventor of the World Wide Web," thus making the case that not only did Britain invent the Industrial Revolution, but also the cleaner digital one that followed. That was pushing it a bit, given the work of a few folks in Silicon Valley (not to mention that Berners-Lee actually works at MIT in the good old US of A). But that section was a useful reminder that that people often do not know what you have done until you claim it for yourself. And if you can connect those claims together as part of a graspable chain of events, if you can show how one achievement connects to another in a powerful push forward, you are far more likely to be believed.
Boyle reminded the world about the achievements of the British National Health Service, and not only did the use of humor mask the ideological agenda, he shrewdly used apolitical doctors and nurses as his revered performers. Do Americans really know all that much about the Affordable Care Act? Is it not time for a similar narrative? Do we all know how one aspect of Romney's career led to another? Memories are short. Stories have to be told and retold.
And note further the relentless power of positivity: Boyle didn't go after other nations because there was no need. We were all willing to buy his promotion of Britain because it seemed fair-minded. It acted as its own truth squad. Just imagine if the Republicans or Democrats dared to try that.
The Olympic opening ceremony used far more video than previous such stadium-size pageants; the narrative track of the show could not be followed without also watching the filmed segments, stitched into real time, which thus greatly expanded the narrative possibilities of the story. This was a reminder that, for younger viewers in particular, it now feels perfectly normal to intermingle, in very complex ways, live performance with recorded footage. Yet U.S. political conventions have been stuck for years in the traditional format of the video introduction followed by the live speech. Boyle's work suggested that it would be far more effective to mix all that up. The power of the mashup is formidable, but political events never know how to fully exploit it. Not yet, anyway.
But if there's one lesson above all that came from Boyle's work, it's this one. We all have a yearning for the fanciful. We want all acts of national definition — and that's one more thing the upcoming political campaigns share with the Olympic ceremony — to allow us space to dream. We don't want our intelligence insulted or to be sold a bill of goods. We want to soar along with our prospective leaders and feel proud of that from whence we came. But, and here's the rub, that pride can't be expressed in the old way. It must feel at once new and timeless. That's tough to pull off. But Boyle did it.
So, courage, political planners. Let Romney enter in a family sedan on an iconic American highway, a cartoon pooch grinning happily on the roof. Bring on the glorious Mormon Tabernacle Choir and let it raise that same roof (choir members could come from the trunk). Let's see the Rev. Jeremiah Wright figure, without apology, in a frank video mashup of the early Obama years. Let's see Michelle Obama conducting a choir of warbling vegetables.
Yes, it's a serious business. But so was Boyle's business. And look how incredibly well that went.
How great it would be to turn on the political conventions, watch for an hour and go to bed thinking "I did not fully understand that," instead of "I knew they were going to do that again."