Sabato's Crystal Ball

Convention Memories

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics September 4th, 2008

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NOTE: As we conclude 2008’s two weeks of intense national political party conventions, Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato offers a retrospective on some of the 18 conventions he has attended since 1976. The Crystal Ball will begin our annual election coverage next Thursday, so watch your inbox!

One of the privileges of age is an assumed right to bore others with remembrances. Here are a few of mine about national political conventions.

We are in the midst of convention season, a grand attempt to make interesting two weeks of predictable political propaganda staged for TV. Barack Obama becomes the reincarnation of John F. Kennedy, while McCain takes on the visage of Theodore Roosevelt. Dashes of FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and Reagan will be added for spice. Yes, civic education is well served by the weeks devoted to politics-and we at the Center for Politics celebrate that-but the saccharine quality leaves a disagreeable aftertaste.

It was not always so.

My own political awakening began at my father’s knee in 1960. A World War II veteran who came back to the United States with civic fire, Dad was determined to make me a good citizen. So we watched both conventions together, almost gavel to gavel. Regular programming was suspended and the three networks-the whole of TV at the time-broadcast them live. While just seven years old, I was fascinated by the thousands of shouting adults in crazy hats, parading around the halls with placards and banners. The vote count at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles was dramatic, and John Kennedy did not go over the top until Wyoming was called at the end of the list of the states.

My next three conventions were also viewed on TV. The only parts of the 1964 gatherings that linger in my memory were Barry Goldwater’s “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” acceptance address, which sealed his fate as a candidate too far right to be considered seriously for the presidency, and Lyndon Johnson’s Atlantic City (New Jersey) convention that was dominated not by LBJ but by a retrospective film about the late John Kennedy and an emotional speech by Robert F. Kennedy eulogizing his brother’s presidency. That 1964 would have seen JFK’s triumphant re-nomination and sizeable reelection intensified the agony and the sorrow for everyone.

The comeback of Richard Nixon, and his defeat of George Romney, Nelson Rockefeller, and Ronald Reagan, was the big story on the GOP side in 1968. The “new Nixon” was on display in Miami, and the vapid slogan, “Nixon’s the One”, signified the GOP’s belief that sitting on a lead was its best strategy in a campaign shaped by the failure of LBJ’s policies on Vietnam and the economy.

I almost got to see my first convention as I attended a debate tournament in Chicago in August, right before the Democratic gathering. But the gathering storm of protest sent us all home to anxious parents. Still reeling from the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in June, the party half-heartedly nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey over anti-war challenger Eugene McCarthy, but the real story was in the streets. A blue-ribbon commission later termed the tear-gas-laden melee a “police riot”, and Mayor Richard J. Daley (the senior) sent his troopers after anti-Vietnam demonstrators around the city. LBJ didn’t even attend the convention, while Humphrey emerged a battered nominee who could not quite make up the ground he lost during the convention’s days of rage.

In 1972 both parties met in Miami Beach, and the conventions couldn’t have been more different. Democrats made a nationally televised suicide pact, choosing a weak candidate, Senator George McGovern, in a raucous, divisive event that pushed McGovern’s acceptance address to 3 a.m. on the east coast. By contrast, the Nixon White House-oblivious to the Watergate scandal that would end Nixon’s Presidency two years hence-organized the most sterile convention in American history, utterly devoid of controversy, with every minute pre-programmed by a famous script that even determined the length of applause from the delegates. It was wildly successful for Nixon, thus setting the dismaying precedent that haunts our political conventions to this day: form over substance, harmony instead of an honest airing of differences.

All of that was gone by 1976, and conventions resumed an exciting role in the nation’s politics. Watergate created a hatred of all things Washington that spawned the Presidency of a little known one-term governor from Georgia, Jimmy Carter. As a graduate student working on my dissertation, I finally found a way to attend. I had no approved credentials but wrangled my way onto the floor every single day, once using an ID card of a former Virginia lieutenant governor whose photo did not even vaguely resemble my own. Security was shockingly lax, as this incident suggests, but I had the time of my life, interviewing governors and senators galore as they sat with their delegations, and watching Carter’s acceptance address on the convention floor mere yards away from the podium. I was virtually the last person to leave every night, collecting posters and buttons for a collection of paraphernalia that continues to grow to this day.

The Republican convention in Kansas City was even more exciting, as unelected President Gerald Ford fought Ronald Reagan to the last delegate. Rumors kept sweeping the floor that this group or that state had defected to Reagan, but in the end Ford eked out a win. In mid-week I was collecting my goldmine of banners around midnight when, all of a sudden, President Ford appeared on the floor, heading to the podium to practice his acceptance speech. Along with the other half-dozen stragglers in the hall, I ran to get a handshake-a little too aggressively, according to the Secret Service. While I got a presidential shake, I also got a punch from an agent, and I went sprawling on the ground, as he looked back to make sure I wasn’t the next Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme or Sara Jane Moore (the two would-be Ford assassins from 1975).

