Nine and a Half Conventions

(AP Photo)

Then-Senator John F. Kennedy stands in the spotlight on the rostrum of the Los Angeles Sports Arena and promises Democratic convention delegates, who nominated him as their presidential candidate on July 14, 1960, that "we will win" in November.

My first Democratic National Convention came when I was ten. My parents took me along to the new Los Angeles Sports Arena for the second night of the 1960 gathering that nominated Jack Kennedy. The tickets came courtesy of my father’s employers, who ran a mega-tract-home construction company. They may well have been to the right of the Democratic Party; my parents were still stubbornly to its left—members of the all-but-extinct Socialist Party—but no matter. A national political convention didn’t come around every week, and besides, my parents increasingly considered themselves close to the liberal reformers who dominated California’s Democratic Party. 

As chance would have it, the second night of that Democratic Convention provided the last gasp of liberalism’s romance with Adlai Stevenson, the party’s nominee in the past two elections, which he lost both times to Dwight Eisenhower. More through his eloquence and his pose of somehow being above politics than through any of his policies (he had disgracefully ducked supporting the fledgling civil-rights movement), Stevenson had become the darling of anti-big-city machine liberal professionals during the 1950s. He still had strong support in those circles, among California reform Democrats in particular. Kennedy, who was closing in on the number of delegates needed to secure the nomination, had dispatched the genuine liberal in the field, Hubert Humphrey, in a series of primaries, and many liberals were still resistant to his charms. Big-city bosses like Chicago’s Richard Daley still held the balance of power at the convention, since only a relative handful of states held primaries that bound delegates to vote for the candidate their state’s voters preferred. 

Stevenson hadn’t entered the primaries but still commanded the hearts of many of the liberals seated as delegates and packing the galleries. When he appeared on the convention floor unheralded amid Tuesday night’s proceedings, the place went crazy. He was swept up to the podium, and as he paused before speaking, the hall was filled with hope (the Stevensonites’) and apprehension (the Kennedyites’, who particularly feared that Stevenson would peal off the liberal delegates whom Kennedy needed and thereby create an opening for Lyndon Johnson to carry the convention). 

Then Stevenson spoke—all of two sentences, as I dimly recall. He made a crack about how the winner would be the one who survived all the hubbub. That was it. Whatever air had been in the Stevenson (and Johnson) balloons whooshed away. It turns out that Stevenson had called Mayor Daley a little earlier and asked for his backing—as the former governor of Illinois, Stevenson had to have the support of the Chicago machine—and Daley told him to forget about it; he was going with Kennedy. I didn’t know this at the time, of course. (I didn’t know any of the story I’ve related except that Stevenson’s reception was loud and his speech short.) Even those in the know didn’t know about the Stevenson-Daley phone call until it was revealed after the election in the first of Theodore White’s Making of the President books.


A Raucous Affair

Eight years later, at the ripe old age of 18, I was in Mayor Daley’s own city for the most tumultuous national political convention in American history. I was a junior (if not the most junior) staffer on the anti-war presidential campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy, the man who had nominated Adlai Stevenson in Los Angeles in 1960. One of the nights of the convention, I couriered some documents from the Conrad Hilton Hotel, where the McCarthy campaign was headquartered, to the convention floor. I arrived just as a memorial biopic of Robert Kennedy, whom many delegates had hoped would be the nominee and whose murder had occurred just two months before, concluded. The floor was in turmoil. A demonstration in tribute to Kennedy—and opposing Johnson, Humphrey, and their goddamn war—went on and on and on (for about half an hour, as I recall), despite the efforts of convention chair Carl Albert, the House Speaker, to gavel the proceedings to order. Albert was one of Johnson’s men at the convention; he understood the demonstration was an affront to the president, but as a very small man wielding a big gavel to no effect whatever, he looked the essence of ineffectuality.

Things back at the hotel were no less tumultuous. The Hilton was directly across the street from Grant Park, where on the convention’s third night, anti-war demonstrators, Yippies, journalists, and bystanders were all subjected to a “police riot” (that’s what a commission appointed by Illinois’s Democratic Governor Dan Walker later termed the cops’ conduct). Clubbing and gassing anyone they could find, the cops hurled some people with such force that they shattered the display windows in the Hilton lobby. The producers directing the convention coverage went to split screens so they could cover both the nominating speeches in the hall and the mayhem outside it. In seconding the nomination of George McGovern (who had entered the race to give Kennedy delegates who couldn’t stand Gene McCarthy someone to vote for), Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff said that if McGovern were president, “we wouldn’t have these Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.” The TV coverage cut to Mayor Daley rising from his seat on the convention floor and shouting at Ribicoff. Lip-readers got it all: “Fuck you, you Jew mother-fucker, you!” the mayor said. It was not a happy convention.

Late on the final night of the convention, the cops, having run out of people to club on the streets or in the parks, came into the Hilton, rode up to the 15th floor—the floor where McCarthy junior staff (including me) was domiciled—and used their clubs to clear everyone off the floor and back down to the lobby (or, in several cases, the hospital). They said that someone had thrown something down on them from a hotel window, and they may have been right. My alternative explanation—that the hotel had a 3 a.m.. check-out deadline that it enforced like nobody’s business—failed to gain wide acceptance.

As the sun rose later that morning, I met a Humphrey delegate from a Southern state on the sidewalk outside the hotel. I told him how I happened to be downstairs, what had happened to the McCarthy staff. “Good,” he said. “The cops should have done more.” This did not augur well for the future of the traditional Democratic coalition.


