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Guest Host: Frank Sesno
The year 1968 was a turning point in American political conventions. The Democrat’s chaotic affair in Chicago—and the battles outside between police and anti-war protesters—helped Richard Nixon win the presidency that year. And it led the Democrats to alter the way they choose their nominee. The GOP also has seen its fair share of drama since the party held its first national convention in 1856 in Philadelphia. The first ever nominating convention took place in 1831. It was another hundred years before a presidential candidate actually attended one. Today, they’re week-long televised events to promote the party and its rising stars. A panel of experts takes us through the high and low points of America’s colorful convention history.
MR. FRANK SESNOAnd thanks for joining us. I'm Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. With the Republican National Convention underway and the Democrats holding theirs next week, we thought it would be a good time to get a little context from conventions past. The first nominating convention was held in 1831. I don't think we had Google or Facebook then.
MR. FRANK SESNOIt was another hundred years before a presidential candidate actually attended one. Today, they are week-long televised and internet events. They promote the party and its rising stars and, of course, the candidate. Joining me in the studio to talk about the evolution of the American political convention is Michael Kazin of Georgetown University, Eleanor Clift of The Daily Beast and David Karol of the University of Maryland.
MR. FRANK SESNOWell, folks, welcome to you all.
MS. ELEANOR CLIFTGood morning.
MR. MICHAEL KAZINThanks for having us.
MR. DAVID KAROLThank you.
SESNOWe have no shortage of historical parallel or lessons to learn here, it seems to me. And the parallel that's first and most often made, in fact we heard it not too long ago, was to 1968. The country was divided. It was wracked by violence. Law and order became a giant theme. There was internal political chaos. They defined the Republican and Democratic conventions respectively. So Michael Kazin, how valid was that? So much angst around Cleveland. Tell us about the '68 Democratic National Convention. And I understand it, you were there.
KAZINI was and I was arrested there, actually.
SESNOYou were arrested there.
KAZINI was a young radical, young college radical, 20 years old.
SESNOAre you still a young college radical?
KAZINI'm an older college liberal.
SESNOI see. At least we know where you're coming from.
KAZINOkay. '68 was -- the crisis of '68 was much greater, I think, than the crisis is now. The country, of course, there's a lot of terrible things happening in the streets, violence seemingly every week, but people have to remember, '68, there were hundreds of riots in the cities after Martin Luther King was assassinated. Then, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. There were more than 10,000 of us in the streets in Chicago.
KAZINMost of us, unfortunately, perhaps dedicated to trying to disrupt that convention as much as possible. And inside the convention hall in Chicago, Democrats were battling with one another, almost as fiercely as we were battling with the police outside the convention.
SESNOAnd the country was at the height of the war in Vietnam, a draft-driven war, and there was tremendous opposition to that. So the country was a very polarized place.
KAZINYes. And the president was very unpopular. Much more unpopular than Barack Obama is today.
SESNOYou see parallels?
KAROLI see some parallels, but I see important differences as well. At the 1068 Democratic Convention, the party establishment was still in the saddle. They nominated Hubert Humphrey, President Johnson's vice president, even though he hadn't run in a single primary. Today, people we talk about as the Republican establishment are quite alienated in many cases from their nominee and he's nominated because he won in primaries. So the political situation is pretty different.
SESNOEleanor Clift, 1968 was also a turning point for the Democratic party and it lead to some of these incredible reforms, actually, that ripple through today.
CLIFTYes. The two candidates that year, Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, they were both unpopular. Democrats were furious at Hubert Humphrey. They didn't think he separated himself from Lyndon Johnson soon enough on the war. And Richard Nixon was, well, Richard Nixon. Nobody liked Richard Nixon and so...
CLIFTRight. Even Republicans. And so I teach a class at Osher, which is for people 55 and over. A number of my students were there in '68 and if they weren't there in '68, they remember who they voted for and a number of...
SESNOWere they arrested with Michael here?
CLIFTThey wrote in various people's -- Dick Gregory was a favorite write-in name and, you know, one woman said to me that her -- when she told her father she was going to write in Dick Gregory, he said, you're throwing away your vote. Look at these two candidates and put the personalities aside and ask yourself what issues matter to you most and then vote on the issues. And another gentleman in my class said he's regretted that he did a write-in, he's regretted it for 40 years.
