Some 4000 Republican delegates and party officials are converging in Tampa this week, with Democrats heading for Charlotte next week. Network television stations are allowing only three hours of national coverage for each convention. So voters apparently are just not tuning in, at least for now. And it’s not just some guy named Isaac who is trying to dampen the political enthusiasm. Political conventions just do not stir up national interest the way they have in the past.
The old process of picking national candidates in the proverbial smoke filled room has gone by the wayside in favor of party primaries. In the old days, candidates would spend years wooing state party leaders, who would then select delegates and tell them whom to support. The old system produced Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. The current process gave us George Bush and Barack Obama. You be the judge as to which system has worked out better.
My first Democratic convention was in Atlantic City in 1964. On a summer break from Tulane Law School, I was driving my twelve-year-old Volkswagen convertible up to New York for a summer job, and I stopped in Atlantic City on the way. The Democrats were gathering there in the old civic auditorium on the boardwalk, which for many years was the site of the Miss America pageant.
I was able to park my car about half a block from the auditorium and walk right up to the front door. A guard asked me where I was going, and I said I wanted to join the Louisiana delegation.
“Are you supposed to be with them?” he asked.
“I sure am,” I said. I might have exaggerated a bit, but I really wanted to get in the door.
“Well, then, welcome to Atlantic City, go right in.”
I stood about fifty feet away from the stage where President Lyndon Johnson kept the crowd in suspense until he announced that Senator Hubert Humphrey would be his running mate. Johnson was a cinch to be re-elected, and the Democrats pulled together as one big happy family. What a contrast to what happened four years later.
Four years later, the Democratic convention was held in Chicago. I was living in Ferriday, Louisiana at the time with my wife and our two-month-old daughter, Campbell. On the spur of the moment, we decided to travel to Chicago and visit old friends, so we packed up the car and headed north.
The main party headquarters was at the Sheraton Hotel, which faces Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago. I spent my first day at the convention people watching in the lobby, and reading the scores of brochures being passed out by the lobbying delegates of special-interest groups.
Major opposition to the Vietnam War was building, and a large number of protesters had gathered in Grant Park across from the Sheraton. Confrontations were breaking out between protesters and police officers all around the hotel.
I ran into an old friend from Tulane who was working for Congressman Hale Boggs, a New Orleanian who was the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives in Washington. Off we went to the close by Blackstone Hotel for dinner. The restaurant at the Blackstone was in the basement. Just as we started our meal, I looked up to see white smoke seeping down the stairs into the dining room. My experience in the military told me immediately that it was tear gas, and I knew we had to get out quickly. The waiter had just put down my filet mignon. I grabbed the steak off the plate, slapped it over my nose and mouth, and dashed up the stairs through the tear gas, losing my friend in the confusion.
By the time I reached the street, riots were breaking out up and down Michigan Avenue and all over Grant Park. I knew I could get a better view from the top of the Sheraton, so I headed for the elevator in the lobby. When the doors opened, there were two people inside: Senator Russell Long, and Louisiana Governor John McKeithen. Rumors had been circulating around the convention that McKeithen was under consideration as a possible choice for Vice President on a Hubert Humphrey ticket.
Sticking my hand out, I introduced myself. “Governor, I’m Jim Brown from Ferriday.” McKeithen smiled. He was visibly surprised.
“Why Jim, what are you doing up here?” he asked.
“Governor,” I said, “I came all the way up here to support you for vice-president.”
McKeithen laughed, slapped me on the back, and told me he could not be more pleased.
I later learned that the Senator and the Governor had been on their way up to Vice President Humphrey’s suite to urge him to put McKeithen on the ticket. When he was not tapped for the job, the Governor left in a huff and headed back to Louisiana.
In 1988, the GOP gathered in New Orleans at the Superdome to pick their nominee. An old friend had a box suite and invited me to join him there to watch the festivities. The President to be, George H.W. Bush, had just completed his acceptance speech and the suite emptied out. I lingered to watch all the celebrating, when the door opened and Senator. Bob Dole walked in.
Dole had lost the nomination to Bush in a heated battle marked by some sharp exchanges. The Kansas Senator had won the first battle in the Iowa Caucuses, with Bush finishing third. But Bush recovered and was unopposed for the nomination at the convention.
“Sorry, I must be lost,” he said. “There’s supposed to be a suite where I can sit a bit, but I’ve forgotten the number.”
“Senator, you’re welcome to relax here.” I offered him a drink and we sat and watched the jubilation and TV commentary. You could tell he was wishing he could have been the nominee taking on Governor Dukakis in the coming fall election.
“Dukakis is leading in the polls now.” I asked, “Can Bush win?”
Dole paused for a moment, and said: “Yes, I believe he will. But that promise about ‘read my lips -- no new taxes.’ That may come back to haunt him in the future if he is elected.”
The Senator was right on the mark. That promise was a big factor in Bill Clinton’s victory over the incumbent President four years later.
As for me, 10 different political conventions are enough. I’ll join millions of Americans at home watching the TV circus, and anticipating a knock down drag out campaign in the weeks to come. And a note to Isaac -- please don’t rain on our parade.