Welcome to the party: American convention follies

Godfrey Hodgson
18 August 2008

The dog days of the United States presidential election of 2008 are over, and at last the convention season is arriving. The Democrats meet in Denver, Colorado on 25-28 August; then the Republicans will hold their conclave in St Paul, twin city to Minneapolis, on 1-4 September (the opening day, 1 September, is Labor Day, traditionally the opening day of the general-election campaign). One of the main decisions that each convention will highlight is the identity of the parties' respective vice-presidential candidate. This, then, is a good moment to reflect on how the role of the nominating convention, and the status of the United States vice-presidency, have changed.
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In 1924, the Democrats took 104 votes to choose their candidate, John W Davis of West Virginia. Passions were inflamed by the conflict between Alfred E ("Al") Smith, the "happy warrior from the sidewalks of New York", and William Gibbs McAdoo, born in Georgia and raised in Tennessee, who had made his fortune building tunnels to link Manhattan to New Jersey, served as Woodrow Wilson's treasury secretary (and married his daughter) - but who was the favoured candidate of the Ku Klux Klan.

Real issues and deep divisions were at stake. The choice between Smith and McAdoo highlighted the oldest and bitterest division in the Democratic Party: the urban, immigrant politics of Tammany Hall and the other big city machines versus the solid, racially intransigent south. Davis emerged as a pure compromise candidate. He had moved far from his West Virginia roots to become a super-successful New York lawyer, founder of the blue-chip Wall Street firm, Davis Polk. He was to appear 140 times before the Supreme Court, once as counsel for the defence of segregation in the great civil-rights case of Brown v School Board. His credentials, however, were no defence against a landslide defeat in 1924 to the incumbent Calvin Coolidge.

The balance of the ticket

It has been many long years since the presidential nomination in either major party has genuinely been at stake on the convention floor, though sometimes the possibility of a surprise candidate emerging at the last minute has spiced the convention; such a frisson was felt when Edward Kennedy was thought to be about to challenge Jimmy Carter in 1980, or that Ronald Reagan would seize the nomination from the incumbent president, Gerald Ford, in 1976. More usually, the party's choice has been determined before the convention meets.

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. He reported the presidential elections of 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976 for various British and American media, and was co-author (with Lewis Chester and Bruce Page) of the best-selling account of the 1968 campaign, An American Melodrama (Viking Press, 1969).As more and more states have adopted primary elections or caucus systems that involve so many voters that they can be seen as virtual primaries, one candidate arrives at the convention with an unassailable majority. This year was different, in so far as the race through the primaries and caucuses left Hillary Clinton close enough to Barack Obama that some of her supporters dreamed of carrying her challenge to the convention floor. But in the end the two candidates and their supporters were sufficiently impressed by John McCain's strength that they realised that if they did not hang together, the party would hang separately.

The convention is not without importance. It brings together the party faithful, both elected officials and backstage operators, in their thousands. The intense discussions, in the convention hall and in hotel bars and suites as well, shapes the mood of the party and influences strategy for the final run up to election day. And it has become the custom for the candidate to choose his vice-presidential running-mate at least before the convention is over.

The historical experience of the vice-presidency has been the opposite of that of the convention. The first of Franklin D Roosevelt's four vice-presidents, John Nance ("Cactus Jack") Garner from Uvalde, out in arid west Texas, said the office was "not worth a pitcher of warm piss". (The saying has usually been bowdlerised to make the comparison with "warm spit", but Garner himself said anyone who believed that was what he said was "a pantywaist", a Texas expression for the effeminate.)

Since 2001 the US has had a vice-president, Dick Cheney, whose relationship with President George W Bush is widely believed to be that of a ventriloquist and is dummy. Sidney Blumenthal has written of Cheney's conduct of the office that it amounts to an "imperial vice-presidency".

Certainly Cheney and his powerful chief-of-staff, David Addington, are known to have been behind many of the most important and (to many) most offensive of the George W Bush administration's policies. They pushed for a definition of the rights of "enemy combatants" captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere that stripped them of all the cherished protections of American law. They pushed, too, for the use of torture on suspected terrorists, and worked assiduously to define torture so as to permit techniques of interrogation, such as "waterboarding" (simulated drowning) that have always been regarded as torture.

