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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

80 Years Ago in the Garden

Before undertaking the herculean effort of watching and then analyzing the Republican National Convention, I can’t resist the opportunity to flog one of my favorite political books, about a Convention held at the original Madison Square Garden 80 years ago.
Robert K. Murray’s 1976 book, The 103d Ballot, focused on the 1924 Democratic Convention in New York, which took, yes, 103 ballots to nominate a doomed ticket of John W. Davis for president and Charles Bryan (younger brother of The Commoner) for vice-president. The book has been out of print for decades, but is probably available at any decent university or big-city library. Here’s a link to a big PDF file that includes a longer take on the book and the ’24 Convention, under the title of “Unhappy Warriors.”
Today’s conventions are tightly controlled, relentlessly timed affairs aimed at conveying partisan messages through the ever-narrowing lens of network television coverage. 80 years ago, the new medium of radio offered gavel-to-gavel coverage of conventions, while most newspapers devoted massive coverage to all the speechifying. And as Murray amply demonstrated, the uncontrolled nature of the 1924 Convention, and the disastrous impressions it created, began the long, slow, uneven trend towards submerging party differences during the Big Show of party conventions.
At The Garden in 1924, Democrats were deadlocked between the rural, prohibitionist, anti-Wall Street forces that united behind William Gibbs McAdoo, and the urban, wet forces symbolized by New York’s favorite son, Al Smith. There was a frenetic and toxic platform fight on the floor about whether or not to specifically condemn the Ku Klux Klan, considered a “progressive” organization by the populists of that time. It was William Jennings Bryan’s last convention, and it helped make Franklin D. Roosevelt (already the vice-presidential candidate in 1920) a national political figure after his “Happy Warrior” speech nominating Smith.
If nothing else, Murray’s book amply shows that cultural issues did not somehow emerge in 2000 as a source of partisan identification against a “normal” background of class-based divisions. The real aberration in American political history occurred in and after 1932, when the emergency of the Great Depression enabled FDR to create the first grand coalition of low-to-middle income voters since Andrew Jackson.
Check out Murray’s book if you can, and then stock up on the caffeine to watch the latest Garden Party, if you must.

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