July/August 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 4
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.
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.
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.