CLIFTAnd one of the things -- the cases that the Republican party chairman is making is that people, you have a binary choice or as President Obama said, it's chicken or fish.
CLIFTThere's no vegetarian option. And I think, you know, people are -- remember somehow that there were these mythical creatures running for president in years past. I don't think so. They've always had flaws.
SESNOMichael, there was another thing that came out of '68 from Nixon, and that was the southern strategy and the southern strategy has had tremendous political and cultural ripple effects.
KAZINYes, really, accept for Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, of course, who were southerners, the south has been moving towards the Republicans, really, ever since. And, in fact, Richard Nixon would've won a much larger victory in '68 if George Wallace hadn't been a third party candidate in '68 and he had a convention which nobody remembers, but there was really no opposition to him. One quick point about '68 that -- important that really because Hubert Humphrey didn't win a single primary and they still won the nomination, the Democrats changed the way their candidates were chosen after '68.
KAZINSo since that point, you have to win the primaries really to win the nomination and that's been true for Republicans as well.
SESNOAnd David Karol, this is the point that the reforms that came out of '68 redefined the convention and primary process and have given us what we have today because the Republicans, essentially, took on the Democrats and would govern reforms.
KAROLThat's right. Well, in some cases, there were state legislatures that were controlled by Democrats and they created primaries in response to the new Democratic rules. They didn't have to. They could've had open caucuses, but they chose to have primaries and generally then, Republican primaries were created as well. So even though the Republicans had -- did not have a messy convention in '68, as said, they nominated Nixon, there was some intrigue. But it certainly wasn't that chaotic, but they were carried along by the reforms as well.
CLIFTWhen the primaries, though, presented George McGovern, who then went on to lose on a rather grand scale, that's what lead to the Democrats instituting the super delegates as sort of an insurance policy against the people nominating a candidate who the elites, I suppose, or the party regulars would consider unelectable.
SESNOWhich leads some to say that the process is rigged and others to say that there should be a larger role for party elders in the process so the split continues. If you've got questions, you want to join our conversation as we go on, you can do that at 1-800-433-8850. Email us at email@example.com. David Karol, let's zoom out, all right? Conventions. These, I have to say, I was recently traveling abroad and people I run into who speak another language or are not from our country, shake their heads.
SESNOThey go, how do you select a president? And it goes on forever and you end up with these circus things you call conventions. How did -- you're the historian here. How were presidential nominees chosen in the 18th and 19th centuries? Where do these conventions come from?
KAROLWell, so I'm a political scientist, actually, but that's okay.
KAROLSome of my best friends are historian so...
SESNOMy apologies. My apologies.
KAROLNot a problem at all. Just if people will look for me, they'll find me there. Initially, the first nominees came out of a process called the congressional caucus. This is how James Madison was chosen as Thomas Jefferson's successor and James Monroe was chosen as successor. And it was a very elitist process. Here in Washington, the members of Congress from the party informally chose the nominee. It was really kind of almost a parliamentary arrangement, very much violating the spirit of the Constitution, which is that the president would be independent of Congress.
SESNOAnd so early on, there was an attempt to slay King Caucus, right?
SESNOWhich was when and who did it?
KAROLWell, in 1824, the candidate named Crawford, who was the favorite of the caucus, didn't have that much support out in the country and the important context is the country was becoming more small-D democratic as people moved to the West, new states were established. In those states, you didn't need to own property to vote. And that idea that a handful of -- and I mean, really a handful, like just several dozen men in one room would chose the candidate and maybe the president was objectionable.
KAROLSo candidates who had felt they had support out in the country said, we're not going to honor the caucus. We're going to run anyway. And the system broke down.
SESNOMichael Kazin, you're our historian here. Then, what happened?
KAZINThen, a little party called anti-Masonic Party, which thought that the Free Masons were involved in a conspiracy to control the American government -- in fact, it controlled governments all over the world -- decided to hold a convention to show how open they were, to show that they were not this group of politicians meeting in a room to make decisions which would affect the rest of the country. So they had a little convention in Baltimore. They chose a former congressman to be the presidential candidate.
KAZINHe didn't do very well. But the Democratic party under Andrew Jackson, who was a big small-D democrat as well as a big large-D Democrat, decided this would be a good idea to hold an open convention to re-nominate Jackson in 1832. And it caught on. The group called the Whig Party, which began in response to Jackson who they saw as an arbitrary monarch, decided to hold their own convention and it just took off. And, you know, really Americans enjoyed these conventions.
