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You had to be there - Daniel SIlliman

I wouldn't watch the circus on TV. I like the circus -- the ring master in a top hat and a tall voice, the tents, tightropes and tigers -- but I wouldn't watch it from home. It's just not a TV kind of event. It doesn't translate.

But why would it translate? It's a show best seen in another era. It's a show structured in another age, for another kind of audience, and it doesn't lend itself to play-by-play analysis and opinion.

Comedy, in the circus, is a clown crammed in a car or setting himself on fire. Drama is a lion leaping over a chair, and a man juggling knives and bowling balls. None of those things work on TV. If they were translated, they'd only show up flat and stupidly safe.

I'll probably watch the Democratic and Republican conventions, though. I'd really rather not, because they're not TV events, either, and even worse, they've been twisted into TV events, which means everything that's most interesting and most exciting has been restrained for the small screen. All the drama has been constricted, the risks removed, with the pageantry performed for the camera.

Watching the convention is like talking to someone who is always watching their own reflection in the window behind you. It's a spectacle of seeing someone pretend to act natural.

I've been to a political convention. I've never been to a national one, but the state ones don't get a lot of attention from TV and punditry, so they're often actually more wild and weird, more like they all used to be.

They'd never allow the stuff I saw go on at the national convention, because it wouldn't look right on national TV. During the state convention I went to, someone was dressed up as a weasel, outside. Inside, party people pushed for power, peddling themselves, their businesses, candidates and ideas. I saw the supporters of a senator stashing pre-printed signs under seats, as if they'd seem spontaneous. I saw lobbyists ranging around the room, platform writers fighting over grammar, and old politicos getting grumpy when they realized no one cared who they were.

Rumors and predictions pulsed across the crowd, impatience swelled into a boo that booed men down, and disagreements were visceral and audible. I saw statesmen openly lecherous, politicians' wives falling down drunk, and heard all the party's really crazy ideas opened and explained with a repeated insistence of, "really, no really." You had to be there, though.

Best the TV can do is add 10 pounds, make the politicos look weird and the power-brokers seem serious and official. Best the TV can do is capture the crest of the spectacle, the speeches and the colors of the falling balloons.

There's a sinister alliance between the TV and the parties. Both parties will pull in their presentations, turning to the TV in attempts to look picture perfect, to avoid looking like obsessed wonks. The TV-world will lean in for a closer look, trying to feel powerful and important through proximity.

I don't really want to watch this flattened artifice, this faked spontaneity, but I probably will. I'll watch to see how the Democrats and Republicans would like to be seen. I'll watch, too, in the unfounded hope something unscripted will slip through: An off-colored balloon, an awkward speech, a slip showing the too-human, too-American beast of a process underneath the pretty party costumes.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.