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Why conventions still matter (+video)

Yes, they have become costly infomercials. But political conventions can clarify – and sometimes even electrify. 

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Asking whether conventions are important is not the same as asking whether they've reflected important things. There's no doubt that since 1832, each of the 44 Democratic and 37 Republican conventions has featured clashes over wrenching national issues.

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The fiercest early battles took place with no spectators and no formal speeches. They usually revolved around slavery: In 1852, after three successive Democratic conventions filled with bitter debate, the exhausted delegates passed a resolution ordering the party to resist any more discussion of "the agitation of the slavery question under whatever shape or color the attempt may be made."

The history of those early conventions is full of compromise, conflict, and, well, deals. Take 1860, when the newly formed Republican Party held its second convention.

The favorite going in: New York Sen. William Seward. But Seward was bitterly antislavery. In those days, Americans thought it unseemly for nominees even to attend the convention. Abraham Lincoln, waiting back home in Springfield, hoped that if Seward didn't win on the first ballot, delegates might switch to someone more moderate – like him. Also in the running: Ohio Sen. Salmon Chase.

By the third ballot, Lincoln was still behind. He had not authorized any horse-trading. But at that point, Chicago publisher and Lincoln backer Joe Medill leaned over and whispered to the Ohio state chair: "Switch your vote. Chase can have anything he wants!"

A deal! The Ohio chair jumped to his feet and got three others to switch their votes, setting off a Lincoln stampede. Delegates began stomping their boots. Up on the roof someone fired off a cannon. Church bells rang. Riverboats tooted, and soon Lincoln was reading a telegram with the results.

"You better shake my hand while you can," he said to people with him. "Honors elevate some men." Later, Lincoln made sure to elevate Chase. He named him Treasury secretary.

Like Lincoln, other 19th-century nominees avoided the conventions. It wasn't until 1924 that one would even deliver an acceptance speech. But in 1896, politicians saw how electrifying the well-prepared convention speech could be.

The country had plunged deep into a depression. Both Southerners and Westerners believed in "bimetallism": having the dollar backed by silver as well as gold. This, they argued, would enlarge the money supply and allow farmers to sell their crops for more money.

The national champion of bimetallism, former Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan, came to the convention in Chicago intending to speak about his pet issue.

He started softly. But as he began talking about farmers, the hall exploded. When he mentioned miners, the cheers were so thunderous he couldn't go on.

At the end, he bellowed the now-famous lines: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." Putting both hands to his head, Bryan stretched out his fingers – like the crown of Jesus. And held that pose for five seconds.

Delegates hurled their coats in the air, then rushed over to lift Bryan on their shoulders and paraded him around for a half-hour – and the next morning made the 36-year-old the nominee.

Michael Berman remembers a more recent speech set against a backdrop of passion. Now president of a big Washington lobbying firm, Mr. Berman played organizing roles in seven Democratic conventions.

But in 1968 he was a young staffer to Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale. The country was torn over the Vietnam War. Outside the Democratic National Convention, also in Chicago, police tear-gassed, beat, and arrested demonstrators – one report called it a "police riot."

Inside, horrified antiwar delegates heard the news. As Connecticut Sen. Abe Ribicoff nominated antiwar candidate George McGovern, a deafening chorus of boos erupted from the regulars, led by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Ribicoff looked into the crowd at Daley. "And if George McGovern were president," he cried, "we would not have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago!"

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