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Here We Go Again

Over the past decade, anti-convention talk has surfaced again, but it has been of a very different nature. Indeed, there is a nostalgia, a hunger, for the sort of boisterous (if shamelessly corrupt) free-for-alls that Ostrogorski decried. Any upset, or near-upset, in one of the presidential primaries prompts a round of lip-smacking anticipation from pundits speculating about a brokered convention that will provide a change of pace from the tedium of recent election years.

Modern conventions aren't meaningless, though. Foremost, they bring the candidates exposure. Bob Dole's speech to the nation on August 14 will draw him the largest audience he's ever had. And, in recent times, even with the nominations already decided and the pageantry minutely arranged for the networks, there has been ample room for fateful unpredictability: Pat Buchanan's oratory in Houston four years ago, for example, or Ted Kennedy's snubbing of Jimmy Carter in 1980, or the police riot in Chicago in 1968, each of which colored every subsequent political event of those election years. Even in an age of televised self-consciousness, more than one script is being followed at any convention--and the clash of scripts can help decide elections.

It's true that the conventions usually proceed more or less as planned. Yet in this lamented predictability, today's party gatherings are not deviating from the historical norm but rather hewing to it. No less than ever, today's conventions fulfill their great traditional function, the creation of what Larry David Smith and Dan D. Nimmo call "cordial concurrence" among the party faithful. America's two main political parties have always been, by definition, hodgepodge collections of rival regional and ideological factions. For three-and-three-quarters years out of every four, party factions hunker down and jostle for advantage, only rarely encountering each other in the flesh. Come convention time, though, all sides mix and mingle, to lay aside their differences and try to convince the country (and each other) that they really do have something in common, if only the desire to win the spoils of office. Of course, it's largely a fiction: after Election Day, the jostling starts all over again. But the fiction serves to mobilize voters and moderate our politics--as much today as when the first national conventions gathered in the 1830s.

It is too easily forgotten that the party conventions were originally designed not as struggles for power, but as coronations of pre-selected candidates--precisely what modern critics complain they have become. The splinter Antimasonic Party began the tradition in September 1831, gathering in Baltimore to anoint William Wirt of Virginia as its standard-bearer. Lacking any sitting members of Congress, the Antimasons could not rely on the then-customary congressional caucus to select its nominees; and convening delegates gave the useful impression that the party enjoyed substantial popular support (which, outside New England and parts of upstate New York, it did not). Three months later, the National Republicans, forerunners of the Whig Party, held their own convention, also in Baltimore, and rallied behind Henry Clay. The Democrats followed suit the next May, mainly to ratify Andrew Jackson's decision to replace his fractious Vice President John C. Calhoun with Martin Van Buren. At no point, at any of these conventions, was the outcome seriously in doubt. The whole point, then as now, was to declare unwavering faith in the nominees and to energize the party battalions.

Sectional strains over slavery, however, destroyed the relative harmony in these parties and turned the conventions into fierce, unpredictable contests. The Democrats needed nine ballots to nominate the largely unknown James K. Polk for president in 1844; eight years later, they took forty-nine ballots to nominate Franklin Pierce; and, in 1860, fifty-seven ballots produced no candidate at all, triggering the party schism that paved the way for Republican Abraham Lincoln's triumph, and for the coming of Southern secession.

After the Civil War, rival managers jockeyed for power within both parties-- cutting deals, deploying claques and occasionally resorting to the sorts of dirty tricks that gave the national conventions their colorfully sordid reputations. At the 1876 Republican convention, a rip-roaring speech by the renowned orator Robert Ingersoll on behalf of James G. Blaine prompted some of Blaine's opponents to clamber down to the basement of the meeting hall and cut off the lights, quelling the delegates' enthusiasm. (Blaine, the favorite, lost out to a compromise candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, on the seventh ballot.) In 1896, supporters of William Jennings Bryan packed the Democratic convention's platform debate and erupted after their man's famous "Cross of Gold" address--a carefully crafted stampede that helped lift Bryan to nomination.

