May 16, 2008

Drama is the Convention For Presidential Nominations

"Must. Go. On."

The breathless headline and an illustration of marathoners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama from Chicago's RedEye this month captured what seems to many to be a never-ending battle for the Democratic nomination for president.

As primary after primary came and went this spring without a clear winner, TV commentators speculated on the possibility of a chaotic Democratic convention.

Through history, Democrats and Republicans have brought a never-say-die enthusiasm for an election. But if you think 2008 is a battle, you ain't seen nothin'.

Consider the 1924 Democratic convention at Madison Square Garden. As the delegates headed to New York, The Chicago Evening Post printed a front-page cartoon of frontrunner Al Smith, New York's governor, declaring: "Hot Fight Looms."

How right the Evening Post was.

There was conflict over prohibition, and an anti-Ku Klux Klan resolution led to fistfights on the convention floor. A record 103 ballots were required before the party had a nominee. The Red Wing (Minn.) Daily Republican chronicled early action: "Take Nine Ballots Without Choice," the paper said, noting "McAdoo in Lead With Smith 2nd."

But the candidacies of William McAdoo and Smith went by the wayside. John W. Davis of West Virginia finally was nominated during the first convention broadcast by radio. He ran against President Calvin Coolidge in the general election and lost.

Beyond the fistfights of 1924, there has been horse-trading and horseplay, infighting and interference and disagreement and dissent at conventions. There was the violence of the 1968 Democratic convention, the all-night sessions of 1972 and the nastiness of 1980.

Conflict marked the Democratic convention of 1896, when a debate over currency — gold vs. silver — dominated discussions.

"On the eve of the Democratic national convention … all is confusion," the July 7 Houston Daily Post said. The Daily Post story from Chicago had a three-deck headline that began "Deadlock Seems Inevitable" and added: "The Fight Will Begin After the Prayer." In the end, skillful orator William Jennings Bryan was chosen the nominee on the fifth ballot. But it was Republican William McKinley who became the 25th president.

The Washington Afro American reported in its July 13, 1948, edition that President Harry Truman had gained the Democratic nomination, but "Confusion Reigns." Concerned about a strong civil-rights platform, Southern delegates lobbied for states' rights. When they failed, delegates from Mississippi and Alabama walked out. In a November election made memorable by an error in a Chicago Daily Tribune headline, Truman defeated Republican Thomas Dewey.

Storming out of a convention wasn't an original idea. In 1860, delegates to a brokered Democratic convention in Charleston, S.C., fought over the issue of slavery in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Delegates from nine Southern states left. Without agreement on a nominee, the convention was adjourned and reconvened in Baltimore the next month. A supplement to The Philadelphia Inquirer profiled the eventual Democratic nominee — Stephen Douglas, an Illinois senator the newspaper called "chiefly remarkable" for his work on territory issues — along with the Republican challenger and eventual president, Abraham Lincoln.

In speculation about the outcome of this year's Clinton-Obama contest, analysts have noted that 1952 was the last convention requiring more than one ballot. Credit TV news coverage for the civility, along with the fact that brokered conventions have led to losses in the general election.

President Harry Truman did not seek re-election in '52, opening the convention to 11 nominees. It took three ballots, all captured on television, to nominate Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson lost in a Dwight Eisenhower landslide.

Telegrams exchanged by the victor and the loser were detailed in the Nov. 5 Chicago Daily Tribune. As if to emphasize how democracy works every four years, Eisenhower wrote to Stevenson: "'It is clearly necessary that men and women of good will of both parties forget the political strife thru which we have passed and devote themselves to the single purpose of a better future. This, I believe, they will do.'"

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