Gatherings Of The Faithful

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Or I’d have enjoyed the great-granddaddy of extended conventions, held by the Democrats in New York in 1924 in a steaming, un-air-conditioned Madison Square Garden. William G. McAdoo, favored by the South and West, was deadlocked with Al Smith, the choice of the immigrant-crowded cities and their machines. The convention became a cultural battleground between the old and the new America. The convention, already fractious over Prohibition, split down the middle on a resolution to condemn the KKK and went for 103 agonizing ballots before compromising on John W. Davis. Day after day passed by as delegates ran out of money in the city that many of them thought of as a modern and costly Sodom full of painted women and bootleg booze. The battle was brilliantly covered by reporters like Elmer Davis and H. L. Mencken with a mixture of cynicism and understanding. (Mencken thought all conventions were “carnivals of buncombe.”) I’ve read the reports, but I wish I’d been there to see it for myself.

I was in attendance, by radio, during the late June week in 1940 when the Republicans met in Philadelphia in the strong likelihood that they would nominate a conservative, America First candidate, a potential blessing to Adolf Hitler, who had just smashed France and isolated Great Britain. But a mighty tumult arose from the packed galleries, an earsplitting chant, pounded over and over like a sharpened stake into the ears of the delegates: “ WE WANT WILLKIE .” Wendell Willkie, who fully supported aid to the Allies, won on the third ballot. It meant that Roosevelt did not have to campaign while guarding his flanks against isolationist attacks, that whoever won, the United States was committed to retrieving Europe from the Nazi grip. It was a defining moment. The historian in me knows that the demonstrations alone did not turn the convention around—politics is far more complex than that. But the witness in me will never forget that overpowering chorus pouring its magic three words into the hot night through the open windows of hundreds of apartments, every one tuned in to the great event.

The grand theater of the convention didn’t end immediately with the coming of television, of course. There were great moments caught by the cameras. Everett Dirksen shaking a finger at Thomas E. Dewey in 1952 and intoning as only he could, “We followed you twice before, and you led us down the road to defeat!” John F. Kennedy losing the vice-presidential nomination in a neck-and-neck race with Estes Kefauver in 1956. (Would his career have been the same if he had been on that losing ticket?) And the ghastly 1968 Democratic Convention, when Humphrey picked up from the shambles of his party a doomed nomination that smelled of tear gas. I definitely would not have wanted to be at that one. Nor at almost any convention of either party nominating an incumbent President for a second term. Coronations are always yawners. That’s why the planners fill them with artificial, made-for-TV excitements like balloons. It doesn’t help.

Is our primary system really more democratic, or “better,” than the conventions where the action was with the pros in a smoke-filled room?

What really leached the excitement out of the conventions, however, was the steady growth in the number of presidential primaries, which tend to lock in the big decision before the opening invocation. First-ballot nominations have been routine for a generation. That leaves the party leaders more time to smooth out possible platform and vice-presidential conflicts in advance, guaranteeing a “unity” convention. Such a convention is not a decision-making body so much as an official climax to a lengthy, expensive nomination process carefully crafted by RR. experts—a kind of summit conference among the handlers of the surviving candidates and the party’s managerial staff.

Can it be called more democratic or “better” than a convention where the real action was in the smoke-filled room full of old professionals (“hacks” to their enemies) who knew their constituencies by personal contact rather than by poll results? A long night’s debate might begin with comparing candidates before and after, say, 1960. In this century alone the old system gave the country some great Presidents—Wilson and both Roosevelts for example—and some distinguished losers like Charles Evans Hughes and Adlai Stevenson. And some horrors like Harding and forgettables like Alton B. Parker. It may take some time to build up the data for a comparison with the contemporary system.

Whatever the case, the old-style convention, which began way back in 1831 with the Anti-Masonic party, is gone—another vanished landmark of the ever-influential and ever-disappearing past. I have to fight off the itch of lamentation. Nostalgia can be a trap for common sense. There are parts of the past, and I mean even the recent past, that were perfectly terrible—like blackface comedians, for instance, or polio epidemics.

On the other hand there were lovely things like trolley cars, guilt-free eating, and two-cent stamps. I associate them with the old-fashioned, leather-lunged, high-humidity national convention. They’ve all gone away together now.

I miss them.