Saturday, September 8, 2012

National Political Conventions: Their Past and Future

The 2012 political conventions are over and, not surprisingly, there was little suspense.  The highlight of the Republican convention perhaps was the Clint Eastwood appearance and that of the Democratic convention was the rousing speech of former President Bill Clinton.  There was much rallying of the loyal troops, but the actual business of the conventions was, yet again, pro forma.

The main purpose of these conventions, which wind their way back before the Civil War, is to select a presidential nominee. But with the advent of the far-flung primaries and television--as well as the decline of the backroom bosses--the nominees have effectively been selected well before the convention for the past thirty-six years (and, in effect, even much earlier).

The last meaningful convention battle for the nomination came in 1976 when incumbent Gerald Ford beat out Ronald Reagan.  But even then the outcome was settled on the first ballot.  The last multi-ballot convention was in 1952 when it took three roll calls for Adlai Stevenson to dispatch Estes Kefauver and Richard Russell.

The history of political conventions is filled with stories which illuminate the high and low points of the nation.  The 1860 Republican convention in Chicago, which met at the Wigwam, resulted in the unexpected nomination of Abraham Lincoln.  The 1948 Democratic convention in Philadelphia saw the splintering of the party over civil rights and the dramatic walkout of soon-to-be Dixiecrat presidential candidate Strom Thurmond.

I remember vividly the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, at which the violence and confrontations near the convention center reflected the turmoil in the streets of the nation and the war in Vietnam half a world away.  I still recall the televised juxtaposed images of an angry Mayor Richard Daley and an outraged Senator Abraham Ribicoff, each representing different viewpoints on the demonstrations and the police response to them.

When I lived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I was always fascinated by a historical marker outside the downtown Zion Lutheran Church which told that William Henry Harrison was chosen for president by the Whigs in 1839. Harrisburg with a population of about 6,000 was the least populous city ever to land a major national convention.

I also have been fascinated by the 1924 Democratic convention, which took 103 ballots for the delegates to select John W. Davis of West Virginia, who eventually was trounced in November by incumbent Calvin Coolidge.  Among the issues making this gathering so contentious were the Ku Klux Klan and the Catholicism of New York Governor Al Smith, a leading contender.

Despite all these and many other conventions for which I have either a living or historical knowledge, the most significant convention for me was the one in 1960 which nominated John Kennedy in Los Angeles.  I was a precocious ten-year-old and it was the first convention that drew my interest and, in fact, absorbed me.  I can even today visualize the special issue of either LOOK or LIFE which provided in-depth coverage of the candidates.

As a result of my fascination with that convention, I have long had a special attraction to Gore Vidal's play The Best Man, which debuted on Broadway in 1960 and may have had a vague connection with the convention of that year.  Set in Philadelphia, it is a convention battle between an aloof intellectual who resembles Adlai Stevenson and a political upstart with some characteristics of John Kennedy and perhaps even Richard Nixon. Also in the mix is a blunt, irascible former president--possibly a stand-in for Harry Truman. (All this, however, is conjecture; the play is more and less than these personalities.) The award-winning work includes intrigue, good old dirty politics and unpredictability.

The play was reprised as a movie in 1964 with Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson, and it is one of my prized DVDs.  It came back to Broadway in 2000 and then earlier this year.  I was fortunate to see the current play at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre this spring, long before it changed some cast members; it is scheduled to end its run on Sunday, September 9.

Appearing in the play that I saw this spring were John Larroquette as the cool, intellectual candidate; James Earl Jones as the former president; Angela Lansbury as the rallying point for women activists of an earlier era; and Candice Bergen as candidate Larroquette's estranged wife.  The theater had an elaborate convention setting, I had a middle front-row seat, and the performance was very enjoyable.

The type of convention that is portrayed in this work is long gone, although the characterization  provides some insights into what these quadrennial events were like (with artistic license).  The excessive pageantry of fifty years ago is gone as is much of the political maneuvering and suspense. 

For years conventions were presented on television with gavel-to-gavel coverage, but that is largely gone, too.  The goals of the modern convention are to galvanize the faithful and focus attention on a candidate for a week or so.  As the Information Age continues to evolve through instantaneous communication and with enhanced social media, political conventions might soon become an endangered species.  But once, they were an important and riveting part of American political history.

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