At the Democratic convention of 1924, throngs of hooded Ku Klux Klansmen (who backed William McAdoo, the southern favorite) and phalanxes of Catholic priests (who supported Alfred E. Smith, the Tammany candidate) stood at opposite ends of Madison Square Garden and howled at one another. The Klan, which had 340 delegates, was powerful enough to prevent Smith’s nomination, and a compromise candidate was chosen after 17 days of tumult. Few of our national political conventions were equally dramatic until the Democratic death-in of Chicago 1968.
That was my first convention (I’ve attended all of them since). Vividly I remember the scores of people who staggered bleeding and weeping through the streets each day, the gray-haired reporters frozen on the sidewalks, goggling at the police violence and saying things like, “But this is America! This can’t be hap -. ” One night the National Guard brought a couple of bazookas into the lobby of the Hilton Hotel, where the police were beating random citizens into the red carpet. I heard a man explaining over a walkie-talkie that he doubted the bazookas would be used: “It’s a very impractical weapon for a hotel lobby. See, they need a long firing range, or else they’ll blow up everyone behind them. ” The Theatre of the Absurd had merged with the Theatre of Cruelty.
This year, seeing shots of Bill and Hillary Clinton looking lost in Macy’s – before they were drenched in silver flakes at the convention hall – made me recall theatrical moments and botched performances at conventions past. Of course both parties strive to attract the major networks, which respond by cutting their coverage every four years. But while the party gurus try and fail to style the midsummer pageants for television, the networks often miss the most compelling themes and scenes. When the Democrats met in Miami Beach in 1972, the women’s caucuses – held in hotel halls and bathrooms-prepared the way for the expanding role of women in American politics. But few viewers would have guessed that immense and exciting changes were underway.
The Republicans’ 1976 convention in Kansas City was one of the most emotional I’ve witnessed. Although Gerald Ford was President, it was Ronald Reagan’s convention: His delegates disrupted the proceedings by bellowing and prancing and bopping in the aisles, honking horns and blowing whistles until Robert Dole ruptured a blood vessel in his right eyeball while pounding the gavel and shouting for silence. When the nomination went to Ford, many middle-aged Reagan supporters sobbed without inhibition: Quite a few had previously backed George Wallace, and now they were racked with a double sense of loss, because they were sure that Reagan was too old to run again. So they acted out their passions – without realizing that the final curtain hadn’t fallen. Although 1980 was a momentous year for this country, an historical tuming point, the GOP’S convention in Detroit didn’t forecast the impact of the Reagan presidency. But there were a few whiffs of prophecy, as when Ginger Rogers entered in a silver gown, exclaiming, “It’s time to dust off our enthusiasms!” Ms.
Rogers’s references to dust evoked the nostalgia that permeated the entire convention: the quotes from Dwight Eisenhower, the return to an America of church spires and war heroes and home-baked verities. But we didn’t know that a faded star was setting the tone for the age of Reagan-which would alter the present while pretending to recreate the past. Certainly Reagan has been our foremost performer. Remember how he appeared on a giant screen at the Dallas convention of 1984, waving at the tiny figure of his wife on the podium? The two saluted each other for 15 minutes while the crowd roared itself into a frenzy.
Meanwhile Jesse Jackson is our most powerful speaker, from 1984 in San Francisco (“God has not finished with me yet”) to 1988 in Atlanta, when he electrified the delegates by bringing Rosa Parks to the podium, then talked about “the economic violence of the Reagan years” and the “common ground” between the poor and the middle class. This year he cast a similar spell, perhaps especially when he said that ” Jesus was born to a homeless couple” and “was the child of a single mother,” and when he led his listeners in the chant of “Keep hope alive!”It used to be that the role of every delegate had some significance: within the caucuses or when the candidates competed for their support. Today they function mainly as an audience, or as props-when the cameras need to feature black or female faces. Amid all the media manipulation and the word storms, conventions can sometimes make you ashamed of the human race.
Yet I can still understand why H. L. Mencken wrote that a convention could be “a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so…preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year within an hour.”