Conventions: boisterous, often full of nonsense, and sometimes historic

A famous story is told about H. L. Mencken covering the sweltering Madison Square Garden Democratic convention in 1924: At the 100th ballot in the fero cious battle between Al Smith and William G. McAdoo, Mencken wired a lead but one thing: John W. Davis will never e nominated."

Three ballots later the convention nominated Davis. Wipng his brow, Mencken told a colleague, "I wonder if those idiots in Baltimore will know enough to strike out the negative?"

Almost anything can happen at a presidential convention -- and could next week in New York City when Democrats gather here once more in Madison Square Garden. This assemblage -- like the Republican one in Detroit last month -- represents a uniquely American political instrument that probably no other nation could make work. (Often it works surprisingly well.) In modern years it has been tamed by television, and hour-long demonstrations that begin after midnight are things of the past. Even the florid oratory has been toned down. Here is an example of the latter, a fancy bit of alliterative, broken-field running delivered by Ohio's Sen. Warren G. Harding in nominating William Howard Taft in 1912:

"Profession is not proclamation nor palaver! It is not personal pronoun nor perennial pronouncement! It is not the perturbation of a people, passion-wrought, nor a promise proposed! . . ."

Anyone who could deliver a sententious fragment like that, with no perceptible meaning, obviously deserved higher things, and his party nominated him for president in 1920. Democrats picked Ohio Gov. James M. Cox on the 44th ballot, and filled the ticket out with a young fellow named Franklin Roosevelt, who was assistant secretary of the Navy.

"James M. Cox will take us off the rocks!" the Democrats declared hopefully, and columnist Franklin P. Adams put it in verse:

"Harding or Cox, Harding or Cox?

You tell us populi, you've got the vox."

Harding won by a landslide.

There is a great deal of nonsense in the trappings of president nomination conventions. But there is passion, too, and deeply held convictions. And nobody can doubt that history -- somestimes world history -- can turn on the result of four or five frantic days. Other democracies combine their legislative and executive functions and let the rival parties in the legislature screen out and pick the leaders: the prime minister by the majority or the leader of the opposition by the minority.

There is convention-screening in the United States. When Election Day comes, the American votes for an individual (and a party); the Canadian for a party (and an individual). The screen set up by the founding fathers, the enigmatic Electoral College, is today only a scoreboard, not a deliberative body. Twice it has failed to register a majority and the decision has gone to the US House of Representatives (Jefferson and John Quincy Adams).

Nobody can tell in advance whether a convention will be exciting or dull. Most people expected the Republican convention at Detroit to be a ho-hum affair, with candidate and platform decided in advance. But it gave the nation an electrifying 12-hours as Ronald Reagan tried to make terms with Jerry Ford about a Reagan-Ford "dream" ticket. At times it seemed that the television anchormen were virtually running things.

The Democratic convention seems likely, in advance, to be a bitter confrontation. That remains to be seen, however. Certain factors have been working in recent years to take some of the suspense and color out of the unique conventions. The elaborate system of 37 primaries has pretty well indicated who will get the nomination long before the convention meets. And the searching ey e of television has moderated some of the extravagances of the old convention shows. In 1924, Mr. McAdoo's supporters demonstrated around the floor of the garden for 77 minutes, snatching state banners and starting brawls. And when it came time for Gov. Aflred E. Smith's supporters to have their counter-demonstration, they kept it going by the clock until it outlasted McAdoo's. This was no more durable a demonstration than for Woodrow Wilson in 1912, but the latter had the distinction of starting at 3:20 a.m.

Foreigners are stunned by the vast, reverberating conventions. But these are part of the traditional American political pattern. Lord Bryce, in his study, "The American Commonwealth," declared that the institution "is so exactly conformable to the political habits of the people that it is not likely soon to disappear."

