Party conventions

San Diego. 1996. Political advertisements of every kind must pass the objectivity test in Germany. The Germans expect substance and convincing arguments. And although the private and personal is seeping more and more into German politics, due to the influence of American politics, politicians in Germany are still identified directly with the stands they take on specific issues. They represent the political platforms of their respective parties.

Political party conventions in Germany are held once or twice a year. Their purpose is not to nominate candidates before elections, but instead to debate and formulate policy. At the conventions the stage is dominated by the party, with up to three or four rows of ten to fifteen seats per row occupied by the party elite. Until recently the speaker’s podium was to the side. And even though it has been moved to the center, the thirty to fifty colleagues occupying the stage send a clear signal: “Sure, we have different speakers during the convention. But make no mistake, the party comes first, the individuals politicians and office-holders come second!”

In the summer of 1996, while a political adviser to the CDU/CSU Parliamentary Group in Bonn, I attended the Republican National Convention in San Diego. My job was to accompany and assist Peter Hintze (then Secretary General of the CDU), Jürgen Chrobog (then German ambassador to the U.S.) and Ruprecht Polenz (then Member of the Foreign Relations Committee). Bob Dole and Jack Kemp were nominated, then in the general election beaten badly by Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Along with meetings with leading Republicans, Peter Hintze was especially interested in observing the details of the convention. Part of his job was organizing and preparing the CDU conventions for Chancellor Helmut Kohl. It is well known that American party conventions serve the primary purpose of presenting to voters a high level of unity, in terms of the ticket and the substance of the party’s platform. Political debate does not take place, and certainly not in full view of the American public. Germany is different. The conventions are televised from start to finish. And the Germans debate, openly, directly, harshly. The German public can follow it blow by blow by television or radio.

The great sensation of that 1996 Republican National Convention was Colin Powell’s speech. Many had hoped that he would be their party’s candidate. Immediately after his 1992 election, Clinton asked Powell to be his Secretary of State, hoping to prevent a Powell-candidacy four years later. Powell had declined respectfully. The arena in San Diego, fifteen thousand strong, exploded in applause when General Powell walked on stage, in civilian clothes, and proceeded to speak directly to the hearts and minds of the American people. From his heart and with great intensity.

Like any and every truly persuasive speaker in the American context Powell used anecdotes, figures of speech and several brief, but very personal stories to convey his message. He wanted to move the people emotionally. Hintze and Chrobog turned to me time and again asking for an explanation of these stories. Was meint er damit? What does he mean? What is he trying to say? The atmosphere in the convention center was electrifying.

Sitting behind the two Germans, and due to the noise level, which had even surprised me, I had to stick my head forward between theirs and literally scream my responses to their questions. It was clear to all three Germans – Hintze, Chrobog, Polenz – that the convention, and General Powell’s speech, were all about emotions.