A carefully daffy affair

I remember when Ikee was nominated in Chicago in July 1952. It was unforgettable. The organ gave thuderclap peals.An augmented orchestra played "Dixie." A floor band attacked a Sousa march, and another floor band just went ump-ump-ump. The fellow at the microphone shouted "I-like-Ike!" over 40 loudspeakers. Experiences like that make you a recruit for the Snail Watchers' Society.

Sound effects have toned down since then, I think. This convention at New York has been relatively controlled; the occasional music is from a jazz band that joins the background sound of the audience -- a distinct noise that is hard to analyze; it is like the surge of the sea heard from an adjacent grotto.

Conventions are carefully daffy-affairs. America has had them for 150 years since the Anti-Masonic Party nominated William Wirt at Philadelphia. The extra-constitutional political party, it is argued, has to have an extra-constitutional convention apparatus to legitimatize its candidate.

Now in 1980 America has come through two more of them in Detroit and New York , First off, it is still true, I think, that a reporter can go blindfold into either convention and tell in a minute which party it is. Republicans are more sedate, well-heeled, and conservative (though occasionally they break loose, too , as when Sen. Everett M. Dirksen denounced Thomas E. Dewey, sitting below him, or when a GOP gallery howled at Nelson Rockefeller). Republicans invoke Lincoln , Hamilton, and Roosevelt (Teddy).

Democrats, by contrast, are noisier, more diverse, and more unpredictable; they invoke Jefferson, Jackson, and Roosevelt (Franklin). Over the years Republicans have tended to be the party of the haves; Democrats of the have-nots. When the nation is contended it is more apt to vote Republican; when angry, Democratic. (But 1980 may be an explosive exception to this).

Conventions have changed recently. On the physical side the heat no longer presses down like a wet thumb. Air-conditioning has arrived. Acoustics are better, too. In the past only a leather-lunged orator like Bryan could reach the whole audience; then came early amplification that delivered gigantic thunderclap blows of sound intermingled with random electronic shrieks and screams. Now that problem has been pretty well solved too.

On the political side the primaries, the opinion polls, and television have just about decided the nomination before the convention meets. There wasn't much excitement at the Republican convention, for example, with Governor Reagan the sure winner; even here with the Democrats, the Carter-Kennedy duel ended the first day. How different from past years with half a dozen candidates right down to the final wire (or smoke-filled room); think of the one here in New York in 1924, (the first year of convention radio) which went through 103 ballots. Most of them began: "A-al-a-bama casts twenty-fo' votes for Oscar W. Underwood!"

The presidential convention is the only interval in four years when the governing body of the American political party actually meets. It is a gaudy, rowdy turbulent affair because it must crowd four years' work into four days. It is a cross between a folkmoot and an Indian war dance. Observers have analyzed it for years and come away largely baffled: some think it is plain crazy, others justify it largely because it works. It generally gives the nation what it wants in the White House: an average-citizen-type President rather than a superman. In some way, at great moments, the system has produced first-rate men: Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt. On the other hand, recently the result has been less satisfactory, with a succession of men who served only one term or a term-and-a-half: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford.

Now the Democratic convention joins history. It has accomplished its four chief purposes to write a platform, agree on a leader, transact party business, and generate a degree of unity if not enthusiasm.

Historian James MacGregor Burns argued for conventions: "Stripped to its essentials, the Presidency requires two cardinal political skills: the ability to appeal directly to mass publics, at home or abroad, and the ability to negotiate with rival leaders holding separate and independent bases of power."

Well maybe. I'm less and less certain. I hope sooner or later the whole procedure will be taken out and reexamined. In the meantime two more conventions are over. After Labor Day the real debate will finally start.

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