How the tables had turned by 1980. Republicans in Detroit just knew that Ronald Reagan would be the next President, long before the polls showed it. Their energy level was quasar-like, and the excitement reached fever-pitch when the news that Reagan and his old rival, Gerald Ford, were considering forming a ticket. The hall was in bedlam before Reagan and Ford wisely decided that the proposed divvying up of the presidency would never work. George H.W. Bush was the second-place substitute, a fateful decision that launched two separate Bush presidencies in time.

Democrats couldn’t have been more miserable at their follow-up convention in August. A vicious battle between President Carter and challenger Ted Kennedy had played out in Carter’s favor, but Kennedy was not reconciled to defeat. The delegates were clearly moved by Kennedy’s “the dream shall never die” speech, and the convention later ended on the sourest possible note as Carter chased Kennedy all over the stage, determined to get a victory handclasp from Ted-one that Kennedy was equally and successfully determined Carter would never secure.

Nothing much improved for the Democrats four years later. Inexplicably, they chose San Francisco, a lovely city but arguably the nation’s most liberal, guaranteeing that the Republicans would label them “San Francisco Democrats”. Democratic nominee Walter Mondale’s call for higher taxes in his acceptance speech didn’t help, and his choice of Geraldine Ferraro as running-mate was a political catastrophe, complete with financial scandals. What I most remember about the convention was how San Francisco didn’t disappoint in fulfilling its image. Somehow, “Sister Boom-Boom”, a transvestite who wore a Catholic nun’s habit, got floor credentials, and I was in the press gaggle questioning him/her about politics. It was nonsensical, but something had to fill the hours.

On the GOP side in Dallas, it was a return to the 1972 script. President Reagan was re-nominated in a flawlessly choreographed conclave. The convention was news-less, as most of them today are, and the election of Reagan never in doubt. So I spent some time at the site of JFK’s assassination, pondering the monstrous evil that had been unleashed from the sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository. It is quite possible that not a single other modern president would have made it to the White House had Kennedy finished two terms. Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush-41, Clinton, and Bush-43 all depended on one another for their elections or successions, and the chain reaction would never have begun without that awful murder in Dallas. Who would the presidents after JFK have been? We’ll never know their identities, or whether they would have governed better or worse than the men who actually got to Pennsylvania Avenue.

The worm seemingly had turned by 1988. Democrats believed that it was their turn, and a pleasant but bloodless Democrat, Michael Dukakis, managed to outlast a large field of candidates to secure the nomination. In second place was Jesse Jackson, and he bestrode the stage like Godzilla, apparently never having been told he had lost. His various demands for convention attention, and Dukakis’s weak reaction to them, were the first hint of Dukakis’s pathetic campaign to come. The Duke’s Atlanta acceptance address was defensive, noting that “this election is about competence, not ideology”, meaning that he hoped his liberalism wouldn’t become the issue. It did.

A few weeks later, Vice President George H.W. Bush almost ruined his convention in New Orleans by choosing the little known and ill prepared Sen. Dan Quayle to be his running mate. I will never forget the afternoon of the selection, when I was in the hall with several UVA students who were helping me conduct research at the convention. We came across the delightful humorist Mark Russell, and my students excitedly gathered around him to hear some war stories. A lovely middle-aged GOP delegate came up and pulled me aside, having noted the hubhub. “Is that Dan Quayle?” she exclaimed, pointing to Russell. Well, no, but that’s how anonymous Quayle was. Bush rescued his situation with the now-infamous, “Read my lips, no new taxes,” a pledge that sold well in the 1988 election but torpedoed him in 1992-once he had proved that lips can lie and he had raised taxes.

Democrats were optimistic by 1992, though cautious after the disappointment of 1988 and the many suggestive scandals of their nominee-to-be, Bill Clinton. But independent Ross Perot, once the November frontrunner, had unexpectedly withdrawn just before the Democratic meeting in New York, thus permitting a consolidation of the “change” vote. At the shrewdly conducted convention, Clinton was re-defined as “The Man from Hope [Arkansas]” and the theme song of his campaign, Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow”, blasted from the speakers at every opportunity. Clinton had been transformed into the candidate of the future.

A disillusioned GOP met later in Houston. Pat Buchanan played Ted Kennedy to Bush’s Jimmy Carter. Buchanan’s protest candidacy had done well in New Hampshire (though he lost) and in a few other states, and his delegates were loaded for bear. From a perch on the floor, I remember most the utter contempt that Buchanan and his delegates had for President Bush, and Buchanan’s deeply divisive convention address got Bush’s already sagging reelection effort off to a terrible start.

Most of the Crystal Ball’s readers recall the more recent conventions, or at least the identity of the nominees, so I will spare you additional memories. Truth is, there aren’t many that matter. In 1996, 2000, and 2004 the conventions on both sides were about as dull and uninspiring as any I have ever witnessed. The 1972 Nixon model has become universal. Nothing is left to chance, everything is sweetness and light, and the special effects and balloon drops are spectacular but sterile. Security is understandably stifling, and the numbers of media people covering these non-events has created gridlock in and out of the hall. Once in a blue moon, a fine speech is delivered, but a couple of days after the convention’s adjournment, nothing comes to mind except the identity of the Veep and a line or two from the presidential nominee’s address.

Maybe one day we’ll go back to the future. As we’ve seen already this year, that’s not likely to happen. Hope springs eternal.