KAZINThese were -- and they still do, in many ways. I think they were great events. People -- the press covered them as much as it covers them now. Of course, before there was radio and television and the internet. And so they became sort of celebrations of politics in a lot of ways.
SESNOAnd what we don't have, Eleanor Clift, at the conventions anymore, that we had in earlier conventions, are multiple ballots, real drama, a sense of suspense. There was a suggestion we might have that this year, but it didn't happen.
CLIFTYeah, nothing really happens. And it used to be that the vice presidential nominee was announced at the convention. And in 1992, Bill Clinton changed that when he nominated Al Gore ahead of the convention and had this sort of victory procession to arrive at the convention. And so now, it's been the procedure to announce them ahead of time and so that's taken away some of the drama. And what we're looking for in Cleveland is how much dissatisfaction there still is with Trump, how can he deliver on his promise to make this the most entertaining convention ever, and, you know, what will be different and will it be a positive difference or a negative difference.
SESNOOkay. We'll be taking your comments and your questions as we go forward at 1800-433-8850 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. We're talking about conventions past and the lessons and some of the personalities they held and they projected forward and how they will affect things in Cleveland and Philadelphia. Our conversation continues.
SESNOWelcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno, sitting in for Diane today as we talk about conventions past as Republicans gather in Cleveland for their presidential nominating convention. My guests today, Michael Kazin, he is a professor of history at Georgetown University and author of several books, including "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation" and forthcoming "War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918." Also Eleanor Clift a longstanding and truly esteemed journalist, now with The Daily Beast, a regular panelist on the McLaughlin Group, and David Karol, he is associate professor of government and politics and political science at the University of Maryland, co-author of "The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations before and after Reform."
SESNOWe have lots of questions that are coming in to us from Facebook and via email, and if you'd like to join us by phone, you can do that 1-800-433-8850. So let me go right to some of the questions we're getting because they're great. This one's from Tony. I'm interested in the earliest conventions in our history, he says. When were the first ones? What were some of the craziest things happened? Did fights break out?
KAZINWell, as I say, the first ones were, major party convention, was 1832. One of the craziest, it wasn't exactly crazy, but in 1896, actually when the Democrats held their convention in Chicago, a dark-horse candidate, William Jennings Bryan, gave a great, great speech.
SESNOHad something to do with gold, as I recall.
KAZINYeah, and at the end of the speech, he said mankind should not be crucified on a cross of gold. He stretched his arms out and put his head to one side in a gesture, you know, resembling Christ on the cross. And he was actually at the convention and the next day did get nominated by the convention. So that was crazy in a way. And the convention was completely split. There have been walkouts from conventions, a lot of them, Southern delegates who opposed the Democrats supporting civil rights in 1948 walked out of the convention.
KAZIN1912, Theodore Roosevelt, who was certainly the choice of rank-and-file Republicans for another term in the White House, was denied it by the incumbent, William Howard Taft, and he and his people walked out, and he said we stand in Armageddon, and we battle for the lord. So there's been a lot of conflict at conventions.
SESNODavid Karol, 1860.
KAROLYes, Michael just mentioned 1912, when the Republican convention failed, really, to achieve consensus, and people walked out and created their own ticket. That happened before, in the 1860, split between Northern Democrats and...
SESNOAnd there were four conventions in 1860.
KAROLThere were four major party candidates that -- that was the year Lincoln was elected. But the Democratic Party was very divided over slavery, and they could not reach a consensus. Part of the problem was their rules then specified you needed two-thirds of the delegates to be nominated, and that was very hard when there were divisive issues. So it ended up also that there were two conventions, one that nominated John Breckenridge, one that nominated Stephen Douglas. And they both ran, and they both won electoral votes in the fall. So politically that, along with I think the 1912 Republican convention that Michael mentioned, probably the most divisive and cases where the convention failed to do its job for the party.
SESNOAnd because of that -- those -- all those different candidates in 1860, Lincoln did not win with a majority of votes.
KAROLLincoln did not win with a majority of popular votes. He -- but he did win bit Northern states with a lot of population. So it's not clear this is why the Democrats lost. They might have lost just with Douglas. But it certainly did not help them.
