Oh, for a touch of oratory
Washington — The Democratic convention in New York could be a real stem-winder. It may have all the emotion, bitterness, and uncertainty that the Republican convention in Detroit lacked. It promotes all sorts of speculations on the eve of the fray. For example, which side will the balconies be on? They are sometimes a major factor. In 1860, the legend runs, they were on the side of Abe Lincoln because partisans distributed pro-Lincoln tickets. The galleries in Philadelphia in 1940 certainly helped nominate tousle-headed Wendell Willkie: They stamped and chanted for him through the battle.
The militant galleries at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in 1964 supported Barry Goldwater's conservatism against the so-called Eastern establishment. When Dwight Eisenhower mildly criticized the press the galleries roared their approval and stopped the speech. A little later they booed and hissed moderate Nelson Rockefeller who was merely bringing in a platform amendment; he maintained a disdainful composure while the hostile pro- Goldwater crowd yelled.
Who will the galleries support in New York? Sometimes the convention mood sets the tone of the campaign. In Detroit, everything was hunky-dory on the surface, anyway. The issues did not cause gallery tumult: the omission of the Equal Rights Amendment, the Kemp-roth proposal to cut income taxes 30 percent in three years, the demand for "superiority" over Russian arms.
Now it is the Democrats' turn Thunderclap voices jar the hall; television cameras poke about the half-acre of colorfully dressed delegates; two conventions go on simultaneously -- the one on the amphitheater floor, the second that proceeds in hotel rooms, basement gatherings, the headquarters of state delegations.
The gallery crowd generally doesn't steam up over the platform. What is the platform for, anyway? George Reedy in his insiders' book, "Twilight of the Presidency," says: "The true purpose of a party platform is to determine the outer limits under which the coalition can be held together, and the intense fighting which goes on in every party convention is a reflection of this purpose. The party platform has served its purpose the moment it is adopted."
It is the eloquence, the appeals, the attacks, that stir the crowd. It is curious that this art of oratory which goes back to the Greeks, and long before the written word, is in such neglected state in America no. We have become too mechanical.The first presidential convention that went on radio was in Madison Square Garden in 1924; the first on television in Philadelphia in 1948 (when Truman made his celebrated speech at two in the morning). Television has disciplined the conventions but shows its contempt for them, too. Many times in Detroit the camera broke away from a speech for some item from the convention floor.
Where are the great phrases to today, the rolling period, the dramatic pause, the sequence of rhetorical questions that enlist the audience, the majestic peroration? Bryan made his cross-of-gold speech at 36 and the enthusiasm was so great that the Democrats nominated him for president. By contrast, war hero Gen. Douglas MacArthur came to the 1952 Republican convention with a good chance of getting the nomination and was a flop as a speaker; in this instance he lacked the final skill in the neglected art of swaying men by declamation. It is all very well to say that government proceeds more smoothly without emotion, conducted by quiet technocrats appealing only to logic; but that isn't the way that governments are run, masses moved, or conventions ruled. There is good reason that statesmen should be logical and clear-thinking -- we all feel safer if they have plenty of ballast in the hold -- but wind of eloquence in the sails helps enormously, too.