New York — The hall is as big as a couple of football fields. It is filled with 20,000 people, and the far-off upper rim of the gallery under the rafters is hardly visible in the haze.
A television team from Sweden, a man and a woman, record the emotion swelling up at them from the floor of Madison Square Garden with a kind of awe. They have never seen anything like it. There is nothing like it anywhere in the politics of any other government.
This is, in fact, the opening day of the Democratic National Convention and the stunning drama that unfolds makes the rest an anti-climax. It decides the Democratic presidential candidate and could change history.
It is like a play: It begins with the belief of practically everybody that President Carter has the delegate votes to win a crucial rule of procedure -- that if he wins this he gets the nomination, but that the sequel is up to his rival, Massachusetss Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the man who might now split or unite the party. What will he do?
At 3:30 p.m. the full lights of the hall snap on and the reporter takes his seat in Row D, seat 66A in the press section, looking down on the standards of the states below in the delegates' section; they resemble street signs. The carpet is blue, the seats red, and the lectern projects into the hall like the prow of a ship.
An orchestra plays background music as the plot develops: Will President Carter yield to Senator Kennedy's economic demands in the platform, particularly the proposal for a $12 billion jobs program? He has already agreed to accept minority reports No. 1 through 4, dealing with economic policy.
The convention starts at 4 p.m. . . . But at 4 nothing happens. Delegates ruminate on the situation a little longer: Mr. Carter's approval rating in the latest public opinion poll is 22 percent, the lowest of any president since they started polltaking; he trails Ronald Reagan by 30 percentage points; he has nevertheless beaten Kennedy in 24 to 34 contested Democratic primaries and by every indication now has 300 more than the 1,666 delegates needed for nomination.
National party chairman John C. White stands laughing at the podium like a captain on the prow waving to tugboats beneath. It is 4:07. Rap-rap-rap, he pounds the gavel, then announces temporary and permanent officers: House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill takes his place as convention chairman -- his shock of hair the whitest thing in the hall. The floor is crowded now, the galleries are filling up. (All this is routine.)
Suddenly, as California delegates give the usual perfunctory cheer as their state is mentioned in the roll call, somebody starts a chant: "We want Kennedy!" It holds fire for an electric second, then catches on all over the hall; emotion gushes out like a burst from Mt. St. Helens; the observer suddenly senses the pent-up emotion just beneath the surface.
Another odd thing: 20 years ago, delegates demanded that the aisles be cleared of intruding reporters and television crews; now the observer notes with a shock that the aisles are jammed with them, like a tight subway crowd. Everyone takes it for granted. TV has been accepted.It is part of the show -- or is itm the real show?
The chairman of the College Democrats of America is trying to make a speech; nobody much listens; when Carter's name is mentioned there is a smattering of applause and then a sullen matter: The Kennedy people are militant; they are cornered and fighting back.
Chairman o'Neill announces what everybody knows, that a compromise has already been reached on the economic minority reports urged by Kennedy; there will be no debate; he is in the embarrassing position of running ahead of time. He declares a recess till 6:30 p.m.
The noise from the floor rises now; it is continuous like the surge of the sea; there is something expectant and ominous in it; hysteria is just under the surface.
An hour later, three sharp taps; the convention will come to order. It is 6: 10. Now the crucial issue is declared: Are these several thousand delegates bound by their primaries, or is this a deliberate body? In one case, they will vote for Carter; in the other they might bolt for Kennedy.
The noise is constant. Delegates can't hear the speeches and don't seem to care: Every other sentence they shout or boo. They carry signs -- Kennedy forces with blue pennants, Carter green. A lot of delegates have straw hats; one man has a hat with two donkeys on it; a woman has a sign, "Register Billy; Not My Son," and behind, "Stop Draft." These are articulate people, with causes versed in politics; half are women; they churn about with the television people. It is like an ebullient day on the Wall Street stock market; there is exhilaration in it; they shed inhibitions, yell their emotions.
But this is the singular thing, noted by the Swedish TV team: These commingled rival mobs do not spring at each others' throats; they shout, but don't strike; they are bound together by more things than separate them. Rival speakers plead to them; sometimes the noise sounds like howls from a zoo, often with a rhythmic chant underneath.
"Open-open-open!" referring to an "open convention." Is it a riot or a revolution? Not at all; it is an American political party carrying on government as it has for a century. The Swedes gape.
Now the vote. "The clerk will call the roll. . . ."
The big states can't get their votes right and have to pass -- particularly New York, which drags and drags.
As in everything else, the television audience hears it first. They see the Kennedy family at the Waldorf-Astoria, they see Senator Kennedy arrive; hear the short, graceful statement; he has been in touch with President Carter, he says. He speaks magnanimously. Congressman Morris K. Udall of Arizona hails him in his keynote address. Mr. Udall has a quiet, whimsical style that may assauge passions. The keynote now is "unity." Can they clsoe ranks?
After two years' preparation in a political process unlike that of any democracy, the preliminaries are over.