SESNOEleanor, you got crazy things at conventions past?
CLIFTWell, I don't go back that far. 1980...
KAZINI wasn't actually there, Eleanor.
CLIFTNo, I actually meant in my knowledge I don't go back that far. 1980, when Ted Kennedy challenged President Carter and refused to raise his arm in that unity pledge that candidates usually take at the end of a convention, and I think Jimmy Carter would've lost to Ronald Reagan in November of that year anyway.
CLIFTBut the Kennedy challenge and his really -- kind of he was a sore loser, that really didn't help. And then 1992, in Houston, when Pat Buchanan basically pledged to take back America's streets, you know, one by one and was a very gun-oriented speech, and Marilyn Quayle, the wife of the vice president, basically lectured American women about staying home and taking care of their families, which of course she didn't do. That convention really backfired.
SESNOAnd 1976 was a remarkable convention, too, with negotiations and this incredible dynamic between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.
KAZINYes because it was the last convention where it wasn't clear who was going to win the nomination because neither candidate, Ford or Reagan, had a majority of the delegates. They had no super-delegates, of course, as Republicans still don't, and so there was negotiation, and Ronald Reagan to try to show he was not as conservative as a lot of people thought, as he really was, chose -- before the convention said he was going to nominated getting Richard Schweiker from Pennsylvania, a moderate Republican, as his vice president.
KAZINAnd that probably hurt him, actually, because conservatives were a little bit disheartened by that.
SESNOAnd from past conventions, too, there are these indelible moments that project forward, I'm thinking of 1964, Barry Goldwater, Barry Goldwater, extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.
KAROLYeah that convention, there were a couple notable things. the Goldwater speech, which, you know, there's a famous quote where supposedly some journalist said to another one, he's going to run as Goldwater, you know. And right, his speech was not one of compromising and welcoming. And also his leading opponent, Nelson Rockefeller, was booed on national television by the Goldwater supporters. So the convention was not projecting unity, and that came back to haunt the Republicans.
KAZINOne more thing about '64, it's fascinating, President Dwight Eisenhower, the former president at that point, gave a speech in which he was very critical of the media. And so people on the floor of convention, the Cow Palace of San Francisco, began pointing at the booths of the major networks up there, about Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley, et cetera, and started yelling them and cursing them from the floor of the convention.
KAROLYou see, everything that's happening now has proud roots and traditions in American history.
KAZINOf course, yeah.
CLIFTRight. Conventions are also a way to showcase the future talent. In 2004, Barack Obama, who nobody had ever heard of, gave a remarkable speech about, you know...
KAZINYeah, I remember a speech by a guy named Bill Clinton in 1988 that went forever. I was on the floor right in front of him, where people were sending signals, you know, cut, cut, cut, and he went on and on and on. He thought -- he was given up as gone and dead out of that, and yet he rose from those political ashes.
CLIFTWell, he went on one of the late-night talk shows.
CLIFTAnd I think they put a timer. He made fun of himself.
SESNOSo here's another note from Ruth. I hope they discuss the convention at which James Garfield was nominated. He didn't seek and definitely didn't want the presidency yet could've been one of the great presidents, David.
KAROLWell, I think the Garfield nomination is illustrative of a phenomenon that we used to have, which was the dark-horse nominee. That year the Republicans were very divided between two factions, and Garfield was at the convention and gave a good speech not as a candidate, as the -- as the question indicated, in those days, this is important to mention, now we remember the candidates' speeches. In those days it was against political etiquette for candidates to be at conventions.
SESNOThey didn't go. It was not considered...
KAROLNo, it was -- it meant that you were seeking...
SESNOYou actually wanted the job.
KAROLYes, you were seeking the nomination, and therefore you were unworthy, and this was a taboo that was only broken by FDR in 1932, and I think he did it because he needed to show, as someone with polio, that he was a man of action. And he flew to the convention in Chicago, which was a great dramatic gesture. But Garfield was a dark-horse nominee. He was a compromise chose that succeeded on one of the later ballots, and that was a phenomenon that we used to have.
KAROLMichael is an expert on William Jennings Bryan, who went to his convention officially not as a candidate, he was there supposedly to support someone else, and there were other dark-horse nominees, and that's the kind of drama that you were talking about earlier in our discussion that used to be possible, where the decision actually took place at the convention.
