The summer’s political Olympics

This summer there were two Olympics. The Olympic Games in Athens, and the political Olympics in Boston and New York City. The Olympic Games are all about sportsmanship, stamina and athletic excellence. The political Olympics – the Democratic and Republican conventions — should be about the democratic process and inspiring a vision of how our country can be.

But the political Olympics can also include contests of a far less noble nature: a competition among special interests to see who can curry the most favor by giving the most money, and who can throw the biggest, most lavish parties honoring lawmakers. The money goes to the two parties’ host committees, which put on the conventions. Originally the non-profit host committees were supposed to be about promoting the city, not the political party or its nominee. But that’s not the case anymore.

According to the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI), corporations with agendas before Congress and the White House contributed more than $100 million to both host committees. These donations are not limited, and don’t have to be fully disclosed until 60 days after the convention.

A CFI study notes that host committees now spend millions on “building the stage props for a television production” that enhances the “public presentation of the presidential candidate.” It’s a good deal for the donors and the recipients. The political parties rely on all those corporate millions for this staging, and the corporate givers get gratitude and face time, and a tax deduction, since the host committees are nonprofits.

The irony is, for all those millions spent to make the conventions more telegenic, the stages and other trappings have received scant coverage by the major networks this year. A total of three hours of prime-time coverage

– one hour for each of three nights – does not begin to give viewers an understanding of what remains the best reality show of all – our democracy in action. The networks should have aired the stirring speeches of Democratic Senate candidate Barack Obama of Illinois and of Senator John McCain (R-AZ). The electorate is poorer for this ever-diminishing coverage. Yes, the networks offer more coverage on their cable or digital channels or on the Internet, and there is always C-Span. But consider where the networks air major sporting events. NBC devoted hours and hours of prime time to the Olympics, which were also featured prominently in the network’s nightly news programs.

By consigning the conventions to the margins, the networks send a powerful message: sports can be a unifying experience that ought to involve the entire American public. But democracy does not matter: It’s for policy wonks.

Unfortunately, democracy is similar to athletics in one major way: If you don’t value it, train young people to participate in it, and devote resources to it, it dies. The political conventions are staged and predictable, but they offer citizens the best opportunity they have to learn about the democratic process, and to get to know the political leaders and their vision and values. We cannot let the networks off the hook for not covering them.

Too much is at stake.