Saturday Snippet: Political conventions ain’t what they used to be

In his excellent book “The Good Years:  From 1900 to the First World War“, Walter Lord chronicled the start of the 20th century in the United States.

He included the Democratic Party convention of 1912, at which Woodrow Wilson was nominated as the party’s candidate for the Presidency of the United States.  From Lord’s account, it was a very lively affair – much more so than the Democratic Party convention we’ve witnessed over the past week.  I thought you might enjoy some highlights about the way it was done, more than a century ago.

At exactly 12:16 P.M. on Tuesday, June 25, Democratic National Chairman Norman E. Mack called the convention to order in Baltimore’s Fifth Regiment Armory. Over fifteen thousand delegates and spectators were packed in the hall, but it’s safe to say that not one of them heard him. That electronic miracle, the public address system, had yet to be invented; anyone who wanted attention depended on megaphones, lungs of leather, and endless patience.

At 12:20 Mack was still pounding his gavel. Completely oblivious of the hammering, Delegate Platt of New Jersey stood directly below, tossing bananas to the crowd. The fruit made a pungent contribution to the already stifling atmosphere, for air-conditioning was something else that hadn’t been invented.

At 12:25 Mack’s weary arm still pounded in vain. On the floor Master-at-Arms Martin now took over. He used the tactics of a lion tamer, prodding and bullying his charges into their seats. Miraculously he began getting results, and by 12:30 the convention was as orderly as it ever would be — a restless sea of sweating people. Despite the heat, the women wore heavy dresses, the men stiff collars and black winter suits. Seersucker was still another marvel yet to come.

. . .

Ohio’s John W. Peck‘s … voice droned on above the hum of conversation, the scraping chairs, the occasional coughing. Driving home one of his innumerable points, he casually observed, “This is the position taken by the distinguished Governor of New Jersey—”

“Wilson!” roared a man in the gallery, and suddenly — incredibly — the whole armory went wild. It was the first time the Governor’s name had been mentioned, and the crowd made the most of it. Senator John Sharp Williams of Mississippi raced to the stage and led cheers with his big planter’s hat. In the balcony the Princeton men yelled their locomotives. The band burst into “Maryland, My Maryland,” and the Baltimoreans went crazy. From somewhere above, a blizzard of Wilson pictures floated down. A lady grabbed one and climbed on a chair. Two men lifted her up and began parading her around. Delegates poured into the aisles trying to follow. Wilson opponents tried to sabotage the demonstration by getting the band to play the “Star-Spangled Banner,” but it took more than the anthem to stop this.

Five… ten… fifteen minutes went by, and still the crowd pushed and shoved. “Good old Texas — 40 votes for Wilson”… “Give us Wilson and we’ll give you Pennsylvania” — dozens of banners surged back and forth in a sea of yelling people. No organized march ever got started simply because there was no organization. This was spontaneity in its purest form.

Twenty minutes passed, and the demonstration at last began to lose steam. But at that moment a great orange and black banner appeared in the west gallery: “Staunton, Virginia — Woodrow Wilson’s birthplace.” The band crashed into “Dixie” and the crowd was off again.

A flying wedge brought the Staunton banner down to the main floor, and the more dedicated tried to plant it on the press stand. Even the pro-Wilson newsmen took a dim view of this — that is, all except L. T. Russell, owner of the Elizabeth, New Jersey, Daily Times. He was for the Governor beyond all else, and threw himself into the fray. Rushing up and down on top of the tables, he trampled typewriters, telegraph keys, and reams of copy.

The reporters cursed and shouted, but nobody did anything until Russell had the audacity to step on even Arthur Brisbane’s copy. The great Hearst editor jumped up, tackled Russell and brought him crashing down on the Alabama delegation.

“Rush up twenty-five men from every police station,” Floor Marshal Farnan frantically called headquarters in downtown Baltimore. But long before Lieutenant Scott’s men arrived, the crisis had passed. Brisbane return to his place and calmly resumed writing as though nothing had happened. Russell was taken in tow by Nellie Bly, invariably identified as “the newspaperwoman.”

The whole demonstration lasted thirty-three minutes, the statisticians said, and the exhausted crowd was ready to believe it.

. . .

The New York delegation was in caucus in an anteroom when the session opened. There were procedural matters to discuss, and everyone knew nothing important ever happened the first few minutes. They were still at it when a white-faced man burst into the room, shouting that Bryan had just introduced a resolution that was an insult to all New York. Murphy’s men tumbled back into the hall and found the place in wild tumult.

“You have heard of bedlam,” McAdoo later recalled, describing the scene. To Josephus Daniels it was like Dante’s Inferno. Hundreds of cursing delegates surged about the floor. One man stood on a chair, shouting that he would give $25,000 to anyone who killed Bryan. Another scrambled onto the stage and stood swearing at the Commoner until he literally frothed at the mouth and was led away by his friends. Hal Flood of Virginia was up there too, dramatically refusing an offered handshake. Down on the floor one man was dashing wildly about shouting, “Lynch him!”