CLIFTIn the smoke-filled room, actually, literally, too.
SESNOIs there any drama left in conventions, Eleanor, do you think?
CLIFTOh, I think we're a little bit on the edge of our chairs wondering how Cleveland is going to work out because of the overtones of violence and the unpredictability of Donald Trump.
SESNORight, and you'll be in Philadelphia. Is there drama around that?
CLIFTNot really, but once you get there, and, you know, it's a great -- it's like a family reunion, and...
KAZINRemember, one thing about drama, you know, one of the ironies is even though we know who the nominee is at all these conventions now, and we have pretty much, you know, after -- 1976 was the last contested convention. Because they're on television, because there's so much coverage, because people have Twitter and Facebook and everything, in some ways conventions are just as important as they were before, not in choosing the nominee but in framing the campaign.
SESNOI have another question, from Francil from San Antonio, and Michael, as our historian, we'll see if you can get this, and if you can, we'll put you on "Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me."
KAZINIt's a trivia question.
SESNOHow and why did this word convention come to be used in this context?
KAZINHuh, that's a good question. Well, there have been conventions before that were political conventions. There was the Constitutional Convention, People convening. There's a long history -- there was a -- conventions in France during the revolution. So I'm not exactly sure why they call it convention, they could have called it a congress certainly, but that also brings up something that -- one of the reasons why they call them conventions was because they had a precedent, which was the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the various state conventions, which met to ratify or not to ratify the Constitution.
KAZINSo this was -- it was a holy word already in the American lexicon.
CLIFTThe gathering of the tribes to try to generate enthusiasm for the battle ahead, and they do that on both sides.
KAROLI means come together.
SESNOAnd it leads -- it leads, David Karol, to another question about the use of the term convention and the notion that people are convening from all over the country and that there's some business to be done here besides a pro-forma vote. And that leads me to the question of the platform. So now you have this elaborate platform exercise, writing platforms that are longer than the Constitution itself, that are mostly disregarded by most people, or at least that's what a lot of party folks say.
SESNOHas it always been that way? Have there been conventions at which platforms have really mattered or at which other very substantial political business is done?
KAROLYeah, well, Eleanor -- a couple things. Eleanor mentioned before the vice presidential nominations. Those definitely used to take place at the convention because you can't choose the vice presidential nominee until you know who the presidential nominee is.
SESNOSo there was wheeling and dealing done at the convention...
KAROLYes, and this was often a package deal, and the presidential nominee wasn't necessarily at the convention. He might have just been in contact via phone or telegram and might have had less input into who his vice presidential nominee would be. So that happened at the convention, and often very little thought was given, very last-minute, and the platforms, there were floor fights over platforms.
KAROLInto the 1980s at the Democratic conventions, people -- delegates voted on planks at platforms, and they have been divisive in the past.
CLIFTYeah, it's a way for the parties to differentiate themselves, and Hubert Humphrey, I think in 1948, was the first to introduce language about civil rights into the platform.
KAZINThat's right, that's right.
CLIFTAnd it took a long time before it actually had any impact, but, you know, that's where it began.
KAZINAnd the famous speech that Bryan gave in 1896 was part of a debate about the platform.
SESNOAnother convention that's often cited, and we only have a couple minutes here, is 1924, where the Republicans really were butting up against a number of things. Michael, talk about that.
KAZINI think you mean the Democrats in '24.
SESNOYeah, the Democrats had a huge debate about whether to denounce the Ku Klux Klan or not. The Klan at the time was actually stronger in the North than the South and had over two million members. And the vote was decided by one-and-a-half votes of thousands of delegates, really, at the time. And partly because there was this division between rural, Protestant Democrats and urban especially Catholic Democrats. The convention went on and on for 103 ballots.
SESNOA hundred and three ballots.
KAZINA hundred and three ballots, and two weeks it lasted. And it was the first convention to be on the radio, which didn't help the Democrats at all.
SESNOI want to talk about the media and the evolving media, and we will do that, too, but I want to remind our viewers that you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. I'm Frank Sesno. And if you would like to call us, please do so at 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at, to email@example.com. Find us on Facebook, or send us a tweet, however you'd like to do it. We'd love to have you join the conversation.
