Brand & Martínez is a daily, two-hour program that looks at news and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by Madeleine Brand & A Martínez

Are conventions necessary? They are for political writers

Hunter S. Thompson, one of the most famous political convention writers, covered the 1972 Democratic Convention in
Hunter S. Thompson, one of the most famous political convention writers, covered the 1972 Democratic Convention in "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail"

Listen to story

Download this story 7MB

Political conventions, with their flash and pageantry, are meant to be inspiring. But whether or not the glamour (and the free swag) ignite the party faithful, they have certainly proved to be fertile ground for aspiring writers.

David Kipen, founder of bookstore/lending library Libros Schmibros in Boyle Heights, says that some of the literary world's best-known representatives have been inspired by conventions.

That includes John Reed(best known as the reporter from "Reds"), who called the 1916 Democratic Convention a "national circus" and first asked the question... are conventions necessary?

"And as if that weren't prophetic enough," Kipen says. "You see the same old Occupy rhetoric then as today, about the 99 percent versus the 1 percent."

Fast forward to the 1920s and the famously acerbic H.L. Mencken.

"Mencken covered those 3 a.m. smoke-filled rooms," recalls Kipen, although, he says, re-reading the cultural critic caused him to realize Mencken "wasn't such a good reporter."

"He spends so much time making fun of the buffoonery of the convention that he doesn't break any news for the Baltimore Sun," Kipen laughs.

That fits in nicely with Norman Mailer's M.O., particularly in his classic convention pieces the "Siege of Chicago" (about the 1968 convention in Chicago) and "The Idol and the Octopus" (about the 1964 convention in L.A.).

At one point in "The Idol and the Octopus," Mailer describes Democratic favorite Adlai Stevenson leaving the stage after declining the nomination, saying the applause was like the "dying fallen moan of the baseball crowd when the home run ball curves foul."

"He talks about how [John F.] Kennedy is an actor playing a president," Kipen says. "Not even a great actor, but a good one. ... Just remember this is before Kennedy was Kennedy, this was a character sketch."

Skipping ahead to 1972, Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail" followed the cultural critic as he shadowed the Democratic Party primaries and the breakdown of the party as it split between candidates.

Kipen says that if he were to take a poll of favorite political campaign writers, "Thompson wins in wash."

"[He made] the point, which no one in the current convention is coming out and saying, that not all the party faithful are rooting for their standard bearer to win," Kipen says. "There's a real incisiveness to Thompson's writing. Once you get past the obsenities and the drug use, he's a hell of a reporter."

As far as modern convention critics, Kipen doesn't want to "go on about how yesterday was the golden days and today sucks." But... he has less to recommend.

"That's partly the fault of the conventions themselves," he acknowledges. "They just give young writers less to do."

That said, he argues, they're still necessary -- not because they're spell binding but because when the next Mencken, Thompson, Mailer comes along, I wanna give them some spectacle to write about."