The Last Great Convention Voice

The next time I was at a Democratic Convention, that coalition was no better than comatose. The McGovern forces had taken control of the party, and one of their reforms had been to establish midterm conventions so that the party could debate and take positions on issues between presidential nominations. My first convention after the ’68 blowout in Chicago was the 1978 midterm in Memphis, where a large number of the delegates didn’t like where the incumbent Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, was taking the party.

Carter—who presided over the deregulation of much of the American economy, refused to lobby for a labor-law reform bill that failed by one vote in the Senate (indeed, his budget director, Bert Lance, lobbied against it), and opposed both full-employment legislation and Ted Kennedy’s bill to create universal health coverage—remains to this day the most conservative Democratic president since Grover Cleveland. By 1978, liberals had soured on him, and the midterm convention loomed as a vehicle for this discontent. 

The Carter people didn’t realize this until it was too late. When the delegates were selected (by caucuses in each congressional district), roughly 40 percent of them were critics of Carter’s move rightward. The operation that organized those delegates was Democratic Agenda, a left-liberal coalition funded by some of the more progressive unions (chiefly the UAW, AFSCME and the Machinists). In Memphis, I was one of the Democratic Agenda organizers, working to line up support for our platform planks. (The guy heading the Carter floor operation was the attorney general of Arkansas, who’d just been elected that state’s governor but hadn’t yet taken office—Bill Clinton.) Carter’s positions on the key contested issues—inflation and employment—carried by only 60-40 margins. (This may explain why party elders later voted never to hold a midterm convention again.)

But the key event of the convention wasn’t a vote; it was a speech. At a forum on universal health coverage sponsored by the UAW’s president, Doug Fraser, Ted Kennedy delivered a great speech to a crowd including most of the delegates, all of the press, and about a thousand more stray Democrats. Fully five sentences before he closed, he had the crowd standing and cheering, and with a master speechmaker’s knowledge of how to milk a moment, he bellowed right over the noise straight through to the end. When Kennedy was done, his challenge to Carter in the next presidential primaries was a foregone conclusion.

Kennedy speeches highlighted my next two conventions, both of which I also attended as a Democratic Agenda staffer, not that there was really all that much to staff. In 1980, in Madison Square Garden, Kennedy delivered his famous “the dream shall never die” speech, which sounded at one and the same time like a vow that he’d be back to run again (which he never did) and an elegy for both Camelot and Great Society liberalism. Either way, it was both rousing and moving.

A word on Kennedy’s voice: It was the last great convention voice, a voice out of the pre-sound-amplification past. You could imagine Kennedy rising on the floor for a point of order and with a great rumble intoning “Mr. Chairman,” drawing out each syllable, audible without a microphone in every corner of the hall. Kennedy knew he had a voice that summoned the ghosts of vanished political rites, and he toyed with it—stretching out syllables for comic effect, as if to say, “I know this sounds archaic, so don’t take the fustian too seriously.” It was the voice he used to introduce Walter Mondale for his acceptance speech at the 1984 convention in San Francisco, when Kennedy said that by selecting Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate (and the first female nominee for vice-president), “Walter Mondale has done more for this nation in four short days than Ronald Reagan has done”—and he paused, so the crowd could chime in with him, as the next words were inevitable—“in four long years.” Not just a great public speaker, also a fun one.


Hope and Change, Stupid

The first convention I covered as a reporter was the Democrats’ return to Madison Square Garden in 1992. By then, whatever residual suspense conventions offered had been leached away. In 1984, there had been at least the suspense of whether Kennedy would shake Carter’s hand (he sort of did, begrudgingly, but only after a desperate Carter chased him down on the podium following his acceptance speech). Though suspense had been banished from conventions, drama still remained—in ’92, the drama of Bill Clinton’s emergence, augmented by the best walk-to-the-podium-to-accept-the-nomination I’ve seen before or since: Clinton was filmed from behind walking through some Madison Square Garden labyrinth of otherwise-deserted halls, until a curtain parted and he emerged into the blinding light of the convention floor.

In ’96, the Democrats’ proceedings while renominating Clinton were devoid of both suspense and drama, but Al Gore’s coronation in Los Angeles in 2000 had some of both, as he jettisoned his more centrist political advisers on the eve of the convention and brought in pollster Stan Greenberg to help shape a more populist message. This was a story that only came out in mid-convention, just before, in fact, Gore delivered a singularly effective populist acceptance speech. 

In 2004 in Boston, the show was stolen by a young Senate candidate from Illinois named Barack Obama, who delivered an elegantly crafted keynote. Four years later in Denver, Obama’s speech wasn’t up to the standard he’d set before, but as his every move in those days made history, that scarcely mattered. What I, and much of the rest of the press corps, found particularly striking was the difference between the Democrats’ convention and the Republicans’, which had ended just four days before. Before 2008—at least as far back as I can remember—the two conventions never ran back to back, but consecutive conventions have become the new normal. It’s made for a jarring contrast as Republican conventions grow steadily whiter—effectively, they’re all white and disproportionately aged, not just on the convention floor, but in all the forums and receptions that accompany them—while Democratic conventions grow steadily more racially diverse. At Democratic conventions, the floor, the forums, and the receptions look about half-white; only the press corps remains overwhelmingly Caucasian. This racial contrast only adds to the impression you get from reading the parties’ platforms: that Republican conventions represent America’s past and the Democrats’ foreshadow America’s future.

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