Gatherings Of The Faithful

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They have finally done it. The networks, hard-pressed for cash, have not only pooled their coverage of this summer’s national party conventions but reduced it to a selection of “highlights” chosen by the editors. No longer can veteran convention-watchers like me enjoy internal debates over which commentators to tune in for the most flavorsome mixture of tart skepticism, spicy insider gossip, and wholesome information. No longer can we abandon all sense of time and bask in the languorous sonorities of orators leisurely traversing familiar roads. They can’t any longer be allowed to interfere with the important things like quiz shows and sitcoms. As a media event the conventions rate far, far below the Super Bowl, and they must be cut down to appropriate size. So there goes another piece of history.

An important piece too. I promise not to make this an old-timer’s threnody for yesteryear, but it’s important to remind the world of what conventions used to be and why they really mattered back then. And let it be said at the start that television did not kill off conventions of significance; it has only assisted at the funeral.

Actually, I am not so much a seasoned convention-watcher as a listener. I was broken in by hearing conventions on radio in the era of FDR. On those summer-vacation afternoons and evenings I followed them undisturbed through their unvarying routine. Monday, keynote speech. Tuesday, election of permanent officers and adoption of reports by Platform and Credentials committees. Wednesday (grand climax), nominating speeches and balloting for President. Thursday, naming of Vice President, acceptance speeches, and love feast.

It could all have been compressed into a much shorter span, as it probably will be before long. But in the high noon of conventioning, that would not have left time for the real work. The cast on the floor was two-tiered. At the top were the leaders—the bosses, delegation chairmen with a capital M , and elected officials from dogcatchers to senators, representing the various constituencies of the party. They controlled the votes and actually made the nominations, and they needed all that time to bicker and bargain.

Then there were the ignorant armies of delegates, most of them from outside the metropolitan area, having a lively holiday in the big city. The long welcoming speeches by local dignitaries, the frenzied and futile demonstrations for impossible favorite sons, the bands and snake dances, the ritualistic formulas (“Mistuh Chayaman, the Vol-un-tee-ah State of Tenn-e-ssee proudly casts its en-ta-ya vote fo-ah the next Pres-i-dent of the YEW-NITED STATES ”) weren’t boring at all to them; they made these ordinary folks feel as if they were an empowered part of the process of democracy at work.

The prenomination events, too, were sometimes charged to the muzzle with importance. When there were challenged delegations, the Credentials Committee’s decisions, if adopted on the floor, could make or break candidacies. In the 1912 Republican Convention, for instance, William H. Taft’s standpat allies systematically threw out Theodore Roosevelt’s delegates one after another, locking up the nomination for Taft amid furious booing and driving the colonel into a futile third-party bid that stripped Republicanism of its progressive element. I wish I had been there to see that. I did hear, but didn’t see, another blazing battle over the adoption of a platform, which—often a windy nonevent—could occasionally mark a turning point in the history of a party and even a nation. It was 1948, and a moderate civil rights plank offered to the Democrats at Philadelphia was carried after a sparkling speech by the young mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey. There was an angry exodus of Southern delegates who went on to form a States’ Rights party, supposedly another nail in Harry Truman’s coffin. But he won that battle, and civil rights advocates won the war.

The drama of fights like that was not contrived beforehand by convention planners with cameras in mind. It was integral to the situation, the climax of backstage maneuvering during the “slow” and “boring” floor routines. It was also explosive. If I had a time machine, I would gladly transport myself back to some of the great (and transforming) moments in convention history. The year 1896, for example, when thirty-six-year-old William Jennings Bryan rose to defend a platform plank calling for the free and unlimited coinage of silver. Palm-leaf fans were suspended in midswing, and cigars went unlit as he mesmerized the crowd with his oration, which ended: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” The performance brought down the house and won him the first of three presidential nominations and a twenty-nine-year speaking career as heartland America’s voice.