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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION | ANNALS
/ JOHN BALZER

The 'Good Old Days' Revisited

August 13, 2000|JOHN BALZER

"Well," wrote Will Rogers, "I saw something yesterday that for stupidity, lack of judgment, nonsensicality, unexcitement, uselessness and childishness has anything I've ever seen beaten.

"It was the Democratic National Convention."

The year was 1924, and Rogers was America's most popular corn-pone commentator. In the decades since, conventions have been transformed and transformed again--but not the analysts' regard for them.

The biggest waste of time this convention season isn't inflicted by the political stage managers. It comes from those expounders who insist that we listen to their dreary civics lesson about how great conventions used to be. Too bad we don't also get rope tricks on the side.

Just what are we missing from the good old days? Let's visit those Democrats who gathered with Will Rogers in New York 76 years ago:

Having endured bad times, the nation was enjoying prosperity in 1924. Investment frenzy engulfed Wall Street. Religious fundamentalism flourished. Immigrants were under siege. Global commitments and domestic xenophobia divided the country. Scandal had rocked the White House. Figuring that the major parties offered barely any choice between them, dissident populists drifted to third-party candidates.

One more thing: The host city for the convention, feeling misunderstood, welcomed the Democrats and the nation's press in hope of polishing its image.

In other words, 1924 looked a lot like today.

*

Journalists took their seats. There were but 700 of them, which by today's standard was 20 times too few to do the job. Overhead, the decorative red, white and blue bunting blocked ventilators. The temperature topped 100 degrees and the animal smell of the recently departed Barnum & Bailey Circus wafted from the pores of Madison Square Garden.

Speeches started. What's the rush? Real democracy needs no staging. Windbags consumed three stupefying days nominating 16 candidates. The front-runners were a lawyer from California, William McAdoo, and the governor of New York, Al Smith. The remainder were self-important "favorite son" pols, backed by ward heelers and bosses, who figured if they could tie things up long enough they might get lucky.

New York City quickly lost the battle for its image. The floor demonstration for Smith lasted 73 minutes and deafened several in the crowd when fire sirens were brought into the hall. "Drys" from the hinterlands discovered speak-easies and staggered back to the convention, adding gin fumes to the stifling air--and proving to everybody that the big city was a cesspool of decadence four years into Prohibition.

Then the moment: a floor vote on a platform plank that would denounce the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, which demonstrated 20,000 strong during the convention, had grown out of Protestant fundamentalism to become a shadowy force in the Democratic Party, damning Jews and blacks and immigrants and liquor, and warning that Roman Catholics would, if not stopped, run America from the Vatican.

New York Gov. Smith happened to be a Catholic and a "wet." McAdoo was a Protestant and a "dry." Brawls erupted on the floor. Pandemonium reigned for hours. The chairman thumped his gavel so hard that the head flew off and injured a delegate from New York. The Klan won by a single vote.

Now here was something political commentators really could comment about: chaos and violence. Unfortunately for Democrats, theirs was the first convention broadcast live on radio.

*

But the work of democracy was not finished. These were the glory days, remember. The convention droned on. Scheduled for a week, it ran 16 days, deadlocked and doomed. The roll call for the nomination was read a record 103 times. "Alabama casts its . . ."

Unable to patch up social and cultural schisms, exhausted delegates at last compromised and took their cue from the GOP. They selected a "favorite son" businessman named John W. Davis, a Wall Street lawyer with pouchy eyes and a pinched mouth and not a prayer of a chance.

"This was perhaps the most significant result of the election decision of 1924," wrote historian Robert K. Murray in "The 103rd Ballot," his lively book about the convention. "As both major parties demonstrated an inability to adjust to--sometimes, even an unwillingness to discuss--these other matters, national economic concerns acquired precedence."

Republican Calvin Coolidge won that election, banking America's future on economic gain alone. For those who look to history for lessons, five years later the giddy bull market collapsed. Four years after that, mired in the Great Depression, Americans repealed Prohibition so they could drown their sorrows.

Careful what you wish for, nostalgia buffs. Politics isn't what it used to be. Let's take our seats tomorrow and hope not.

*

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

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