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The Conventional Wisdom Why It’s Wrong
When the two parties gather to select their candidates, the proceedings will be empty glitz, with none of the import of old-time conventions. Or will they?
July/August 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 4
Nor were those the only unexpected and memorable public moments in New Orleans. Several hours after Quayle had been announced as Bush’s choice for the Vice Presidency, the two held a joint news conference in which the young senator tried to administer a New Age hug to the famously undemonstrative Bush. It was a wonderful scene that captured the generation gap, and perhaps other kinds of gaps, between the two. Later that night keen observers caught sight of Midwestern Republicans, many of them members of the Christian Coalition, strolling wide-eyed along Bourbon Street. What would H. L. Mencken, famous for his colorful convention coverage as well as for his acerbic attitude toward rustic reverence, have made of it all?
Perhaps that’s the problem—not that interesting conventions are in short supply, but that we don’t have any H. L. Menckens to explain them with insight and wit. For there is no denying the link between our impressions of old conventions and the work of people like Mencken, or Norman Mailer, or Red Smith, or Walter Cronkite, who made them seem important as well as dramatic. Journalists who argue that there can be no more drama at our political conventions may be too jaded to take a closer look. After all, anytime you put a few thousand delegates from around the country in the same hall with thousands more journalists, the possibilities for storytelling ought to be obvious. That’s why The New York Times teamed up its then drama critic Frank Rich with its eagleeyed observer Maureen Dowd to cover the 1992 conventions; why Mailer put aside his fiction writing to report on conventions from 1960 to 1972; why Mencken and Smith stood in line for floor passes every four years; and why conventions still draw veterans like Mary McGrory, Jack Germond, and Jules Witcover, as well as all the network anchors.
Given the changes in American society over the last twenty-five years, it is odd that so many political junkies and journalists look back at the old days with such affection and regard the conventions of today as somehow unworthy. The days of the smoke-filled room—the phrase was coined in 1920, when the Republican party elders met out of public view to decide to nominate Warren Harding—may seem colorful, but in fact they were decidedly monochromatic. During the golden age of conventions, candidates were often chosen behind closed doors, but for all the wrong reasons and by a small group of white, middleaged males.
The Harding nomination is a classic case in point. The Republican convention of 1920 was an old-fashioned, dealcutting suspenseful event. The few primaries then in existence had decided nothing. Delegates arrived in June to find Chicago in the midst of a heat wave with temperatures breaking triple digits. Famous names like Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Hiram Johnson, and Robert La Follette were in contention, and several states put up favorite son candidates to hold votes while deals were made. During the first ballot, when the head of the Missouri delegation announced that his state wasn’t ready for the roll call, a voice from the rafters shouted, “Still counting the cash?”
After four ballots a few party bosses, including Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge and Sen. William Borah, adjourned the convention, assembled in a smoke-filled room, and eventually settled on Harding because he offended nobody and looked like somebody’s idea of a president.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone today—when women, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and gays and lesbians are a vital presence in politics and at conventions—would lament the passing of a time when such a male-only, white-only club could dictate to a convention. The old-time bosses like Tom Platt, Roscoe Conkling, and Richard Croker could never get away with their wheeling and dealing in the twenty-first century.
We are, after all, more democratic and more diverse, and today’s conventions reflect those changes.
In fact, for all their modern flaws, conventions still manage to provide sublime and unforgettable moments. Gerald Ford’s narrow firstballot victory over Ronald Reagan in Kansas City in 1976 led to an extraordinary unscripted climax when the nominee called Reagan to the podium, an unprecedented gesture that could be described as brave, foolish, magnanimous, or all three. Reagan gave an off-the-cuff speech about Soviet threats around the world that implicitly criticized the policies of the man who had invited him onstage. As Reagan spoke, the television cameras cut to Henry Kissinger, the architect of those policies, in the gallery, attempting to look impassive, while his wife, Nancy, smoked a cigarette. (Yes, there still was smoke in 1976.) Reagan’s speech had his delegates as well as Ford’s on their feet.
Mario Cuomo’s keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco will stand the test of time as one of the great convention orations. Had it been given in 1884 rather than 1984, Cuomo could have left San Francisco with the nomination; indeed, many delegates that night concluded that the party was selecting the wrong man. Cuomo stated the case against the popular policies of Ronald Reagan with a conviction and an eloquence that even Republicans admired. That convention also produced the first woman nominee on a major-party national ticket; Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro waving from the podium together was a milestone in American history. Only the terminally jaded could have left San Francisco (or their television sets) complaining about a lack of drama.