Will History Repeat Itself? (From the pages of Politico)
After decades of suspenseless, pro forma conventions where the identity of the party’s nominee has been known for months in advance and every moment has been as scripted as a corporate product launch, the Republican National Convention at least holds out the possibility for something approaching unpredictability.
Boring conventions weren’t always the norm. Throughout most of American history, in fact, raucous and mercurial gatherings were the rule rather than the exception. The unexpected was routine—grand speeches, lost battles, dragged-out fights with meaningful implications for the course of the country.
Now, as Donald Trump seeks to finally and officially win the nomination of a party that his candidacy has badly fractured, there’s at least a chance that some of that old high drama could return.
And if not, there’s still a chance that something meaningful will happen. History is dotted with less-famous convention moments that have provided the drama—even farce—that added spice to what has become a diet of gruel. And sometimes they, too, changed the course of politics.
FDR and the Voice From the Sewer
In 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was halfway through his eighth year in office and at pains not to be seen breaking the “no third term” tradition that had been recognized by every president since George Washington. Roosevelt himself had often expressed his wish to retire, but with Europe engulfed in war and a strong isolationist movement resisting any attempt to help beleaguered Britain, the absence of Roosevelt could prove decisive for both party and country.
There were big-name Democrats eager to succeed him for the nomination, including Vice President John Nance Garner, and longtime FDR aide James Farley. But one question loomed over Democratic convention-goers in Chicago: What were Roosevelt’s real intentions?
The answer to that key question became even more uncertain after Kentucky Senator Alben Barkley read a message from Roosevelt to the assembled convention: “[The president] wishes in earnestness and sincerity to make it clear that all of the delegates in this convention are free to vote for any candidate.”
Any candidate? Did that include Roosevelt himself? In the confusion, before a debate could break out in the convention hall, a voice suddenly roared over the loudspeakers: “Illinois Wants Roosevelt! Ohio Wants Roosevelt! We All Want Roosevelt!”
Delegates quickly joined in on the chant, and “We Want Roosevelt!” echoed through the Chicago Stadium rafters.
And whom did that voice on the loudspeakers belong to? None other than Thomas Garry, superintendent of Chicago’s Department of Sanitation and—more importantly—boss of the 27th Ward and a loyal footsoldier of Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly, a New Dealer and an FDR loyalist.
History does not reveal whether this “voice from the sewers” was Kelly’s brainchild or was inspired by people inside Roosevelt’s inner circle. What is clear is that the rallying cry helped stampede the convention into nominating FDR for a third term in office. Garner and Farley, who had entered the convention as the most popular declared candidates, each ended up with less than 7 percent of the vote. The unexpected intervention over the P.A. system made a decisive difference in who led the nation through the Second World War.
Reagan’s “Co-Presidency” Tease
Ronald Reagan had locked up the 1980 Republican nomination long before the party gathered in Detroit. But two days into the convention, an incredible story was spreading: Reagan was seriously considering naming former President Gerald Ford, the man he had nearly unseated four years earlier, as his running mate. Ford more or less confirmed the rumors in a series of TV interviews. CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite pinned down Ford, asking whether he and Reagan were considering a “co-presidency.” Ford didn’t shoot down the rumors and, as the interview progressed, displayed a deep knowledge of the constitutional complications that such an arrangement would produce.
Allies of the two men were meeting to discuss the terms of such a deal. Would ex-President Ford be given “portfolios” to manage—say, foreign policy? Would Henry Kissinger return to power under a President Reagan, who had for years denounced Kissinger’s foreign policy approach? Late into Wednesday night, the convention came to a standstill, and delegates on the floor were buttonholing TV reporters to ask about the latest rumors (it was a pre-cellphone age).
The expectations turned to near certainty—Reagan and Ford were heading to the convention! And then Reagan himself, in a sharp break with tradition, came to the hall, unaccompanied, to say that the much-discussed “co-presidency” would not happen. He had chosen a running mate: his rival during the primary campaign, George H.W. Bush.
It was in political terms, a near-escape for Reagan. That year, the Democrats’ chief critique of Reagan was that he was in over his head. The specter of a nominee turning to a defeated ex-president for gravitas would not only have fed that narrative, but validated the accusation.
Two Speeches That Launched Presidencies (And Two That Didn’t)
The best-known convention speech in American history is almost surely the fiery attack that 36-year-old former Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan made on the gold standard at the 1896 Democratic Convention. “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns!” he thundered. “You shall not crucify mankind upon a Cross of Gold!” The speech propelled Bryan into the first of three losing campaigns as the party’s presidential nominee.
