With the political conventions again upon us, we've begun hearing the familiar harangues about their hyperscripted predictability—how they're so lacking in excitement and significance that the TV networks are paring their coverage to the bone. But I wonder: Were conventions ever worth watching? Exactly which conventions is everyone remembering so fondly?
Some people, like Martin Plissner, former CBS News political director, writing in the Washington Post, pine for the early years of network TV, when Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley, roosting in majestic glass berths high above the arena floors, delivered the grandeur of democracy-in-action to a rapt public. But while the novelty of television might have made the conventions of the '50s and '60s seem exciting, the selection of the parties' nominees was just as foreordained as it is today. In fact, the first year that TV crews heavily covered the conventions—1952—was the last year either party needed more than a single ballot to choose a nominee. (The Democrats chose Adlai Stevenson on the third go-round.)
To the extent that there has been any action in the last half-century of conventions, it's been unpleasant action—expressions of the violent divisions that tore apart the country and the parties during the 1960s. In 1964 the "excitement" consisted of the fanaticism of the Republican right rattling San Francisco's Cow Palace, as that long-suffering faction finally nominated one of its own, Barry Goldwater—whose extremism promptly led the party into calamity. On the Democratic side, thrills came from watching the credentials fight between two competing Mississippi delegations, one integrationist, one segregationist—a fight that ended in the spurning of the "Freedom Democrats" and the alienation of civil rights activists.
Is this what we're nostalgic for? Or do we, rather, pine for a reprise of the Democrats' 1972 circus—at which delegates cast their throwaway ballots for Martha Mitchell, Archie Bunker, and Mao Tse-tung, and nominee George McGovern delivered his acceptance speech at 3 a.m. ("prime time in Guam," it was remarked). Or maybe what we really want to see is a sequel to the bloodbath of Chicago 1968. The point is that when there has been unpredictability in the past, it's usually been for the worse.
At this point, some will say that it's not television's Golden Age they pine for but the grand exhibitions of the Gilded Age, when politics enthralled masses of voters, who belted out campaign songs and swarmed the streets in torchlight parades. And yes, some of these conventions did actually select the party's nominee amid debate and spectacle. At the legendary Democratic convention of 1896, for example, the 36-year-old William Jennings Bryan mesmerized the audience with his "cross of gold" speech calling for the coinage of silver, helping him wrest the nomination on the fifth ballot from the unfortunately named Richard "Silver Dick" Bland of Missouri.
Typically, however, the mistily eulogized conventions of perpetual deadlock and internecine jockeying wound up generating some of the most forgettable nominees of all time. The back-room bickering of the 1920 Republican convention may have produced great drama, but it also produced the presidency of Warren G. Harding. Or would we prefer to revisit the Democrats' 1860 melee, which adjourned after 57 ballots with no nominee and helped clear the way for the Civil War? With the exception of Woodrow Wilson, nominated on the 46th ballot in 1912, the roster of nominees from contested conventions reads less like "Who's Who" and more like "Who the Hell Was That?": John W. Davis (chosen after 103 ballots—the all-time record), Franklin Pierce (49 ballots), James A. Garfield (36), James M. Cox (43), Horatio Seymour (22), and so on.
What's more, these wild free-for-all conventions that we mythologize were also—even in their own day—the exception, not the rule. In the history of the Republican Party, 26 of 36 nominees were chosen on the first ballot; only six nominees required four ballots or more. Out of 42 nominees, the Democrats picked 28 on the first ballot (their numbers are higher than the Republicans because they once required that a candidate win two-thirds of all delegates, giving particular factions—usually the South—an effective veto). Between Seymour's nomination and Bryan's, for example, passed 28 years of relatively placid Democratic Party gatherings.
And that—placid, uncontentious predictability—is exactly how the original conventioneers intended it. In the first election for which the major parties held conventions—1832—neither the Democrats nor the had much doubt about their nominees.
The Democrats knew they would renominate the popular president, Andrew Jackson. They convened partly to choose a new vice president but more importantly because, faced with internal sectional strife, party activists wanted to put on a united front and a happy face for the upcoming campaign. "They believed," wrote one, "that the example of this convention would operate favorably in future elections; that the people would ... see ... the good effects of this convention in conciliating the different and distant sections of the country."
The National Republicans met for similar reasons. Previously, a caucus of each party's congressmen had handled presidential nominations, but by 1831 the National Republicans lacked a strong congressional base and feared a caucus wouldn't inspire enough enthusiasm to unhorse Jackson. Their first-ever convention in December 1831, and their unanimous first-ballot nomination of the vaunted Henry Clay of Kentucky, were designed to mobilize anti-Jackson voters and build momentum behind a challenge. (Jackson won anyway.)