Landscape | Spring 2020 Issue

“A Lighter Look” — “A revival or a hanging”

Rick Meyer’s regularly appearing column takes a lighter look at politics and public affairs around the world. This month: “A Revival or a Hanging.”

By Richard E. Meyer

MAYBE NATIONAL POLITICAL conventions should be outlawed. “There is something about a national convention that makes it as fascinating as a revival or a hanging,” H.L. Menken once said. “It is vulgar, it is ugly, it is stupid, it is tedious, it is hard upon both the higher cerebral centers and the gluteus maximus, and yet it is somehow charming. One sits through long sessions wishing heartily that all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell — and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour.”

Politico offers these examples:

In 1860, Democrats got so crazy they had to take a time-out. The issue was slavery. When Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois couldn’t muster enough votes to be nominated, the convention adjourned and departed Charleston for a month and a half. It reconvened in Baltimore, where the party split. Northern Democrats nominated Douglas, and Southern Democrats nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. Both claimed to be the official Democratic candidate.

Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidency.

In 1924, the Democrats met at Madison Square Garden and balloted 103 times before finally choosing compromise candidate John W. Davis over former Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo, who was supported by the Ku Klux Klan, and New York Gov. Al Smith, a Catholic and ardent opponent of Prohibition. Reporters called it a Klanbake. Delegates yelled: “Ku Ku McAdoo!” and “Booze! “Booze! Booze!” They fought fist to fist in the aisles. The Kluxers were “on their tiptoes,” wrote Mencken, “their hands clutching their artillery nervously and their eyes apop for dynamite bombs and Jesuit spies.”

Republican Calvin Coolidge won the presidency.

In 1968, within memory for some of us, the Democrats met in Chicago. Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy had won most of the primaries, but party bosses supported Vice President Hubert Humphrey, tarred with President Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam. Campuses erupted with antiwar protests. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. “The world has never been more disorderly within memory of living man,” wrote columnist Walter Lippmann. The party bosses killed a platform plank calling for peace. In response, several thousand protesters marched on the convention hall. Inside, police, allied with Mayor Richard Daley, roughed up liberal delegates and news reporters. Outside, the police assaulted the protesters. Historian Josh Zeitz recalls: “When Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut rose to denounce the ‘Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago,’ slack-jawed TV viewers observed Daley stand up, jab his right index finger in Ribicoff’s direction, and let loose a string of inaudible obscenities. Those who could read lips made out some of his harangue: ‘Fuck you. You Jew son-of-a-bitch!’”

Republican Richard Nixon won the presidency.

Three nuns walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What is this, some kind of joke?”

No joke at all. These three conventions and their consequences are as real as lightning on a dark night.

Lincoln, Coolidge and Nixon. On the greatness scale, maybe one of three is acceptable.

But Mencken would argue otherwise.

As a renowned journalist and critic of American life during the 1920s and 1930s, he liked to cover political conventions. “He didn’t take them too seriously,” says Danny Heitman, editor of Forum, the magazine of the national academic society Phi Kappa Phi. “He had a low opinion of the intelligence of the average voter, which made him skeptical of democracy.”

In Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment of the Humanities, Heitman writes that Mencken “loved the gaudy pageantry of political conventions, [although he] was wary of what they produced.”

During convention season in 1920, Mencken said:

“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

Richard E. Meyer

Richard E. Meyer

Meyer is the senior editor of Blueprint. He has been a White House correspondent and national news features writer for the Associated Press and a roving national correspondent and editor of long-form narratives at the Los Angeles Times.

Post navigation



Money. Politics. Power.

Martin Gilens imagines a new democracy