LOS ANGELES - The last time the Democrats came to Los Angeles, candidate John F. Kennedy spent his days cavorting in the Hollywood Hills as his organizers fought a tight battle for the hearts and minds of delegates.
Forty years later, Al Gore's organizers are hoping that some of the excitement and idealism of 1960 will rub off on their candidate.
Gone are the Kennedy-era indiscretions, the smoke-filled rooms, and any sense of political contest within the party. Mr. Gore has even tried to shut down a Democratic fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion, which was a little too redolent of JFK's values, not to mention the scandals involving President Bill Clinton.
The crush of delegates inside the downtown sports arena and the phalanx of black-clad police ready for protesters bear a sense of odd similarity to events 40 years ago. Yet beneath the surface, this year's 5,000 delegates, 15,000 party officials and hangers-on, 15,000 journalists and countless protesters will take part in a gathering that holds little in common with the grand events of 1960, except the distorting effects of the city itself.
"Normally a national convention gathers in a huddle of close-clustered downtown hotels at the center of some cluttered city, so that simple nearness throws delegates together," journalist Theodore White wrote in his bestseller The Making of the President 1960. "But Los Angeles is huge, and the delegates were scattered all across the great city, unwilling to trust their driving skills to the freeways' lunatic traffic. . . . The Democratic delegates of 1960 were atomized."
This year, the convention is even more atomized. In 1960, all the important Democrats and the media were gathered in the downtown Regal Biltmore Hotel. But Secret Service officials have decided to keep Mr. Gore in the concrete netherworld of Century City, a half-hour drive away, fearful that the protests outside the Biltmore -- mainly by youthful antiglobalization activists -- could turn violent.
This year's delegates will have little opportunity to meet each other. The Missouri delegation, huddled at the Pasadena Hilton in the city's northeast corner, would have to drive through 51 kilometres of bumper-to-bumper traffic to visit the Utah delegation at the El Segundo Hilton, to the southwest.
True, the delegates will hoist placards in a shiny new sports stadium downtown, just as they did in 1960. But whereas 40 years ago the purpose of the convention was for delegates to choose their presidential candidate (it was an ugly backroom battle between Mr. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson), modern U.S. political conventions have little to do with decisions, which are now largely made during the primaries.
This year's DNC will be a festival of corporate largesse, an event that could be called the Super Bowl of corporate lobbying.
"It's not that big business has grown more dominant in the political process. It's just that it's so much more visible when all the democracy of conventions is taken away," said Eric Schockman, a political scientist at the University of Southern California.
The streets of Los Angeles are lined with banners bearing the logos of the 11 companies that made donations of $1-million (U.S.) or more to the convention. They include Microsoft, Motorola and AT&T, which have successfully lobbied the Democrats to open trade with China and not impose sales tax on Internet transactions.
Inside Staples Center, corporations will have unparalleled opportunities to press their case upon present and future leaders. For a donation of $100,000, for instance, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has offered a "private lunch or dinner" with House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt or Representative Patrick Kennedy, chairman of the influential campaign committee.
Corporations are hosting no less than 109 parties, dinners and cocktail gatherings during the convention. On Monday, for instance, the movie studio DreamWorks and Chase Bank will host a luncheon for the Democratic women candidates. On Wednesday, a party with 1,000 guests will be held at the House of Blues in honour of John Dingell, the leading Democrat on the House Commerce Committee.
Maybe it's the focus on money-politics that will make this convention a lot more puritanical than in 1960. During most of that convention, Mr. Kennedy was sequestered in a secret hideaway on North Rossmore Boulevard, in the Hollywood Hills. At the time, he had already made the intimate acquaintance of Marilyn Monroe. When photographers found him, he climbed down the fire escape, hopped over the back fence and spent the afternoon in the swimming pool of a Beverly Hills home borrowed from actress Marion Davies.
Mr. Gore is unlikely to be seen with any starlets. Although Mr. Clinton and other Democrats have close ties with Hollywood, organizers have gone out of their way to keep celebrities away from Mr. Gore.
Likewise, the party at the Playboy Mansion may not take place. Yesterday, Representative Loretta Sanchez agreed that she would move the fundraiser, for Hispanic Democrats, if a venue of similar prominence could be found.
Copyright © 2000 Globe Interactive