A Helluva Town

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The 1924 convention was an even greater debacle, a record 16-day, 103-ballot exercise in racism, division, and utter futility that effectively destroyed the old pre-New Deal Democratic party. The balloting for President did not even get under way until the seventh day of the convention, delayed by a bitter floor fight over a platform plank that would have explicitly condemned the Ku Klux Klan, then a major political force in the South and Midwest. The plank to condemn the Klan finally failed, in the closest vote ever recorded at a convention, 543 3/20 to 542 7/20, an outcome that was not surprising considering that the New York World estimated that more than 300 delegates were active Klansmen. (Just which delegates were able to divide themselves into twentieths remains unclear.)

The convention thereupon drifted into an endless battle between the Tammany darling Gov. Al Smith, the quintessential New Yorker, and Georgia-born William McAdoo, who had served as Secretary of the Treasury under Wilson and would later be a senator from California. There was actually little difference between the politics of the two men. Both were steadfast progressives. Although Smith was a loyal Tammany man, he ran a clean, reformist administration in Albany and had begun to build the social welfare state that would ultimately undermine his own organization. McAdoo was an urbane polymath, a lawyer and railroad executive who had lived in New York for decades.

But this fight was more emotional than intellectual, as politics often is. Smith represented everything that was urban and ethnie. He was a Catholic who spoke with a heavy New York accent, denounced Prohibition, and despised the Klan. McAdoo represented the other half of the Northern - urban - Southernrural alliance that had made up the uneasy Democratic coalition for so long. He never publicly backed the Klan, but he felt he couldn’t shun it and still have a hope of winning. Their fight was over nothing less than which half would lead the party in the future—over what America itself would be: urban and multicultural or pastoral and Anglo-Saxon.

With so much at stake, the party was deadlocked. One observer wrote: “Time disappears and eternity steals in as this interminable convention keeps on balloting.” It went on for so long that delegations began to run out of money. The Massachusetts chairman supposedly told his troops, “Gentlemen, we are faced with a choice—either we have to move to a more modest hotel or to a more liberal candidate.”

Perhaps it was the curse of Stanford White’s old Madison Square Garden, then actually on Madison Square. White had been shot to death on the roof garden of his own creation, in one of the most famous murders in New York history, and the odor of the foul deed still seemed to linger over the hall. Actually, the odor was left over from the annual visit of the circus, and it didn’t help matters that despite the summer heat, some gay soul had covered over the Garden’s air vents with bunting.

Nevertheless, the 1924 convention provided probably the best political theater in the whole bloated history of our convention pageants. History seemed to hang visibly in the balance. It was the first convention to be broadcast in its entirety nationwide over radio, and listeners could hear the thousands of loyal Tammany braves in the galleries scream invective down at McAdoo’s delegates. They screamed back—and flooded the Garden and convention hotels with antiCatholic literature. William Jennings Bryan made his last convention appearance to plead, ineffectually, for unity and McAdoo. Most dramatically of all, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, three years removed from his polio attack, made his way painstakingly across the platform on crutches to dub Smith “the Happy Warrior.” The past and the future of the party, and of America, moved duly across the stage, as if in some fantastic secular passion play.

By the time it was over almost nobody cared that the Democrats had compromised on a sure loser, the brilliant Wall Street lawyer John W. Davis, who would gain his greatest fame arguing the losing side in Brown v. Board of Education , and whose politics were probably more conservative than those of nearly anyone on either McAdoo’s or Smith’s side. To compensate for this, and for the fact that Davis might be seen as too urban, the Democrats nominated for Vice President Bryan’s brother Charles, then the obscure governor of Nebraska.

“A ticket that not even a brother could support. No not even William Jennings Bryan can make it progressive,” mused the New York congressman Fiorello La Guardia. In November, Davis took less than 29 percent of the popular vote in a three-way race, the worst Democratic result since the Civil War, and lost the city to Coolidge.

As if to symbolize the fall of the Democratic House of Usher, White’s Garden was torn down the following year. It proved to be a necessary leveling, though, for Al Smith was finally nominated in 1928, and Roosevelt went on to lead the party to a decades-long ascendancy. Nonetheless, the Democrats never came back to New York, at least not until Tammany was long dead and buried and a calmer, more controllable era of convention politics prevailed.

Maybe this is the real reason why it has taken the GOP so long to hold a convention of its own in New York. If that’s what the city did to Democrats, imagine what it can do to Republicans.