Tuesday, January 15, 2008

When Men Were Men - and Conventions Were Conventions

By Mitchell

Donald at 2Blowhards has a nicely evocative article on a time for which all political junkies hearken: the era of the contested political convention.

There hasn’t really been one since the 1976 Republican convention, in which neither Gerald Ford, the incumbent, nor Ronald Reagan, the challenger, arrived in Kansas City with enough committed delegates to capture the nomination. Ford had the lead going into the convention, however, and barring a procedural vote going in Reagan’s favor (it didn’t, and in the process indicated to the convention the relative delegate strength of each candidate), he was still the solid favorite to win – which he did, on the first ballot.

The Democrats almost had one, in 1980. Again it was the case of a challenger taking on an incumbent. In this case, the challenger was Ted Kennedy, making his one and only run at the presidency; the incumbent was Jimmy Carter. Again there was a procedural vote, on which Kennedy had laid all his chips; again the party machine, arrayed (for better or worse) behind Carter, held the line; again the challenger fell. Carter won the nomination only, as had Ford four years earlier, to lose the general election. (However, for Kennedy, unlike Reagan, there would be no second act on the presidential stage.) And with that, for better or worse. the last excitement that anyone would ever see at a political convention had come to an end.

(And, by the way, doesn’t it really say something about the uselessness of Kennedy’s political career that he wasn’t even able to wrest the nomination away from Carter, perhaps the weakest president of the latter part of the 20th Century? If this doesn’t prove the power of the incumbency, nothing does.)

As Donald points out, 1952 was the last time either national party had a presidential nominating battle go to multiple ballots. (A slight correction on Donald’s post: while the Democrats did indeed go to three ballots before nominating Adlai Stevenson, the GOP convention liked Ike on the first ballot – with Eisenhower only five votes short of the nomination after initial voting, a series of switches in state voting wound up giving him a decisive victory. Then, as now, everyone wants to be seen going with the winner.) In fact, the last time there was a multiple-ballot vote on anything was, of all things, the 1956 Democratic vice-presidential contest. Stevenson, having once again won the presidential nomination, decided to allow the convention to choose his running mate. Stevenson’s rival, Estes Kefauver, bested the young John F. Kennedy on the second ballot to capture the nomination.

Back in those days, political conventions were once the occasion for excitement, anticipation, drama. They represented the climax of a campaign season that wasn't dominated by "Super Tuesday," a time when most candidates didn't announce until early in the same year of the election, when the New Hampshire primary wasn't held until March, for heaven's sake. Take a look at TV Guide in July of 1964 for example, when the Republicans were preparing for one of the most tumultuous conventions they'd had in years. NBC provided live daily coverage of platform and credentials committee hearings. CBS aired a one-hour documentary showing highlights of "Great Conventions" of the past. Both networks provided gavel-to-gavel coverage than ran well past midnight. They actually expected people would want to watch this kind of coverage. And many did.

Today, of course, the national political conventions have less excitement than a cow-milking contest. Why is that? For one thing, as far as political conventions go, excitement usually means controversy, dissention, fighting. All of it in front of the cameras. (Recall 1976, when Vice President Nelson Rockefeller became involved in a brawl on the convention floor that resulted in him ripping out a telephone that connected one of the delegations to the podium.) And while all that makes for riviting TV, it doesn't always translate into effective politics, especially for the party in question. Heck, the role call of the states - the "Mr. Chairman" moment about which Donald writes fondly - is now spread over two or three days. Nobody even bothers to watch it.

2Blowhards commentor Annette mentions the 1972 Democratic convention as a turning point, with George McGovern delivering his acceptance speech at around 3:00 in the morning. She's correct, because after that debacle things do change. But to understand the nature of the change, it's necessary to go back to the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. You could write a book about that one, but the image one should keep in mind is that of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (no, not the current one - his legendary father), his iron-fisted response to anti-war demonstrators, and his role in delivering the old-line establishment machine behind Hubert Humphrey. The reformers didn't forget that in 1972, and at the Miami Beach convention they sought to break the hold of the establishment, beginning with their successful challenge that ousted the Daley-controlled Illinois delegation. The result of all this reform was a tyranny of the minority.

Now, I don't use that phrase perjoratively, for in fact we're talking about factions that in and of themselves were true minorities in the political system prior to that time - blacks and women, abortion rights advocates, anti-war protestors, along with the anti-establishment reformers. Put together they made a majority of the delegates in Miami, enough to get George McGovern the presidential nominaiton, but their collective power was somewhat diminished because of their factionalism. Theodore White's The Making of the President 1972 provides a marvelous description of the pinnacle of this disorganization - the chaos surrouding the choice of McGovern's running mate Thomas Eagleton, and the subsequent floor fight over his nomination. It was the voting on that nomination - three other candidates were nominated, and over 70 received votes (including 30 votes for the unknown Georgia governor Jimmy Carter) that pushed McGovern's acceptance speech out of prime time and into a political Twilight Zone.

It must be said that the Democrats learned well from that lesson. Watching the fiasco in Miami Beach - and remembering it four years later - was the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Robert Strauss. Strauss was determined not to repeat the mistakes of 1972, and created an ironclad agenda written months in advance of the convention, which included a prime-time acceptance speech. He even specified the exact time, to the minute. The model has been followed ever since.

There's another byproduct of that 1972 convention however, one that tells us a great deal more about our modern politics. Having ruefully discovered the inherent drawbacks to the populist, power-to-the-people movement spearheaded by the McGovern reformers, the Dems took a step back. Oh, the minority - some might say fringe - elements continued to control the party machinery, as they do to this day. But whereas the message of 1972 was "Let Everyone Speak," the message of 2008 has become "Speak Only If You Agree With Us." By allowing the tyranny of the minority to become an ideological dictatorship, the Democrats have essentially stamped out any form of dramatic dissent from the party line, at least at the national level. Pro-life Democrats? Not on the podium at the national convention. Pro-war Democrats? Ask Joe Lieberman. The voiceless elements do indeed have a voice in the Democratic party - the only voice, as it happens, that counts. Even some traditional elements of the Democratic coalition made the switch - unions, which had been staunchly anti-Communist throughout the Cold War, moved steadily to the left. Catholics, long a staple of the party, no longer cast their votes reflexively for the Democrats - and those Catholics left in the Democratic Party tended to be liberal, heterodox ones, now challenging the Church's leadership rather than the party's.

This is only a theory, I admit, but I think it's a useful one. Anyone reading the evolution of the Democratic Party, from Kennedy's 1960 victory through the chaos of 1968 and 1972, to the Strauss-mandated order of 1976, to the monochromatic liberalism of today, would share at least some of these conclusions.

What about the Republicans, you say? Well, they've had their own hierarchical pattern throughout the years, usually bestowing their presidential nomination on candidates who've "earned" it through long years of service. For further examples, see "Nixon, Richard," (although in that case they were right), "Ford, Gerald," "Dole, Robert," and "Bush, George W." The best you can say about them is that the winner usually bears the establishment seal of approval, which puts the same kind of damper on genuine debate and disagreement at the convention as the one-note politics of the Democrats. There's some hope that this year's GOP covention, to be held across the river from us in St. Paul, might be different. I share that hope, but not the optimism that it will actually happen.

At any rate, we didn't set out to discuss ideology or current politics as much as to cast an appreciative, nostalgic eye back in time, to an era when political conventions really meant something, when the smoke-filled rooms and the backstage deals and the packed galleries created their own share of drama and helped write the history of America. It was messy, often unfair, autocratic, splattered with mud - and I miss it tremendously.

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