Sometimes, even the party managers lost control of the conventions, which led to sweltering, marathon sessions, superheated by the contending factions' rhetoric. At the Democratic convention at Madison Square Garden in 1924, urban, anti-Prohibition "wets," aligned with Alfred E. Smith, squared off against the rural, Prohibitionist "dry" backers of William Gibbs McAdoo, with a shifting array of dark-horse candidates commanding the rest of the delegates' support. After ninety-nine exhausting and indecisive ballots, McAdoo dropped out, and, four ballots later, the nomination finally went not to Smith but to one of the dark horses, John W. Davis of West Virginia, whom Calvin Coolidge duly crushed in the November election.

Despite such delicious lore, though, even the classical convention era wasn't ruled by skullduggery and chaos. It, too, was more often banal than burlesque. Between the Civil War and the onset of the Great Depression, eleven of the sixteen Democratic conventions, and ten of the sixteen Republican conventions, named their presidential nominees on either the first or second ballot. Comity, not conflict, prevailed--often even before the nominating speeches began. Some conventions were downright boring; Will Rogers, after witnessing the 1924 Republican convention, quipped that it could have been conducted by postcard. But what bored Will Rogers delighted the pols, who could proclaim the useful fiction of party unity all over again, and set the electoral machinery in motion.

After the 1920s, the conventions did see a change in tone and in mechanics. Heavy coverage by the new independent mass media--first radio, then television--dampened the flowery oratory and convinced delegates to check their more violent displays of discord. The promise of mass exposure also lured the nominees, who had customarily fashioned a pose of nonchalant aloofness toward the proceedings, to travel, in a dramatic flourish, to the host city and immediately accept the nomination--an opportunity first exploited by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. And the nationalization of American politics that accompanied the New Deal, along with the sectional realignments spurred by the civil rights movement, in turn hastened the decline of state and regional party interests that had been the chief sources of convention intrigue since the antebellum era.

Above all, pre-convention primaries and caucuses came to dominate the delegate selection process. Initiated in Florida in 1904, presidential primaries arose as a democratic cure for boss rule. In 1913, the newly elected President Woodrow Wilson proposed a national primary election bill to reduce the conventions to the functions of declaring the official primary results and constructing the party platforms. Wilson's scheme went nowhere, but after World War II, primaries began to catch on as the surest routes to victory. John F. Kennedy's triumphs in 1960 in the Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries--the only two seriously contested Democratic primaries that year--dispelled qualms about his Catholicism and paved the way for his nomination. Four years later, Barry Goldwater's defeat of Nelson Rockefeller in California proved to be the coup de grace for Republican moderates and liberals. The Democrats' debacle in Chicago in 1968 spurred talk of reform, and both major parties converted fully to primaries as their chief mode of delegate selection (although recently, some state parties have favored caucuses, which they claim more effectively galvanize party activists). In 1996, only the Republicans of Alaska (who met in their own convention) failed to schedule either a state primary or state caucus meetings.

So we have ended up anticipating the precooked spectacles planned for San Diego and Chicago, assemblies that offer no suspense at all about the main issue to be decided, and where the real contest will be not among rival candidates but among the rival television networks in pursuit of ratings. Some points of passing interest may linger: Whom will Dole choose? Will Hillary speak? What entertaining poison will Pat Buchanan inject into the Republican conclave? And there will be curiosities of Ross Perot's Reform Party gatherings to ponder--conventions that will be conducted by postcard, at least in spirit. Otherwise, the delegates at the major conventions will play to the cameras and cheer the speechmakers on cue, with all the scintillating frenzy of a New Year's Eve celebration.

Which is not to say that the conventions will be pointless, but rather that they will be perfectly normal, in keeping with our normal, centrist political times. The drama will not come during the roll calls of the states (a ritual the Democrats might well dispense with this time, and instead choose Clinton and Gore by acclamation), but in the ritualistic communion of the party factions and personalities: Susan Molinari and Ralph Reed singing Bob Dole's praises, and Ted Kennedy and John Breaux doing the same for the president, recreating the useful fiction of party unity. At home and in the convention hall, Democrats will be reminded that they are Democrats; Republicans will be reminded that they are Republicans. And independents will hear from each party that it offers a candidate and a vision that merits their support. At a time when elected officials and the media have eviscerated trust in politics, the public needs these reminders. In this respect, the conventions are as remarkable and necessary today as they have ever been.

Sean Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton University.

By Sean Wilentz