Among Godfrey Hodgson's books are The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), and A Great and Godly Adventure:The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffiars, 2007)One reason why the significance of the vice-presidency cannot be dismissed as airily as Garner did is because presidents do die in office; and two such deaths in the last sixty years have reminded Americans that the vice-president stands, as the cliché goes, "a heartbeat away from the presidency".

No one can pretend that it was unimportant that Theodore Roosevelt succeeded William McKinley when he was assassinated in 1900 (rather than Garret Augustus Hobart, McKinley's first vice-president); that Harry Truman (and not Garner, or the notably leftwing Henry Wallace), succeeded FDR, let alone that John Kennedy was replaced by Lyndon Baines Johnson.

As Dick Cheney has understood, the increased importance of the vice-presidency does not only lie in the fact that the vice-president must take over if a president dies in office. Since the Dwight D Eisenhower administration (1953-61), when the elderly president used his eager-beaver vice-president, Richard Nixon, to do a lot of foreign travel in his place, overworked presidents have made a constant effort to find useful work for their vice-presidents.

This process reached perhaps its highest point before Cheney in the relationship between Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Clinton gave Gore important assignments, including responsibility for ambitious ideas of government reform, to an exceptionally well-qualified vice-president; indeed, Gore would have taken over the White House had it not been for the close and disputed 2000 presidential election, with its Florida "hanging chads" and supreme-court dénouement.

Even before he (and until now it has always been a "he") takes over a greater or lesser share of the president's load, however, most modern vice-presidents have performed another vital service. They have "balanced the ticket". Jack Kennedy, for example, would not have become president had Lyndon Johnson not brought the solid south into line.

The flight of the balloons

The choice of a vice-president is critical both for Barack Obama and for John McCain. In what still looks like being a very close election, each candidate needs to consider, in choosing a deputy, how that choice can strengthen his electoral prospects with sections of the electorate.
Among Godfrey Hodgson's recent openDemocracy articles on American politics:

"The United States election: time for ‘change'" (10 January 2008)

"America's change election: reality or mirage?" (11 February 2008)

"'Superdelegates' and the US election" (25 February 2008)

"The lost election year" (15 May 2008)

"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008)

"A game of two halves" (15 July 2008)

"Barack Obama's political tour" (28 July 2008)
Obama is aware that he has not succeeded in convincing many white working- class men that he can be trusted with national security; and voters of that kind are numerous in states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, that will be critical for him if he is to win a majority in the electoral college. McCain, too, has a problem that can be at least partially fixed by the right vice-presidential choice. He is old. If elected, he will be the oldest president to take the oath of office. He needs a young vice-president. If he can find one who will also reassure those "movement conservatives" who are still not convinced - in spite of McCain's many moves toward conservative positions in the course of the campaign - so much the better.

The candidates will not be chosen at the conventions. Nor will the vice-presidential candidates, though the extent to which they are genuinely welcomed and acclaimed by the parties in convention assembled, red, white and blue balloons and patriotic rhetoric both duly inflated - will have their due effect on the campaign.

And still...things can get out of hand.

In Atlantic City, in 1964, Lyndon Johnson planned a coronation for Hubert Humphrey, and ritual humiliation for Robert Kennedy. His plans were upstaged by the angry effort of the (mostly African-American) Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to crash the convention. The MFDP's contingent was led by its combative spokesperson, Fannie Lou Hamer, who pulled up her dress to show where she had been whipped. The ensuing disruption took the nation years to forget.

Four years later, in Chicago, demonstrators against the Vietnam war took over the streets of the Windy City, and mayor Richard J Daley sent his police in to beat them and throw them through plate-glass windows. The watching television audience took note of Daley's arrogant rage, even if they could not lip-read whether what he said to Senator Abraham Ribicoffwas just an honest "fuck off", or whether he added an anti-Semitic epithet for good measure. But the way Chicago 1968 got out of hand certainly contributed to the Republican victory later that year.

So, who the parties choose for the second place in the ticket matters a lot more than it used to. And watch the conventions when the balloons - red, white, blue and metaphorical - go up. Remember Chicago, and Atlantic City, and the Cow Palace in San Francisco in 1964, where the star of Barry Goldwater sank below the horizon, and the star of Ronald Reagan and the new conservative ascendancy first rose into the sky.

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