The wild, wacky world of Democratic Conventions
The Democratic Party Covention, 1928. The makeshift pavillion in Houston. African-American delegates were made to sit in a cordoned off section behind chicken wire.
We haven't had an exciting Democratic Party Convention in a long time.
It wasn't always that way. For years, the Democrats were reknowned for their fratricidal get-togethers. Is it possible that we may see some excitement this time around in Denver? I'm not sure, especially in light of Obama's inexplicable and spectacularly uninspired choice of the long-winded, numbskulled egomaniac Joe Biden as his running mate. Will we see some fireworks from the potential protests we've been hearing about, like the ones promised by groups like the Recreate 68 Alliance? Is Rush Limbaugh correct in his assertion that the Hillary forces will figure out a way to sieze the nomination at the convention?
Let's take a stroll though time, looking at some of the more contentious moments in Democratic Party Convention history.
New York, 1924: The Ku Klux Klan & the "drys" vs. Tammany Hall & the "wets"
The "Klanbake" in Madison Square Garden, also known as the Ballot Brawl. Prohibition was the huge issue of the day, and the Ku Klux Klan was at the height of its power. At the time, the Democratic Party consisted of a strange and uneasy alliance between conservative Southern whites, strongly supportive of Prohibition, and Northern immigrants, opposed to Prohibition in equal measure. Bitter fights ensued over the party platform, and the Southern delegates who'd travelled up to the belly of the immigrant beast in "Jew York" were heckled by the Tammany Hall "Braves" who'd been brought in to stuff the balconies. They consisted largely of Irish toughs and other ethnics, described colorfully as "Tammany shouters, Yiddish chanters, vaudeville performers, Sagwa Indians, hula dancers, street cleaners, firemen, policemen, movie actors and actresses, bootleggers . . ." The Tammany crowd had brought in ear-splitting fire department sirens to drown out the speeches of their opponents, and pandemonium ensued. The main candidates were Woodrow Wilson's son-in-law William Gibbs McAdoo and the Catholic Governor of New York, Al Smith. At one time, the venerable William Jennings Bryan got up to speak in order to explain his support for McAdoo, and was drowned out with catcalls and a sound comparable to "10,000 voodoo doctors in a tropical jungle beating 10,000 tom-toms made of resonant washtubs."
After 103 ballots, the nomination finally went to the compromise candidate John W. Davis of West Virginia, who promptly lost to Calvin Coolidge in the general election.
Chicago, 1932: Happy Days are Here again, but the Happy Warrior checks out
In 1928, Al Smith finally did win the Democratic nomination, becoming the first Catholic to contend for the presidency. The popular Governor of New York, who'd come of age in a multi-ethnic environment in New York's Bowery, believed that he knew what it took to get people from different backgrounds to work together. He had a benign, and perhaps naive view that he could extend this to the rest of the American electorate, trusting in the essential goodness of the American people. He lost to Herbert Hoover in what was a viciously anti-Catholic campaign. Smith was heartbroken, especially when he lost his own home state of New York.
By the time 1932 rolled around, America was in the throes of the Depression, and Smith had been replaced as governor by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a one-time protege who had introduced Smith into nomination in 1924, describing Smith as "That Happy Warrior". Smith considered Roosevelt a friend, but also somewhat of a lightweight (he was not the first or the last person to make this mistake).
A bitter Smith, still smarting from his 1928 defeat, had not yet realized that he and his Tammany supporters had been eclipsed. All the talk going in had been about Roosevelt, but Smith still seemed to think that FDR was supposed to be a coat-holder for him. Roosevelt's other main rival was the Texan John Nance Gardner. Gardner was backed by newspaper mogul William Randoph Hearst, who hated Al Smith. When the convention appeared deadlocked, Joe Kennedy got on the phone to Hearst and convinced him to throw his support behind Roosevelt.
As Roosevelt was nominated, Smith's supporters urged him to express his support for Roosevelt in a show of party unity. Smith refused, sitting in his seat muttering "I won't do it... I won't do it..." before stalking out of the hall. He took a train back to New York, saying upon arrival “I have absolutely nothing to say to newspaper men...I am tired and I want to get a rest.”
Here is the only movie of Al Smith I could find on Youtube, showing him voicing his satisfaction and vindication at the eventual repeal of Prohibition in 1933.
Chicago, 1956: "If we have to have a Catholic, I hope we don't have to take that little pissant Kennedy." -- House Speaker Sam Rayburn
Adlai Stevenson already had the nomination wrapped up, but threw the selection of a vice-presidential nominee to the delegates on the convention floor in open balloting. Russell Baker wrote in the New York Times that it was "a spectacle that might have confounded all Christendom... an epic clash that caused shrieking pandemonium with 11,000 persons on their feet and howling."
The contending candidates were Jack Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, New York Mayor Robert Wagner, Estes Kefauver, and Al Gore Sr.
According to Curtis Wilkie:
Stevenson was intrigued by the thought of a Catholic on the ticket. He liked Kennedy, but lacked the nerve to name him outright. ..
Kennedy thought he could appeal to the Democratic intelligentsia. But when he turned to their grand dame, Eleanor Roosevelt, she rebuked him for his failure to stand up against Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt...
