Why do they bother having political conventions at all anymore?
That’s not a rhetorical question. Once, not too long ago, the quadrennial gatherings of political parties had function and meaning. The outcomes were not certain. People were interested in them. They mattered.
That’s no longer true, not any of it.
Time was, and it’s well within living memory, that people who were not generally political enthusiasts put time aside to watch “the conventions” – that was all that was needed to describe them, everyone knew what you meant. All three networks covered them wall-to-wall, often well into the early hours of the morning. I remember as a tiny kid the air of excitement at our house because our senator, Stuart Symington, would soon be speaking at the Democratic convention.
The conventions were gritty and if they were in some ways dishonest – the old “smoke-filled room” trope applies – they were at least honest about their dishonesty. The conventions were the World Series of politics, and as with the World Series an important aspect was that at the beginning it was not certain who would emerge victorious.
There were sometimes electrifying moments. I can offer with pride the 1952 Republican National Convention speech of Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois. A supporter of Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, Dirksen pointed a long, bony finger at two-time presidential nominee and two-time loser Thomas Dewey and thundered, “We followed you before and you took us down the path to defeat!” (That year the ultimately successful candidate was Dwight David Eisenhower, who as it happened was supported by Dewey. Probably just as well – Taft was dead six months and 11 days into Eisenhower’s first term.)
There were stunning moments, as when the Democrats convened in Chicago in 1968 while rioters held sway outside. Then as now the left wing of the Democrats said the riots were the fault of the police, and Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who had ordered the crackdown (often on the noggins of the rioters) sought to defend the cops. Never an articulate man, Democrat Daley got flustered at an appearance before reporters and famously said, “The police are not here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder.”
There were ridiculous moments, such as the year the telephones used by the New York Republican delegation were turned off during some procedural dispute and the network anchors in their booths high above remarked on the absurd scene of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller leading his New Yorkers in the chant, “Give us our phones.”
Procedural battles have played a big part in the machinations of our political conventions, and an expert in party convention rules could wield great power by making procedural challenges. One such dispute carried on so long that poor George McGovern, Democrat of South Dakota, gave his 1972 acceptance speech a few minutes before 3 a.m. on the East Coast.
It made for an inauspicious start to a spectacularly unsuccessful campaign. (Its low point, except for election day itself, came with the disclosure that vice presidential candidate Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri had undergone treatments similar to those administered to Harley Quinn by the Joker in Suicide Squad.)
Every presidential year there is talk of there being no winner going in to the convention and how the nomination might be determined only after multiple ballots. The last time it took a major party in national convention multiple ballots to pick a candidate was 1952, when Democrats voted three times in selecting Adlai Stevenson to lose to aforementioned Eisenhower.
But there was a time when multiple ballots were common. The record is held by the 1924 Democratic convention, held in the old Madison Square Garden in New York. The convention took 16 days, in large measure because there were 103 votes before John W. Davis and Charles Bryan were selected to run for president and vice president respectively. Thus were we robbed of the opportunity to have a president named McAdoo.
(The Republicans convened in Cleveland and nominated Calvin Coolidge on the first ballot – his opponents were a wacky Wisconsinite who would go on to run as the Progressive candidate that year, and a man whose first name was Hiram – but it took three ballots to nominate Charles Dawes of Illinois for vice president.)
Though in the last 60 years or so there haven’t been multi-ballot conventions, there have been contested ones, when the nominee would be picked by the delegates. This used to be the norm. It used to be the reason there were conventions. When the conventions began, there might have been someone in the lead – a “frontrunner,” to use the cliché – but that could change and sometimes did. It’s now talked about every year, but it no longer happens. This is not an improvement.
Let me explain why. Political conventions are, well, used to be, gatherings of members of political parties to select what are sometimes poetically called their “standard bearers.” (That would be inappropriate now, because Biden cannot reliably bear himself ,let alone anything else, and Trump has no discernible standards.) But now the candidates are chosen through primaries that often do not require voters to be members of the party in which they are voting. They are beauty pageants (or in the case of Bernie Sanders, ugly pageants). They consume huge amounts of money better spent on damn near anything else. And they result in the likes of, well, Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
There is no drama at modern political conventions, the outcomes having been foreordained, the performances polished and scripted and boring.
I read over the weekend that the Republican convention underway this week is actually being put together by one of the producers of “The Apprentice.”
No. Just no.
Better that we have the fat, cigar-chomping old pols of a bygone day, genial grifters as opposed to slick hustlers. Better Richard Daley than Lori Lootflight.
A real political convention could this year have drawn a real audience. But we did not have those. As a result, the most banal of broadcast television shows drew higher ratings than did the canned Democrats. We cannot know yet, but it seems likely that the Republicans will do only marginally better. The ratings have been declining ever since the conventions stopped being events where important things happen. That’s a pity.
It’s 2020, and this is not the apocalypse we were promised.
Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Thursday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at email@example.com.