SESNOEleanor, since you've been covering campaigns and conventions, the media environment has changed entirely, right? So we saw certainly in 1952 but even before that television started coming, 1952 television was a major player, John Kennedy, in 1960 I believe it was, was the first person to really take advantage of that sort of television presence because of his own presence and his speech.
SESNOAnd then cable, the world that I come from, we invaded starting about 1980, 1984, and now we've got this incredible real-time social media phenomenon. How has that changed the dynamic on the floor?
CLIFTWell, in recent years the networks have just packaged the convention in one-hour primetime specials in the evening, and they really have been like infomercials that the convention managers produce. From the perspective of a reporter, when I was with Newsweek, we would, you know, have a suite in a hotel room, in a hotel, and we would have all the various people attending the convention, governors, mayors, the rumored presidential candidates, the wives, and they would come by.
CLIFTWe had breakfasts, lunches, dinners, teas. It was really a way just to network, and then we'd put together the magazine once a week. Now there's all this sort of...
SESNOOnce a week.
CLIFTRight, can -- yeah.
CLIFTRight. And a lot of that work was done in, like, 48 hours, right. Now it's constant, and there's also a constant search for confrontation and things that are going to rile people up that you can put in a tweet.
SESNODavid Karol, do you see that historically, that the media drives not just speed but confrontation?
KAROLOh, I think the media has had a very important role, and even before the reforms that we talked about earlier, the media was changing the nominating process. We didn't actually, in the '50s and '60s, after 1952, the first really televised convention, we didn't have multi-ballot conventions anymore. Candidates -- we didn't have dark horses anymore. Candidates got known through electronic media.
KAROLSo when JFK in 1960 ran, he did not have to defer as much to state party organizations and say I'm not going to contest the delegates in your state, governor, you can be the so-called favorite son, I'm going to go into that primary if you don't support me, and so even then the media was affecting political dynamics, and that's, you know, only continued today.
KAZINYeah, in some ways that's true. I mean, I think we've got to remember in the 19th century, conventions were the big story, after all. And I think, if I remember, 1896, there was something like 400 newspapers that sent correspondents to Chicago to cover that convention. And if you picked up any newspaper in the 19th century at convention time, there would be dozens of stories about it.
KAZINSo it was not weekly, it was daily, and there were betting on who was going to be the candidates in barber shops and in bars, only men betting, of course, at the time, at least only publicly. So that was, it was a great sport in that sense. And so the form of the media has changed. How pervasive the media is, how important it is to framing how people see the parties, that hasn't changed.
SESNONow it's turned into a more choreographed affair, it's turned into more of an infomercial, it's turned into more of an effort to kind of, if I can use the term, propagandize, rather than do the kind of contentious business that was done at earlier conventions.
CLIFTYeah, it -- I think it's a real opportunity for Donald Trump to get in everybody's living room who he hasn't already been in and to project an image of someone who could plausibly be president.
CLIFTThe ratings, they're predicting the ratings are going to be huge. So we'll see.
KAZINI think they will.
SESNOThey will follow the season of huge ratings through the debates. David Karol, very quickly before we take a quick break, an email from Michael. Was the intent of the electoral college to guard against a popular but unsuitable candidate taking over the executive branch?
KAROLI don't think that's really true. I think the electoral college had -- there were a lot of motives that are really no longer operative, like protecting the interest of slave owners. If there had been a popular vote, Southern states would've been really disadvantaged because so few of the population could vote.
SESNOWe will come back to our conversation about conventions past and the shadow they cast over conventions present and future. We're talking about this throughout the hour, and we welcome your calls. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno.
SESNOWelcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno, sitting in for Diane today. Talking about conventions past, our rich and colorful history of politics in this country with Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University, Eleanor Clift, political writer with The Daily Beast and David Karol, associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.
SESNOAnd we have -- the phones are open for you. If you want to join us at 1-800-433-8850 or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm gonna go right to the phones now. And Jonathan, who's been waiting patiently from Arlington, Va. Hi, Jonathan.
JONATHANCan you hear me?
SESNOYes, I can. Go ahead with your question.
JONATHANYeah, so I am a delegate to the Democratic convention next week. And I was curious. I feel like even some of the more contentious primaries of the past couple of cycles, the conventions from those elections have been mostly geared towards unity. But I was curious if there have been movements in these conventions towards fights for policy platforms or for, you know, leadership from -- in the Democratic and Republican Parties.
