PRESIDENTIAL CONVENTIONS ONCE WERE EXCITING. REALLY!
From the Virginia Gazette, Aug. 18, 2012
By Ronald G. Shafer
With the 1920 Republican convention in Chicago deadlocked after nine ballots, party bosses in the proverbial smoke-filled room lined up behind handsome Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding. But first they asked if he had any embarrassing skeletons in his closet.
“Nothing,” said the silver-haired Harding, who won nomination on the next ballot. The Ohioan, however, neglected to mention his mistresses and an illegitimate child. When one socialite lover threatened to tell all, the party sent her and her husband on a free trip around the world until the election was over.
Don’t expect any surprises at this month’s Republican convention in Tampa (Aug. 27) or the Democratic gathering early next month in Charlotte, N.C. (Sept. 3). Presidential conventions these days are pretty cut and dried. But they once were loaded with suspense because the outcome wasn’t known until the delegates voted.
Sometimes a dark horse could come out of nowhere to win. That happened in 1844 when the Democratic convention in Baltimore nominated future president James Polk on the ninth ballot. He wasn’t even a candidate until the eighth ballot.
At the 1860 Republican convention in Chicago, New York Senator William Seward led 11 rivals on the first two ballots. Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was a close second. At the end of the third ballot, three Ohio delegates switched their votes to put Abe over the top.
At the 1924 Democratic meeting in New York delegates voted a record 103 times over 16 days before picking West Virginia’s John W. Davis. Famed journalist H.L. Mencken complained that, “The convention is almost as vain and idiotic as a golf tournament.”
By the 1960s, voters in party primaries selected nominees before the convention began. So the drama was about choosing the vice presidential candidate. At the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles John F. Kennedy stunned everybody, including his brother Bobby, by picking archrival Lyndon Johnson.
The televised conventions became magnates for protesters. At the infamous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, police beat up anti-war protesters as millions watched on TV. Nominee Hubert Humphrey never did recover and lost to Richard Nixon.
The conventions calmed down but still could be exciting in person as I discovered as a Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. My first was the 1976 Democratic meeting in New York that nominated Jimmy Carter. My most memorable moment was when Carter tried to pay tribute to the late Hubert Horatio Humphrey but called him “Hubert Horatio Hornblower.”
My most exciting convention was the 1980 Republican meeting in Detroit. On the eve of the vote for veep, Ronald Reagan still hadn’t named a running mate. From the convention floor, I could see former President Gerald Ford making the rounds of the network-TV booths above. Rumors swept the convention that Ford was Reagan’s choice.
Meantime, George H. W. Bush, the runner-up in the primaries, had retreated to a local bar. Late in the evening, Reagan asked Bush to be his running mate. By the time the news was announced at the convention it was after midnight, far past our deadlines for all but the final edition.
I was sitting next to the editor of the Des Moines Register, who got on the phone to Iowa and screamed words I had only heard in movies: “Stop the presses.” Papers with the headline that Ford was the veep choice were already on the delivery trucks, but the editor got them back in time.
Bush was the presidential nominee at the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans where he gave his famous speech, “Read my lips, no new taxes.” He also surprised everybody by picking young Indiana Senator Dan Quayle as his running mate. Reports immediately emerged that Quayle had avoided the Vietnam War by joining the Indiana National Guard with help from his publisher father. Cynics joked that Hollywood was making a movie about Quayle’s wartime experiences called “30 seconds over Muncie.”
My last convention was the 2000 Democratic meeting in Los Angeles. After walking on stage for his acceptance speech, Al Gore gave his wife, Tipper, a long, hard kiss. But in the election he failed to win one for the Tipper, and the Gores later divorced.
These days with even the vice presidential choices known beforehand, the political conventions are about exciting as loading the dishwasher. The parties tailor the proceedings to the TV audience, scripting them as one long political ad.
Old Warren Harding and his mistresses would be so bored.
James City author Ronald G. Shafer is the former Washington Political Features Editor of the Wall Street Journal.