By James M. Perry
I attended every national political convention between 1964 and 2000. The accumulated time spent at these lavish, vulgar, noisy (and sometimes unexpectedly exciting) affairs amounts to more than six months of my lifetime. But what about the ones I missed?
How about 1856, for example, and the first Republican convention, a sort of get-acquainted affair, held in February in Lafayette Hall in Pittsburgh? About all the delegates accomplished was a decision to meet again in Philadelphia in June, where John C. Fremont, "the Pathfinder," was chosen as the party's first presidential candidate. He lost the election to the only president the Keystone State has ever produced, the ineffable James Buchanan. This election --Fremont vs. Buchanan, with former president Millard Fillmore, the last of the Whigs, tagging along as the Know-Nothing choice -- surely involved one of the worst set of candidates in presidential campaign history. Fremont went on to become a blundering Union general in the Civil War.
Imagine being at the Wigwam in Chicago four years later when Republicans, on the third ballot, nominated the unlikeliest, the most amazing president in U.S. history, Abraham Lincoln? Can anyone really imagine either party these days nominating someone as saturnine and as homespun as Honest Abe?
On July 9, 1896, William Jennings Bryan delivered what is widely thought to be the most stirring speech ever given at a national convention. The crowd of Democrats at the Chicago Coliseum went wild. What was the speech about? Good question. It was called the "cross of gold" speech and it had something to do with silver vs. gold, bimetallism, the gold standard, and I'm not sure what else. I have never quite understood what the excitement was all about. Anyway, it stampeded the convention and led to Bryan's nomination. He lost to William McKinley in the fall.
But perhaps the one I would have enjoyed the most was the 1924 Democratic convention in the old Madison Square Garden in New York City that took 103 ballots to nominate one of the grayest presidential candidates ever, John W. Davis, a successful Wall Street lawyer. But the real reason I would have liked to be there was the chance it would have given me to watch H.L. Mencken in action. Reporters of a certain age (mine, in fact) can rarely resist quoting Mencken, "the Sage of Baltimore," when it comes to national conventions. Nobody, not one of us, not even Hunter Thompson, has ever rolled out such inspired purple prose. "There is something about a national convention," he once wrote, "that makes it as fascinating as a revival or a hanging."
It never seemed to bother many of his readers that he was so often wrong. In 1932, covering the 1932 Democratic convention, he wrote, "It would be hard to find a delegate who believes seriously that Roosevelt can carry New York in November or Massachusetts or New Jersey or even Illinois." FDR collected 372 electoral votes, Herbert Hoover, 59.
The story is told that just after Mencken filed a dispatch with the Baltimore Sun saying that if there was one thing certain about the 1924 Democratic convention it was that John W. Davis would "never" be nominated, a breathless message boy raced into the press room and announced, "Davis has been nominated!" Mencken then announced to his amused fellow scribes, "I hope those idiots in Baltimore (his editors) have enough sense to remove the negative." Davis lost to Calvin Coolidge in the fall. Mencken kept pounding away at his trusty Corona typewriter right through the 1948 conventions.
There was something very special about the 1932 Democratic convention in Chicago. It marked the first time a nominee had appeared in the convention hall to accept the nomination. Roosevelt, the governor of New York, flew to Chicago in a Ford-tri-motor, 10-seat passenger plane. You can still watch grainy old film of the plane taking off. I've never seen an explanation of how they got the wheelchair- bound Roosevelt in to the plane – by some kind of ramp, presumably -- or how they strapped him down during the flight, or how they managed to get him off the plane without cameramen taking his picture.
By appearing at the convention, FDR said in accepting the nomination, he had broken tradition. "Let it be from now on the task of our party to break foolish traditions. We will break foolish traditions and leave it to the Republican leadership, far more skilled in that art, to break promises."
James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, will be contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com during the two political conventions. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.