The 1980s were not kind to New Orleans or to Louisiana.
Oil prices collapsed, and the impact was so harsh that the state led the nation in unemployment. The effort to diversify the economy by embracing tourism was undermined by the embarrassing failure of the World’s Fair in New Orleans in 1984.
The governor, Edwin Edwards, faced two criminal trials for mail fraud, obstruction of justice and bribery, and while he was acquitted, the testimony painted an unflattering picture of the business environment here.
But the decade ended on a hopeful note when New Orleans hosted the 1988 Republican National Convention and won rave reviews.
The event came at the right moment in time, both for New Orleans and for the evolution on political conventions.
The conventions were once events of great deliberation, as party bosses sorted through the options and decided who would represent their party in the November election. The horsetrading could stretch on for hours, or days.
But reforms in the 1970s has transferred that power to primary and caucus voters, so the conventions were largely ceremonial. Partying replaced politicking as the main purpose of the gatherings. That was good news for New Orleans and for the Superdome, which was much larger than traditional convention venues, so the party could bring more partyers to the Crescent City.
At their 1988 convention, Republicans chose George H.W. Bush as their nominee. He went on to win the election, but he was haunted by a promise he made on the night of Aug. 18 at the Superdome: “Read my lips: No new taxes.”
By then, conventions had become staged infomercials, designed with the television audience in mind.
But as the conventions evolved to accommodate television, television was evolving too. Cable was providing viewers with more options, and they were turning away from longwinded politicians. The major networks curtailed their coverage and audiences shrank.
This year, the conventions have never seemed more irrelevant. Joe Biden isn’t even going to Milwaukee to accept the Democratic nomination at a convention that is hemmed in by the COVID-19 safety measures. The Republican convention was supposed to be in Charlotte, then Jacksonville, and Donald Trump won’t go to either city.
After the success of 1988, New Orleans and the Superdome were touted as the ideal venue for future party gatherings. The events were sought-after, like Super Bowls, and host cities had to bid to win them.
When it comes time to select the sites for the 2024 party conventions, if they are even held, it’s hard to imagine that anyone will care.