The Conventional Wisdom Why It’s Wrong

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Still, every now and again, some throwback attempts to recapture the days when delegates had the courage and grit to sit through gales of rhetoric. A young governor of Arkansas did his best Barkley imitation as the nominating speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in 1988. Bill Clinton almost committed career suicide with his interminable speech, which inspired old-fashioned excitement only with one simple, two-word phrase: “In conclusion….” At least the hall in which Clinton spoke was air-conditioned. Ah, yes, another reason to be glad to be a convention delegate in the year 2000. Imagine all that hot air in a non-climate-controlled auditorium in Chicago, New York, St. Louis, or Baltimore in midsummer.

While there can be no denying that the multiple-ballot pre-primary convention of yore often had drama no modern one can match, the fact is that for every such convention there was at least one of the sort we would recognize today. Al Smith and Herbert Hoover both had their parties’ respective nominations sewed up before the 1928 meetings; the Republican convention of 1924, which put up Calvin Coolidge for a term in his own right, and the Democratic convention of 1936, which picked Franklin Roosevelt for a second term, hardly justified the bar bills turned in by the political press corps. Of the forty-two Democratic conventions since 1832, twenty-nine have finished their work on the first ballot; the Republican convention has gone beyond one ballot only nine times since 1856. So the drama and mystery that we associate with the old-time conventions may be, like so many of our folk memories, more imagined than real anyway.

The delegates in Philadelphia and Los Angeles this year certainly will witness nothing like the scenes leading to Horatio Seymour’s nomination in 1868. There will be no moments like the confrontation between Connecticut’s senator Abraham Ribicoff and Chicago’s mayor Richard Daley in 1968, when Ribicoff denounced the Chicago Police Department’s “Gestapo” tactics.

Our current conventions are bound to seem tamer than they were when the nation faced such issues as slavery, segregation, and the Vietnam War. On the floor this year there will be only the arguments of politicians appealing for votes in a time of peace and prosperity.

Not very dramatic at first glance. But look closely. What you’ll be watching is democracy in action. Surely there’s a story there somewhere.

My Favorite Convention