Humphrey, whose civil rights speech at the 1948 convention drove Southerners into a Dixiecrat movement that year, was still loathed by the Southern delegates. But the Southerners were no more comfortable with the candidates from their own region. Kefauver was an unapologetic liberal, and Gore had been one of the few who refused to sign the Southern Manifesto signaling war against the Supreme Court's school desegregation decision...
The two leaders pounced on the wounded Humphrey. Kennedy, following the proceedings on TV in a nearby hotel room, sent his young aide, Ted Sorensen, to the convention to check on Humphrey's disposition. But Sorensen was dismissed with a poet's contempt by Eugene McCarthy, the other Minnesota senator, who was serving as his colleague's campaign manager...
Kefauver had better luck with Humphrey. He caught the distraught senator, weeping over his impending defeat, off the convention floor and begged for his help. He got it. Minnesota gave all 30 of its votes, which had previously been Humphrey's, to Kefauver on the second ballot. But Kefauver's momentum was offset by an unusual stampede to Kennedy among the Southern delegations. Because both Kefauver and Gore were anathema, prominent segregationists such as Birmingham's Bull Connor (who would unleash police dogs on black demonstrators in 1963) Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina (who had led the Dixiecrat revolt in 1948 and would leave the Democratic Party in 1964) and Senator John Stennis of Mississippi joined JFK's ranks on the floor...
But there was to be one more decisive turn, one which has never been fully explained. Representative John McCormack of Massachusetts, who would succeed Rayburn as House Speaker, was seen whispering with a leader of the Missouri delegation. Though nominally a Kennedy supporter, McCormack was still smarting from a defeat at Kennedy's hands at a state convention earlier in the summer. McCormack shouted at Rayburn, who held the gavel and was trying to decide which state to recognize. "Sam!" McCormack yelled. "Missouri!" Rayburn recognized Missouri, which switched 36 of its 38 votes to Kefauver. The move triggered a rush by other states to push Kefauver's total over the top.
Suddenly, it was over. Kennedy came to the floor and asked for Kefauver to be put on the ticket by acclamation. Stevenson, watching on TV at a downtown hotel, was said to have slumped in disappointment.
Stevenson was whipped by Ike in '56. If Kennedy had been the veep choice, it might have been the end of his political career.
Chicago, 1968: "The Whole World is Watching"
Well, I was just a kid but I sure remember this one. Chicago, again. Who could ever forget the police riots in Grant Park and in front of the Conrad Hilton Hotel on Michigan Ave? Who could ever forget Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley saying to the press afterwards "Gentlemen, gentlemen... Get the thing straight once and for all. The policeman is not there to create disorder. The policeman is there to preserve disorder."
The Yippies had organized their demonstrations against "Johnson's War" and the ensuing riots shocked and horrified the country. In addition to the violence outside, American television viewers were treated to spectacles inside the convention hall such as Dan Rather being roughed up, and the response to Senator Abraham Ribicoff, who said "If George McGovern were president, we wouldn't have these Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago." Mayor Daley and his retinue leapt to their feet indignantly, shouting for that "F'ing Jew to shut up!"
Democratic National Convention
Lyndon Johsnon's Vice-President Hubert Humphrey won the nomination, but he was fatally wounded politically. The general election was close, but Dick Nixon, relying on the "Silent Majority" and the "law & order" vote, won in November, and thus began the Imperial Presidency.
Miami Beach, 1972: "Acid, Amnesty, & Abortion"
Before the 1972 election, Ted Kennedy was derailed by Chappaquiddick, and Ed Muskie was derailed for allegedly crying over press criticism of his wife. This left the door open to George McGovern, who was able to wrest the nomination process out of the hands of the party bosses like Richard Daley and into the hands of primary voters. Some of these party bosses were angered and forever alienated, and it hurt McGovern's funding later on.
A lot of the radical activists in 1968 had gone mainstream by 1972, and this was their moment. The old guard, with its big city machine apparatus, union muscle, and commitment to the New Deal consensus faded into the background. Rightly or wrongly, depending on your point of view, the Democratic Party became associated more with group identity politics and fighting battles over personal autonomy rights than with fighting battles over economic justice.
The columnist Robert Novak pinned the "Acid, Amnesty and Abortion" label on McGovern. Quoting an unnamed Democratic senator, Novak wrote "The people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot... Once middle America — Catholic middle America, in particular — finds this out, he’s dead."
According to Novak, the unnamed seantor was McGovern's own original running mate, Thomas Eagleton. Eagleton had been forced to withdraw (and was replaced by Sargent Shriver) when it was disclosed that he had undergone electroshock therapy treatments. What a train wreck.
Shirley Chisholm was the lone bright spot.
New York, 1980: "Teddy Kennedy? I'll whip his ass."
In 1980, Ted Kennedy finally came to the decision to take the risk in running for president, but he did it against the sitting Democratic incumbent, the peanut farmer from Georgia. An irritated and indignant Carter famously quipped, "I'll whip his ass."
He did. The contest between them was bitter, and Kennedy lost, but he managed to clean himself and his act up enough to call for the party's renewal to a commitment to economic justice in his speech, "The Dream Will Never Die".
If only they'd done a better job of taking it to heart.
For all the bitterness on display at the convention, what was perhaps most noticable (and comical) was Jimmy Carter chasing Ted Kennedy around on the podium after he was nominated, desperately trying to get Kennedy to raise hands with him, while Kennedy darted around just as desperately, trying to avoid him.
What have you got in store, Denver?