"No other country in the world could understand the American political convention."
- Will Rogers
Spurred on by banner-waving delegates to the 1940 Republican Convention, presidential nominee Wendell Wilkie would give 550 speeches in the remaining 51 days before the November election. The sea of signs - "Homes, Not Air Raid Shelters" ... "Jobs, Not Welfare" ... "Save America First" - told the difference between the priorities of the challenger and the "New Deal" policies of the incumbent, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Alas, with the country still recovering from the Depression at home and fearful of war abroad, Wilkie lost that race to the "Two-Good-Terms-Deserve-Another" Democratic nominee. Wilkie, the exhausted "Voice of the People," was silenced as FDR coasted to an unprecedented third term.
Choosing a president didn't always happen this way. Political parties had little formal structure during America's infancy, and there was no such thing as a nationwide, general election. Through a system dubbed "gentry politics," leading politicians privately arranged the nomination of a succession of aristocrats for president.
The "Electoral College," a constitutional assembly whose members were chosen by the states, then cast the votes that decided who would become president and vice president. Although a few states held general elections, the popular vote had less to do with the electors' decisions than it does today.
Political conventions didn't come into existence until the Anti-Mason Party emerged in opposition to the Freemasons, who were accused of conducting America's business like that of their fraternal order - in secret.
To dramatize their belief that political decisions should be made openly, the Anti-Masons held the country's first national nominating convention in 1831, and the idea caught on. By 1844 a ritual of American politics had arrived, and both - or sometimes three or four - political parties have held nominating conventions prior to each presidential election ever since.
The quadrennial event, however, has become quite an extravaganza, which American journalist H. L. Mencken once described as "gaudy and hilarious ... exhilarating and preposterous ... melodramatic and obscene."
Few would disagree with Mencken's observation today, which might explain why the major TV networks (excluding cable) have reduced their formerly inclusive coverage of the events to a couple of hours in prime time. Apparently, the media moguls are less concerned with informing a yawning populace of Mencken's "gaudy scene" than winning the ratings battle over a few opponents of their own.
I don't know about the rest of "the populace," but I love the conventions. I enjoy the hoopla, the speeches, the comparison of the candidates and their parties, even though I can't remember when any speech or cheering exhibition has changed my already made-up, voting mind.
I listen anyway, do a little cheering for my side and poke a little fun at the other. I guess both sides mean well; some just mean a little more to me - and, I hope, to the part of the country still listening - than the others.
I doubt I've missed watching the conventions since 1960 when I rooted for Richard Nixon over JFK. We were living in Germany by the time Nixon finally got his chance to occupy the Oval Office. Germany, as you may know, is six hours ahead of the earliest time zone in the States, so my convention listening - no American TV there in 1968 - was relegated to the night shift.
Eight years later when we were in Germany again, I was able to watch Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter accept their parties' nominations, thanks to the Armed Forces Television Network which, by then, stayed up all night with me.
And this year? Like many Americans, I watched to see if either side could clean up its act, stop spending 90 percent of its time tearing down the other, and get on with the gravitas of leading the country.
Though, again, my mind is made-up on which party did the least belittling of the other during their four-day dramas on the American stage, I still think it's time for all grown-up, speechifying, banner-waving men and women to do some "be-bigging" for a change, or at least to be more exhilarating than obscene.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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