By happenstance, I found myself reading an account of the raucous 1880 Republican National Convention while on my way to Tampa for last week’s quadrennial GOP gathering.
The story of the bitterly divided partisan conclave that ultimately produced James A. Garfield as its nominee appears in Candice Millard’s wonderful “Destiny of the Republic,” the tale of Garfield’s unlikely rise and tragic fall.[i]
The contrast of the melee that was the 1880 Republican National Convention in Chicago with today’s relatively sedate and scripted affairs couldn’t be more stark.[ii]
Garfield had gone to Chicago to nominate his friend and fellow Ohioan John Sherman for President. Sherman was Secretary of the Treasury and the brother of Civil War hero William Tecumseh Sherman, and one of two representatives of the reform wing of a then very much divided GOP.
The GOP’s warring factions were at odds over what had become a pervasive patronage and spoils system that had so thoroughly corrupted the party that the incumbent President Rutherford B. Hayes essentially said ‘to hell with it’ and declined to stand for re-election. Instead, two candidates sought to represent the reformers – Sherman and Senator James G. Blaine of Maine. The defenders of the status quo, the “Stalwarts,” brought back former President Ulysses S. Grant as their standard bearer.
The city that Garfield encountered was a bustling bazaar of a town, on the front-end of a remarkable transformation that would make it middle-America’s most thriving and important commercial crossroads. Chicago had literally just risen from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1871 and the city was poised to be an industrial and political power.
Garfield was known as a gifted orator and his nominating speech so enraptured the delegates that before he was finished, they were shouting for his nomination. The balloting went on and on and on … with the three leading candidates going 35 rounds over two days until the deadlocked convention began to fall, vote by vote, behind the congressman from Ohio.
There may have been no convention since then that was so riven with discord and extended deliberations, but eighty-eight years on, Chicago was again a scene of chaos – both inside and out of the convention hall. This time, it was a Democratic Party torn apart over the Vietnam War and civil rights that carried its intra-familial discord into the 1968 convention. Four years later, in an effort to “democratize” party rules and the delegate selection process, the activist left – the so-called New Democrats – made a hash of the 1972 convention, leaving George McGovern to accept his party’s nomination at two o’clock in the morning – well after most of America, and some of the delegates, had dozed off.
This summer’s events in Tampa and Charlotte are still the closest thing politicians have to a Super Bowl, and they still have a significant catalyzing effect on the body politic. Stars can be born, big stories written, important connections made. The media, while cinching back on coverage bit-by-bit every four years, still consider the conventions American politics’ ground zero. The hall in Tampa was crawling with reporters.
I can personally attest to the important unifying effect the convention can have for a state delegation and attendees as a whole. There was an unmistakable energy and excitement among attendees, and our delegation left with an enhanced sense of community and mutual purpose. It was truly an honor and privilege to be part of such patriotic proceedings and an event that I believe sent forth the next president.
Yet, despite all this, it is fair to ask the question: might there be a better way? At a time when so much in our world has changed so dramatically (largely driven by technology and communications) and the modern political schedule usually assures that a nominee will be crowned by the spring, the formula for national political conventions has remained largely unchanged. Meanwhile, fewer and fewer people outside of the political/media class are paying attention.
According to reports, the Obama campaign briefly considered splitting the Democratic National Committee convention up into smaller events in four different cities. The idea was scrapped, however, as logistically impractical.
Certainly, the GOP Convention did not suffer for the loss of Monday’s session due to Hurricane Isaac. Three days of formal convention activity was plenty and that’s what the D’s will give us this week.
There’s no substitute for bringing the troops together in person before they wage an important campaign. But with fifties of millions of dollars raised and spent on national conventions, it isn’t unreasonable for party leaders to consider creative ways in which the traditional model can be enhanced and those resources deployed more effectively to advance their mission and elect their candidates.
[i] Garfield was the last President to be elected directly from the US House of Representatives. Millard brilliantly recounts his dirt-poor upbringing and rise to power, his extraordinary intellect and humility, and, mostly, the atrocious medical care that led to his premature death following his attack by a crazed gunman only months after his election.
[ii] Millard writes: “When Garfield made his way through the crowded streets of Chicago … he felt not excitement, but a heavy sense of dread. The convention was about to begin the second session of its fourth day, and he had no illusions about what it would hold. Each day had been more bruising than the last, as the crowd had grown louder, the tension higher and the delegates angrier. The viciousness of the convention dismayed Garfield, but it did not surprise him.”