Requiem for A Smoke-filled Room

By on July 2, 2012


Anyone reading the history of the United States from 1860 to 1968 knows what dramatic pageantry can unfold at a Presidential Party Convention. Gore Vidal in his famous play ‘The Best Man’, recently revived with James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury, captured the essence of the horse-trading, ballyhoo and behind-the-scenes shenanigans in a hotly contested race that comes right down to the wire at a convention.

Since 1968, US political conventions have diminished in importance as the endless primary process has taken over. Primaries may be more democratic  (though after Kerry and now Romney that seems more debatable) but give me an old-fashioned deadlocked convention for pure theater and pumping adrenalin. Today’s conventions are dull, drawn-out heavily managed Info-mercials with few surprises and few attractions. The last thing any major party wants in 2012 is a hung convention with a lot of back room in-fighting and under-the-table wheeling-and-dealing spilling into the internet. Since no one smokes anymore, they want it all sanitary and neat and smoke-free, even if it means nominating a candidate no one really wants or admires.

John B Davis

The Democratic Convention of 1924 went 103 ballots before they chose the colorless John B Davis to run against incumbent Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge had succeeded Warren G Harding, who was a dark horse candidate. So was James Garfield and Rutherford B Hayes, Alton Parker and Benjamin Harrison. All were selected when the favorites stumbled and dead-locked at the convention. Three went on to become president. Davis was a dark horse who remained very dark as the country decided to “Keep Cool With Coolidge” that year. The dark horses run no more.


Harry Truman enlivened the 1948 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia with ‘Give-Em-Hell’ Rhetoric. He also was the first presidential candidate to throw the choice of his running mate open to the assembled delegates. Many seniors will recall the last really exciting convention, the 1968 Democratic in Chicago with its demonstrations, police strong-arm tactics and hapless newsmen getting escorted off the floor. It probably cost Vice President Hubert Humphrey the general election, but it was fascinating to watch.

This year a number of leading Democrats and Republicans have let it be known that they intend to skip their party’s conventions.  Bully! Modern conventions are a giant waste of tax-payer money and hugely irrelevant in a long drawn-out election process like the one right now. We need more balloons and speeches both filled with hot air like we need a double dip recession. The endless parade of forgettable faces and mummified old stalwarts mouthing the party line pales after about ten minutes. The  presidential candidates have many ways to let us know what is on their ever-changing minds. We will likely to hear it all well before the convention arrives.

My vote would be to chuck both of them this year, use the money to repair America’s crumbling roads and bridges, and rerun in its place Vidal’s movie version of The Best Man with Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Ann Sothern, Paul Ford  and the superb Lee Tracy as a reminder of what democracy used to be like before they drained all the life out of it. Politics is about life and people and their problems. Conventions used to be about solutions, but no more.


Tom Godfrey

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