SESNOOkay. So if I understand question, Michael, I'll let you start us off with this. Themes of unity versus fights over platform positions and how that has defined and dominated conventions.
KAZINWell, this is where '68 does cast a shadow because nobody wants millions of people to tune into the convention and to see people fighting on the floor of the convention about anything. So the fact that there's supposed to be infomercials, if you have disunity, it's a very bad infomercial. And that, of course, is what the Trump people wanted to make sure they could avoid as much as possible. So when there's dissention, they want it to happen before the cameras go on.
SESNOWe've talked about George McGovern and the McGovern reforms in 1968 and '72, but here's a very erudite email from Steve, in Elkhart, Ind. "One myth about 1972," he writes, "is that George McGovern won the nomination because of the McGovern Fraser reforms to make delegate selection more," small D, "democratic. But," he writes, "California was allowed to keep its winner-take-all primary for that year only."
SESNOHe points out, "McGovern narrowly won California against Humphrey. Therefore, got all the state's delegates. Humphrey," he writes, "actually received more primary votes than McGovern, but lost the nomination because of winner-take-all." These somewhat arcane machinations really matter, in terms of winner-take-all proportionate, how they affect the results of the primaries and the conventions.
KAROLYeah, well, the rules definitely matter when it's a close contest. So Donald Trump definitely benefitted from the winner-take-all rules in some places. He won all the delegates, some states, without a -- close to a majority of the vote. That's happened in South Carolina. And in 2008, if you look at the Democratic contests, which was a close one that year between Hillary Clinton and Bernie -- and President Barack Obama, sorry.
SESNOSome might agree with that.
KAROLNo. But had the rules been different, the outcome would have been different. If President Obama, then Senator Obama, did much better in caucuses. Hillary Clinton did much better in primaries, especially close primaries. And she did well in big states. And if the Democrats had winner take all rules, she would have won all the delegates in California, all the delegates in New York and she would been the nominee.
CLIFTWell, and Bernie Sanders did campaign rather successfully, saying that she won because the system was rigged this time, when in fact she did beat him in terms of popular vote. She did beat him in the number of pledged delegates. And she didn't just win the nomination because of the super delegates. And on the Republican side, on the few occasions where Trump came up short in primaries, he blamed the rigged system. So the rigged systems is kind of a cliche coming out of this.
SESNORigged (unintelligible) in the eye of the beholder. Let's go to the phones. And Richard joins us from Jacksonville, Fla. Hi, Richard.
RICHARDHello. Thanks for taking my call.
SESNOThanks for waiting so patiently. Go ahead.
RICHARDNo problem at all. I've got a -- and something that is always interested me was the compromise of 1877. Samuel Tilden won the Democratic Party election, he won -- well, actually he won the election. He won the popular vote and the electoral vote. But it was contested by Rutherford B. Hayes, that they suppress the black vote. From 1865 to 1877 we saw three Constitutional amendments, 13, 14 and 15, although history now says differently.
RICHARDThose three amendments were written specifically for Africans in America. So the equal protection and the right to vote, as well as the abolishing of slavery. But in a handshake Rutherford B. Hayes was given the election, with the understanding that Tilden would step down and the first act that Hayes would do would be to remove the troops from the South. And everyone knows that opened up the door to Jim Crow.
RICHARDMy thought is that's about to -- history is about to repeat itself. Trump is hammering the racist rhetoric. The Democrats are going to be just like the Republicans, and in a position where they're gonna be forced to compromise.
RICHARDMy question is is that possibility that there's some backroom deals that are going on to benefit the Parties, rather than the people, because of how Trump has been able to capitalize off chaos?
SESNOOkay, Richard. Thank you very much. An awful lot there and some very interesting observations.
KAZINA lot of points there. Well, first of all, you're certainly right about the amendments, the reconstruction amendments between the end of the Civil War and the early 1870s that were passed, landmark amendments. Most important amendments in American history, I think, after the Bill of Rights, giving African Americans citizenship, the right to vote and abolishing slavery.
KAZINActually, the compromise of 1876 was decided by a commission, instead of by Congress, 8-7. And a Supreme Court justice who was nominated by a Republican made the difference. And that's the reason really why Hayes was elected, even though he did win a minority of the popular vote. But backroom deals? I don't know. I mean, that's -- it was a lot easier to have backroom deals at a time when you didn't have social media, daily journalism.