Others seemed to have the same idea. Sometimes Bryan completely disappeared in the midst of the fist-shaking men who milled around him. Big Cone Johnson of the foghorn voice and some of the Commoner’s more rawboned friends rushed forward to protect him. Police and marshals dashed about the floor. The bewildered Ollie James kept pounding his gavel. Slowly the crowd retreated and order was restored.

. . .

At 11:55 P.M. Arkansas yielded to Missouri, and Senator James A. Reed launched a thundering speech for Champ Clark. “Give me no political dilettante,” he sneered, and the Speaker’s delegates yelled in agreement. They were at fever pitch when he finished at 12:25. Into the aisles they poured braying the “Houn’ Dawg Song.” They seemed to keep marching forever — 12:40… 1:00… 1:25.

At Sea Girt [in New Jersey] Joe Tumulty leaned over the special ticker, keeping track of every minute. Pocket watch in hand, he was a picture of dejected agony. Wilson himself seemed hardly to notice. He always had the knack of looking especially calm when others were most excited. Hearing that young Genevieve Clark was riding around the hall wrapped in an American flag, the Governor merely said to his own daughters, “Now you will understand why I wouldn’t allow any of you to go to the convention.”

The demonstration finally ended at 1.30 A.M. — after lasting an hour and five minutes — and the delegates slowly got back to business. Connecticut put up her favorite son, Governor Baldwin… the roll of states continued… Delaware yielded to New Jersey… and at 2:08 A.M. Judge John W. Wescott took the stand to nominate Wilson.

He never even got started. Wilson banners rolled down from the gallery rail… a fifteen-foot portrait of the Governor appeared at the west end… hundreds of shouting delegates poured into the aisles. Texas led the way… then Pennsylvania… then no one could keep track any longer. A half-dozen different parades were under way. Around and around they marched amid an endless uproar of horns, whistles, rattles and Princeton locomotives.

Anything to keep going longer than the Clark men. Some genius set a live rooster loose in the crowd. The band contributed a musical answer to the houn’ dawg — it steadily pumped out “School Days.” From the stand Chairman Ollie James watched benignly. He was a Clark man, but he made no attempt to stop the show. He understood these games… probably enjoyed them more than the issues. And above all, he wanted to be fair. As Wilson told Bryan, “He’s our kind of fellow.”

At Sea Girt Tumulty excitedly studied his watch. At 3:13 A.M. he let out a yelp of joy. The demonstration had beaten Clark’s record. He rushed upstairs but was unable to break the good news. The Governor had gone to sleep.

It was 3:20 before Judge Wescott was able to start speaking… 4:00 when he finished. It was a deeply moving if somewhat flowery effort, but largely wasted on the crowd. The long, hot night had taken its toll. The sweating delegates slumped wearily in their seats. It was so muggy that the steam from their wringing clothes rose in a cloud toward the grimy canopy.

. . .

Sunday, June 30, proved no day of rest; there never was a Sabbath more shattered by deals, plots, bargains, and intrigue. Clark’s able lieutenant “Gum-Shoe Bill” Stone worked on the Harmon and Marshall die-hards. Thomas Fortune Ryan did his best to corral the Underwood men — after all he had given them that $35,000. Charlie Murphy played a subtler game — he engineered a meeting with Mitchell Palmer, suggesting that if he deserted Wilson, he could have the nomination himself. Palmer indignantly declined.

Meanwhile the Wilson forces were far from idle. Senator Saulsbury of Delaware worked on the border states most of the morning. McCombs polished up a promising deal with Tom Taggart of Indiana: if the Hoosier boss would deliver his thirty delegates, Governor Marshall could have second place on the ticket.

McCombs also dickered with Murphy, ignoring the fact that if the Tammany leader did come over, Bryan and his followers would pull out. Small loss, felt Wilson’s manager; he far preferred the scores of disciplined votes that could be instantly produced by a strong political boss. And when these leaders began putting on the pressure — saying they would never fall in line until Bryan was shelved — McCombs quickly called Sea Girt. He explained that he could get those badly-needed Eastern votes only if Wilson promised not to name Bryan Secretary of State.

Wilson was shocked. The whole idea violently clashed with that inflexible Calvinist streak that ran so deeply in him — sometimes his greatest strength, sometimes a heartbreaking weakness. He had showed it as Governor when he risked political suicide by vetoing an unfair grade-crossing bill. He showed it as president of Princeton when he fought his losing battle against Dean West’s separate graduate school. Once over a game of billiards, a faculty friend tried a gentle word of advice: “There are two sides to every question.” Wilson gave him an icy glance: “Yes — the right and the wrong.”

It was the same now. Rejecting McCombs’ suggestion, he turned to Tumulty and sternly declared, “I will not bargain for this office.” It was ironical, of course, that unknown to Wilson, his friends were bargaining all over Baltimore. But in the last analysis, their combined manipulations produced nothing compared to the votes he won as the uncompromising champion of political cleanliness.

