The Conventional Wisdom Why It’s Wrong


At the opposite end of the political spectrum, Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican convention in Houston gave a passionate voice to one side of a cultural split in the party that has been widening to canyon size since President Reagan left office. Whether watching from the hall or the living room, one could easily imagine George Bush’s supporters cringing as Buchanan declared that the nation was engaged in a “cultural war.” Bush, the embattled incumbent, was doing his best to pacify his right wing, but Buchanan’s prime-time address brought the conflict into the open and added to Bush’s wounds. There was also drama outside the hall in Houston, drama as intense as any floor fight during the golden age of conventions, as pro-choice Republicans, including a number of delegates, clashed bitterly with a right-to-life contingent near a Planned Parenthood clinic. Police had to keep the two sides apart. One pro-choice delegate, Tanya Melich, of New York, packed up and left town after being called a baby killer and a murderer. Her experience led the long-time GOP activist to write a book titled The Republican War Against Women.

The drama and mystery we associate with the conventions of yore may be more imagined than real anyway.

To be sure, the 1996 national conventions offered very little of this sort of drama, although historians will one day note that in nominating Bob Dole, the Republican party bade farewell—without, it must be said, any ceremony—to the World War II generation. Both 1996 conventions were suspenseless even by modern standards. In that, they were throwbacks of another sort. When the Democrats, or Democratic-Republicans, as they were called, met for their very first nominating convention in 1832, they simply ratified the choice of President Andrew Jackson already made by the various state legislatures’ party caucuses. The first conventions, like today’s, often served only to put a formal stamp of approval on the party’s preference. In the early nineteenth century, legislative caucuses performed the role now played by primaries. The modern convention movement began with the Anti-Masonic party’s gathering in 1831 in Baltimore. When the caucus system started to break down in the 1830s, the major parties adopted the Anti-Masons’ method of gathering party members together, rather than relying on a congressional party caucus, to choose their nominees.

It didn’t take long for conventions to become known as places where colorful battles were fought. In 1868 the out-of-office Democrats met in New York with no clear favorite until a former governor of New York, Horatio Seymour, was named the convention’s president. With no other candidates able to build support, the convention started to fall in love with Seymour on the fourth ballot. Seymour was horrified. Having turned down a chance to run for President in 1860 and already having taken himself out of the running this time, he announced, “I must not be nominated by this Convention, as I could not accept the nomination if tendered….” The party’s top New York bosses then met at Delmonico’s—where else?—and decided that Chief Justice Salmon Chase, who had been added to the ballot earlier, would be the party’s nominee. By the twenty-second ballot, however, it was clear that Chase was running out of steam, and momentum began to shift back to Seymour, whereupon he attempted to rush the podium to nominate Chase. Seymour’s supporters physically blocked him, dragged him out of the hall, and held him hostage while the dealmakers arranged for his nomination. His last words as a non-nominee were directed to a friend. “Pity me,” he said.

This is just the sort of excitement many seem to yearn for: a competitive convention, multiple contenders, multiple ballots, dinners in Delmonico’s to plot strategy, and, finally, an unexpected climax. But as Horatio Seymour himself might have said, is this any way to pick a candidate?

The old conventions may look like fun from the twenty-first century, but the delegates and bosses often couldn’t wait for them to end. Imagine sitting through nominating and seconding speeches for fourteen candidates, as the Republican delegates were forced to do in 1888. Or the fifty-eight seconding speeches for Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. In 1912 Democratic delegates slept in their chairs as the nominating speakers extolled the virtues of their champions literally until dawn. Like farm work, whaling, or combat, the act of choosing a presidential nominee from a dozen or so candidates looks charming, colorful, or glorious only from the safety of the present. In 1904 it took William Jennings Bryan sixteen excruciating hours to present his planks, clause by clause by clause, to the resolutions committee of the Democratic National Convention. He won his points partly because he had more stamina than the committeemen. And few who suffered through Alben Barkley’s two-hour nominating address in 1932 would sympathize with those who lament the short-attention-span speeches of today.