Bryan, however, never won the White House. By contrast, look at what happened after a far less memorable speech at the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York. A promising political figure, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had served as assistant secretary of the Navy during the Great War, and in 1920, was the Democratic candidate for vice president. A year after that campaign, he was disabled by polio. It was certain that this disability would sideline his designs on running for a higher office.
But in 1924, the 42-year-old Roosevelt maneuvered himself up to the rostrum at Madison Square Garden and entered New York Governor Al Smith’s name into nomination. It marked Roosevelt’s return to politics. Four years later, he succeeded Smith as governor of New York; eight years after that, he won the presidency in a landslide election.
Decades later, another promising 42-year-old Democrat gave a more memorable though equally historic speech. In 2004 in Boston, Democratic convention-goers listened to an obscure Illinois state senator with an odd name enrapture delegates with his assertion that “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America.” Barack Obama’s introduction to a national audience was a powerful tutorial on how you can tell if a convention speech is truly memorable: the delegates stop cheering every 10 seconds, and actually begin to listen.
At the other end of the spectrum, Texas Senator Phil Gramm was picked to keynote the 1992 GOP convention in Houston. Gramm was a man of high intelligence, undisguised presidential ambitions, and minimal people skills (“even his best friends can’t stand him,” according to one popular gibe). A few minutes into his address, Gramm was talking about President Bush unveiling a new commemorative postage stamp. It was clear that Gramm was not connecting with his audience: The delegates weren’t cheering, and they weren’t really interested in listening to him, either. He continued to speak for a half hour more. It was an early clue that Gramm’s 1996 presidential bid would not end well.
The Balloon Fail
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter limped into the New York convention after a bruising primary battle with Senator Ted Kennedy. After an effort to “unbind” the delegates failed, Kennedy conceded to Carter in a lofty, moving speech with a rousing conclusion: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
The bar was high for Carter’s acceptance speech: It needed not only to inspire a divided convention but also deliver an image of unity to viewers in the hall and watching at home: The president needed a friendly Carter-Kennedy embrace, and a festive post-speech celebration.
It didn’t quite happen like that. In his acceptance speech, Carter tried to pay tribute to liberal champions of the past, including “a great man who should have been president, who would have been one of the greatest presidents in history: Hubert Horatio Hornblower—Humphrey!”, thus conflating the name of Minnesota’s progressive champion with that of a fictional British naval officer.
But the “Hornblower” flub was a mere prelude to twin disasters at the end of his address.
CNN somehow managed to broadcast it with audio of the increasingly frenetic and obscenity-laced demands of a convention logistics manager, who likely knew full well how the news media would seize on the incident as a symbol of a faltering campaign.)
The “Undermine the Catholic” Plan
There was a time when newspapers would print “scorecards” so that radio listeners and TV viewers at home could watch how candidates’ fortunes ebbed and flowed through several convention ballots. They haven’t done it in a while, probably because the last time any major-party national convention went past a first ballot was in 1956—and it wasn’t to choose a presidential nominee.
After winning the presidential nomination for the second time, former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson jolted the delegates by throwing open the vice-presidential contest—in effect, letting the delegates decide who his running mate should be. It was designed to provide a dramatic contrast to Vice President Nixon, who was far less popular than incumbent President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Through two ballots, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy staged a back-and-forth race, with Tennessee’s other Senator, Al Gore Sr., providing the difference. Following the second ballot, JFK was only a handful of delegates away from victory (he had 618 votes out of the required 687), and state delegations clamored for the recognition of the chair so that they could switch their votes. It was up to the convention chair, House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, to decide which state would be called upon first. Rayburn, fearing the presence of a Roman Catholic on the ticket, recognized Tennessee—whereupon Gore withdrew from the race, threw his support to Kefauver, and the stampede was on.
In one sense, it made little difference: There was no way Stevenson was going to deprive Eisenhower of a second term. In another sense, what did not happen proved to be a godsend: As Kennedy himself later observed, if the Democrats had lost in a landslide with JFK on the ticket, it would have been “proof” that a Catholic was still politically unacceptable to the American electorate—prematurely derailing his victorious presidential campaign just four years later.
When Democrats met in Baltimore that year, they were so bereft of viable presidential candidates that they simply decided to nominate Horace Greeley, the candidate of a breakaway Republican faction opposed to GOP President Ulysses Grant, and a journalist, no less.
Their entire convention took six and a half hours.