The blizzard of telegrams increased — 110,000 that week, 1,182 for Bryan alone — most of them clamoring louder than ever for Wilson. And if there was any delegate who failed to grasp the meaning, the press was happy to let him know. Charles H. Grasty’s Baltimore Sun, the paper read by every delegate, slanted its columns heavily for the Governor. (Old Sun men still enjoy the hatchet job they did on Thomas Fortune Ryan.) The New York World now called Wilson’s nomination “a matter of Democratic life and death.”

Monday, July 1. The weary delegates, the wilted spectators trudged back to the armory for another day of balloting. The band was gone — no more money to pay it — and many of the camp followers were going home too. But if the carnival touch was missing, the battle itself was tenser than ever. Twenty-seventh ballot: no major change. Twenty-eighth: Indiana suddenly bolted for Wilson. Tom Taggart, it seemed, was a man of his word.

Now it was the thirtieth ballot. Suddenly most of Iowa switched from Clark to Wilson… then Vermont, Wyoming, Michigan in quick succession. The armory was in an uproar as the Governor forged into the lead 460-455.

“You’ve passed him! You’ve passed him!” yelled the reporters at Sea Girt. They crowded around Wilson, begging for a statement. “You might say,” he suggested, “that Governor Wilson received the news that Champ Clark had dropped to second place in a riot of silence.”

Oddly enough, the Wilson lead was deceptive. He had gone about as far as he could without a major shift somewhere. But Murphy was out of the question, and the Underwood men still banked on a deadlock. The only hope was Illinois’s crafty old boss Roger Sullivan. His fifty-eight delegates were in the Clark column, but he had occasionally flirted with Wilson’s managers.

Monday night they tried every conceivable pressure. Mrs. Sullivan and his son Boetius — both avidly for the Governor — added their weight. A caucus showed the delegates too wanted Wilson. Finally, Sullivan said he would shift in the morning, but he didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic.

McCombs worried the night away, and by Tuesday morning, July 2, he was near hysterics. “Roger,” he cried, “we’ve got to have Illinois, or I’ll withdraw!”

“Sit steady, boy,” was all the old man had to say. But true to his word, Illinois came over on the forty-third ballot… making the count Wilson 602, Clark 329.

Even now, it wasn’t all over. First, the Underwood crowd had to be won, and never were men more stubborn. They still clung to the hope of deadlock and compromise. All during the forty-fifth ballot McCombs, Palmer, the other Wilson managers feverishly worked on the Alabama delegation. And as the delay grew longer, the wildest rumors spread: Sullivan would shift his vote to Underwood next ballot… no, he would switch them back to Clark… the Speaker was in an anteroom about to make his long-advertised dramatic appearance.

At 2:45 P.M. Ollie James stood by, ready to take the roll for the forty-sixth time. But before he could start, old Senator Bankhead of Alabama got permission to say a few words. Underwood, he declared, wanted an end to sectional prejudice far more than the nomination… Underwood would gladly forgo the honor if the country was united… Underwood never entered the race to defeat any man…

No doubt about it — he was withdrawing. Murphy darted down the aisle to pay his last respects to the Missouri boys — he was abandoning ship. The Clark forces began cursing and heckling. The Wilson rooters rocked the hall with their cheers.

The landslide began. Trying on his new loyalty, Murphy’s lieutenant John Fitzgerald suggested that Wilson be nominated by acclamation. But the Missouri delegates refused — they wanted to cast “one last vote for Old Champ Clark.” Few others were as sentimental. State after state fell in line, including New York.

The forty-sixth ballot ended Wilson 890, Clark 84. Her honor intact, it was Missouri that now suggested the nomination be made unanimous. The delegates roared their approval, and at exactly 3:30 P.M., a hoarse, weary Ollie James shouted above the din, “I declare Woodrow Wilson the nominee of this convention!”

At Sea Girt Joe Tumulty was waiting. At his frantic signal, a band stepped out from behind a clump of bushes blaring “Hail, the Conquering Hero Comes.” Wilson merely asked what the band would have done if he had lost.

Robust politics indeed!  It seems our modern party conventions are tame by comparison.  Whether they’re more honest, or just as subject to underhanded deal-making in smoky back rooms, I leave to the reader to decide . . .



  1. That was back before the "military industrial complex" won.
    Today the media is all owned by the same group of people and generally the choices we get at election time are chosen by the people behind the curtain.

    Trump snuck in and we've had years of them trying to get back to letting the unseen professionals run things.

  2. And that was all to start the process of electing Woodrow Wilson, arguably the worst President in US history — a record which Kamala Harris would like to break.

  3. The "good years" were actually good, all things considering. However, the poison that ended them was already in existence at the time, That poison was the progressive movement that led to foreign interventionism, starting with the Spanish-American war and led us into WWI. The poison manifested itself in the form of Teddy Roosevelt.

    It is worth noting that the progressives at the time were quite forthright and honest in their motivations. The purpose of the progressive movement, as expressed by John Dewey, was to create a "larger purpose" because people seeking happiness and fulfillment through living their own lives and just doing their own thing was deemed to be a bad thing for some incomprehensible reason.

    I believe the modern progressives should be viewed in both this historical and collectivist contexts.

  4. The best Political Convention coverage ever written is by the late H. L. Mencken. Really worth looking up.

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