A Helluva Town


This summer marks a sea change in the traditions of American party politics. For the first time the Democratic National Convention will be held in Boston, and the Republican National Convention will be held in that great Babylon, that hole of sin and abomination, New York City.

Actually, the Republicans have never held a convention in Boston either, which is rather surprising when one considers that right up to the Great Depression, Massachusetts was a rock-ribbed Republican stronghold. The reasons were probably as much logistical as well as political. The city that has hosted far and away the most major-party conventions is Chicago, with Philadelphia a distant second. This is not surprising, since both cities were important rail hubs and pretty much the only two large metropolises to burden their citizens with competitive political machines in both parties.

Boston’s popularity no doubt has also suffered from the fact that for most of American history it was the city most readily associated with censorship, priggishness, and puritanism. Not quite the best reputation for attracting a horde of red-blooded, cigar-chomping, bourbonswilling delegates, hell-bent on spontaneous demonstrations, credentials fights, hurling their straw hats in the air, and other, less delicate amusements.

The Republicans’ reluctance to brave the Great White Way is also understandable. New York, even now on its second consecutive Republican mayor, is seen as a Democratic town and always has been. Only 5 of the city’s 17 daily newspapers endorsed Abraham Lincoln, and Gotham gave his Democratic opponents large majorities. This is the town where Walter Mondale beat Ronald Reagan by almost half a million votes, where Dukakis crushed Bush, Adlai Stevenson stomped Ike (twice), and McGovern beat Nixon. The last time New York City voted for a Republican presidential candidate was for Calvin Coolidge, and even then it gave Silent Cal only a plurality.

Yet Democrats, too, have historically been reluctant to come to New York. Up until 1976 there were only two Democratic conventions in the city and none since 1924. The reason for this trepidation was that New York was not merely a Democratic town; it was Tammany’s town.

Few Americans alive today can have any good idea of the level of bile that the very name of Tammany Hall could raise once upon a time in America. The old Tammany Tiger was first tamed by Fiorello La Guardia in the 1930s and was finished off by a coalition of Democratic reformers that included Eleanor Roosevelt and Ed Koch in the early 1960s, but it was long considered the very avatar of corrupt, boss-dominated machine politics. Loathing for Tammany went beyond the merely political; the machine seemed to epitomize all that Americans have traditionally feared and reviled in cities. It was ethnic, dirty, and cunning, the very embodiment of the big-city shakedown artist taking in the country bumpkin, and denunciations of it frequently bordered on the racist and bigoted.

The machine was supposedly a vital part of the Democratic party, valued for its organizing and moneyraising abilities. Yet whenever the national party set foot on its turf, Democrats seemed to find themselves in a political house of mirrors where they had trouble even recognizing themselves.

The first effort to beard the Tiger in its den came in 1868, when the Democratic convention was actually held in the old Tammany Wigwam on Fourteenth Street, in Manhattan. (Tammany was named for a quasi-mythical Indian chief, Tamanend, so everything about it was Indian-related: its clubhouse the “wigwam,” its ward heelers “braves,” its leaders “sachems,” ad nauseam.) William M. Tweed himself, the legendary ur-boss of machine politics, was on hand, along with Horatio Seymour, the convention chairman.

Seymour was the Tammany pick to be the nominee, but he was having none of it. A two-time governor of New York, he was a savvy enough politician to know he would have virtually no chance. The party had been shattered by the Civil War, and many of its Southern constituents were still unable to vote. Meanwhile, the head of the Republican ticket was the popular hero of the war Ulysses S. Grant.

But events soon spun out of Seymour’s hands. The 1868 convention went through 22 ballots, while delegates (described by one observer as “a rough lot —hirsute, porky creatures”) paraded through the streets with brass bands and banners.

The year 1924 provided the best political theater in the whole bloated history of conventions.

In the end Governor Seymour’s friends physically wrestled him off the platform and hustled him away in a carriage, lest he turn the convention down. He was led away in tears, moaning to a friend, “Pity me, Harvey, pity me!"—a reaction that is unlikely to be emulated by either George W. Bush or John Kerry this summer. His one stump speech was characterized as “more insipid with each repetition,” and he carried only eight states.