The Conventional Wisdom Why It’s Wrong

PrintPrintEmailEmailAt some point in this election-year summer, as thousands of politicians, delegates, and journalists gather for the quadrennial rites of democracy known as national political conventions, commentators will complain that the proceedings have devolved to nothing more than a long television commercial. And, after invoking images from the innocent past, when sweaty men in baggy suits waving smelly cigars decided grave matters of national import, they will announce that they’ll no longer pay no attention to these political anachronisms. Some will take their cue from Ted Koppel, the host of ABC’s “Nightline,” who left the Republican convention in 1996 in a huff, saying he would not allow his show to be party to a political advertisement.

Like sports fans who watch replays of old championship games, many politics watchers long for an era when everything seemed more authentic and pure. They yearn for those conventions that featured spontaneous demonstrations, soaring speeches, dramatic debates, and heroic candidates. Their folk memories of the golden age of political conventions are preserved in black-and-white newsreel footage starring the great names of the past—Al Smith, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Robert Taft, Tom Dewey, Wendell Willkie—as they thrashed out great issues in full view of the press, when a single great speech could result in a stampede and change the course of a campaign. Again, like nostalgic sports fans, they insist that today’s conventions, with their Hollywood-style packaging, have been corrupted by modern values and well-tailored political consultants who worship the false gods of image and advertising.

Roosevelt ensured that there could never be another debacle like 1924 in New York.

There is some merit in these complaints. Indeed there was merit in them when they were first made—more than a hundred years ago. In the early 1890s Theodore Roosevelt complained that the legendary political operative Mark Hanna was selling his choice for the 1896 Republican nomination, William McKinley, “as if he were a patent medicine.” (And a fine salesman Hanna was; Roosevelt availed himself of McKinley’s medicinal qualities in 1900 by becoming his Vice President and then succeeded to the White House when McKinley died of an assassin’s bullet in 1901.)

Those who believe that television, polls, consultants, and the primary system have robbed the conventions of any spontaneity might be surprised to learn that seventy-five years ago their counterparts were lamenting the intrusion of radio coverage, which had begun at the infamous 103-ballot Democratic National Convention in 1924. Talk about a loss of spontaneity. When an exhausted Alben Barkley, acting as chairman, tried to restore order during the vice-presidential nominating process, he turned to the raucous New York delegation and shouted, “Dammit, can’t you wait?” A mild enough epithet by today’s standards, it caused a scandal when the phrase made its way over the innocent airwaves of Prohibition-era America. Suffice it to say that from then on, convention chairmen have taken great pains to avoid such a display of authentic, spontaneous emotion.

Likewise, today’s critics might be surprised to discover that in 1952, when primaries were truly beginning to overtake the old-time bosses, the Democrats’ convention chairman, Sam Rayburn, instructed the delegates to make sure their balloons didn’t get in the way of the television cameras. And that was long before conventions began adopting production values rivaling those of the Academy Awards shows. Still, there’s no denying that these gatherings aren’t what they used to be. Political conventions have been stripped of much of their former drama and chaos and now are as well scripted as any self-respecting professional wrestling match.

Back in another time, before television and primaries, conventions were part of the American political iconography, and almost every American had a mental image of what one ought to look like: halls bedecked with flags, sober speakers delivering staccato speeches in front of giant microphones, jubilant delegates marching through the aisles, partisans with buttons and signs and balloons. Today the convention might as well take place in a television studio. Every rhetorical body slam, every seemingly spontaneous poke in the eye, has been tested and rehearsed. Speakers are selected with the TV camera in mind, and their speeches are written for TV attention spans. Any semblance of dissent is dealt with long before the opening gavel sounds. Tom Hayden, the California state senator, who in 1968 was on the barricades outside the raucous Democratic National Convention, complains with good reason that today’s politicians regard conventions “as the perfect commercial, because it looks something like the truth.”

Blame it on television. Blame it on the proliferation of primaries. Blame it on the general decline of politics into just another branch of entertainment. Blame it on the media, which want to crown a nominee after the New Hampshire primary. And, by all means, blame it on Franklin Roosevelt, who may have done more to ruin convention drama than television and the primaries put together: In 1936 he successfully pushed to abolish his party’s requirement that a nominee have the votes of two-thirds of the delegates. Thereafter it took only a simple majority, which ensured that there would never again be a wearying debacle like the 1924 one in New York, which lasted sixteen days.