Terry Sanford, former governor of North Carolina and present president of Duke Univerisyt, writing in the current Atlantic Monthly, complains of the way Americans pick their presidents. But he would not abolish the convention. "The wild, exciting, emotional characteristics of party acitivity in the selection of presidential nominees are not to be abandoned merely because the process is not orderly or predictable. Adventure, in human terms, is more vital than efficiency. Presidential nominating procedures should exude confidence in people and their capacity for self-government. That is America's indispensable message to the world and our immutable obligation to our heritage."

This seems a strange argument; why cannot the United States make a quieter system work if other democracies do? I remember coming back from the war zone in 1944 to cover the third Roosevelt nomination at Chicago and writing, "It is hard for me to imagine the sedate British engaging in such a scene. . . . But you could put the British Isles in one corner of Texas. These American political lungs were expanded on a continental scheme of things, this scene is a direct descendant of the rough-hewn platform on which Abe Lincoln met Douglas, or the freshcut stump in the wilderness on whic pioneer politicians tried their homespun oratory. Part of the secret is that nobody takes it too seriously. It is the equivalent of a pre-football college rally, a calculated assault on our emotions. In part it creates its own antidote."

Perhaps I have grown more serious since then. I wrote that "it is impossible not to enjoy this gorgeous scene." H. L. Mencken thought so, too, and covered all the political conventions from 1904 to 1948. But as a way of picking a world leader who must deal with foreign governments and control the nuclear bomb? It seems like a strange old-fashioned intrusion into the modern world -- an intrusion that television and prime time have tamed in part, but which still shows its wild frontier genesis.

There may be bitter scenes at the New York convention but hardly likely to exceed those of the past. In the Eisenhower-Taft contest at Chicago in 1952, Sen. Everett Dirksen, a supporter of Robert Taft, made an extraordinary assault on Thomas E. Dewey, who twice before had been an unsuccessful presidential candidate. In the pro-Taft galleries, many conservatives believed that the "Eastern Establishment," symbolized by Dewey, had brought their defeat by FDR and Harry Truman. Gripping the sides of the lectern and with face streaming with sweat, Dirksen turned to face the NEw York delegation directly below him. He lifted his hand and pointed an accusing finger. There were boos as he mentioned Dewey's name.

"We followed you before," he said slowly and deliberately, "and you took us down the path to defeat!"

A split second . . . and then a thunderclap. Anger filled the amphitheater. Feet stamped in the gallery; Dewey defenders replied and fights broke out.Dewey sat with a frozen smile. Police entered to restore order and Dirksen finished his speech, but there was booing all through it. His attack probably assured Taft's defeat.

What a contrast with the harmony at the GOP Detroit convention just concluded! Republicans normally are quieter than Democrats. Emotions run deep nevertheless. At the San Francisco Co Palace in 1964, former President Eisenhower appeared to make a pep-talk and innocently set off an emotional wave -- not against the Democrats but the press. It was inadvertent. He asked supporters to scorn "the divisive efforts of those outside our family, including sensation-loving columnists and commentators. . . ." It was at the end of his speech, there was a stir in the audience, but he went on unheeding. ". . . Because, my friends, I assure you that these are people who couldn't care less about the good of our party. . . ."

The yell stopped him smack in mid-sentence as the convention broke into applause, shouts, boos, catcalls, and horns directed at the media. Ike showed his surprise; his face asked, what have I said? It was odd to sit in the island of the press section while the manifestations of anger surrounded us. On the floor one delegate jumped up and down shouting, "Down with Walter Lippmann; down with Walter Lippmann!" A never had been touched in the forces of Barry Goldwater.

Another outburst occurred shortly after when Nelson Rockefeller rose to explain a platform amendment put forward by the moderates and liberals of the East. He was halted by boos, gallery shourts, "We want Barry!" and klaxon horns. rockefeller waited, grinnng in defiance ("This is still a free country, ladies and gentlemen," he observed). In the campaign that followed, Senator Goldwater made a game but losing fight for his conservative cause. The result was a debacle: Lyndon Johnson, 486 electoral votes; Barry Goldwater, 52.

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