KAZINAlso, I think at the time, you know, people believed in their Party, Democrats, Republicans. I mean, it was -- there were Party marches and torchlight parades and even some places -- of course, this was only when men -- only men were voting at the time. It was considered unmanly to be an Independent. And so I think where was a sense in which if a Party wanted to do something, whether, from our point of view today, good or bad, it was okay because it was your Party. Whereas I think people are much less willing to let the Parties decide, to quote David's book, than they were.
KAROLYeah, I want to follow up on what Michael said. I think the caller reflects this kind of pervasive cynicism and mistrust of political elites and Parties. It's part of American political culture now. So we talk about Hubert Humphrey was nominated. He didn't run in a primary. That was a scandal. In 1952, Adlai Stevenson was nominated on the third ballot. He also didn't run in any primaries. And at the time it wasn't seen as that big a deal.
KAROLPeople accepted that he's the choice of the Party. And it wasn't a scandal or a crisis. Now, Eleanor has mentioned the super delegates, who on -- they can't nominate anyone by themselves. The most they could do is tip the balance in a fairly evenly divided situation. And they've never been that important. And yet, there is a tremendous hostility towards even the idea of super delegates. The idea that you have to register with a Party, which some of the Sanders voters found out in New York.
SESNOBut this gets to the very role of the Parties and the health of the party system that we have in this country. This is just a symptom of that larger discussion and maybe disease, right?
KAROLWell, I -- we -- it's kind of ironic. 'Cause on one hand we have a very polarized system. And even Trump, who is an unusual nominee, is getting most of the standard Republican votes and so on. But people don't like the idea of parties. Even though, in practice, they do vote on party lines.
SESNOLet me go back to the phones. And Stephan, from Orlando, Fla., is joining us. Hi, Stephan. Go ahead with your question.
STEPHANHi, guys. Thanks for taking my call. I had a similar question to the last caller, but it's about the strategy of endorsement versus conceding for a contested candidacy, like Bernie and Hillary. Now, recently he endorsed Hillary, but the coverage hasn't so much shown that he hasn't actually conceded his candidacy. And so my question is how does the strategy of that endorsement versus conceding apply in a Democratic convention and how it actually works.
STEPHANBecause I understood from this article that I read, that he would not have even been let into the convention if he had not endorsed Clinton. And so with all the turmoil that's going on behind the scenes for her in the investigations and so on, can you guys talk a little bit about maybe what in history has shown us? Like, where these contested seats have -- or candidacies, like how it might play out?
SESNOEleanor Clift, why don't we let you take that?
CLIFTWell, to me it's a distinction with a difference, but maybe Michael has a different view of that. I mean, Sanders did give up his Secret Service protection also, at the same time that he was endorsing Hillary Clinton.
SESNOSo you take that as effective consent.
CLIFTYes. And then in 1980, when you had the Kennedy challenge against Carter, Kennedy tried the same thing that the Trump people have tried in Cleveland, unbind the delegates. They had signs with pictures of robots on them and a red slash through them, you know. Shouldn't be -- don't vote like robots. And there was a test vote on the floor of the convention on Monday, Monday evening, the first night of the convention. And I don't believe a single Carter delegate switched to Kennedy.
CLIFTSo Kennedy called President Carter at Camp David at like 10:00 o'clock that night and conceded. Said he wouldn't allow his name to be placed in nomination. So I guess that's when you officially withdraw. If you say I'm not gonna have my name placed in nomination.
SESNOI want to -- before we go back to the calls. I want to just ask each of you if have a favorite or a most-influential candidate acceptance speech at these conventions. You know, I was thinking of the "Cross of Gold" speech, obviously. Or I was thinking…
KAZINWhich was not an acceptance speech.
SESNOWas not an acceptance speech because he wasn't a candidate, right?
KAZINAnd in fact, acceptance speeches used to be given about two or three weeks after the convention, where a committee would come to you and say, would you please accept our nomination.
SESNOIt was like the Prime Minister going to the Queen, right?
KAZINYeah, in many ways, yeah.
SESNOBut since we've had acceptance speeches, Kennedy in 1960, his "new frontier," where he tried to really chart the future. Goldwater we mentioned. Bill Clinton in 1988 when he wasn't a candidate went on forever. When he came back in 1992 and he gave a speech, he was the comeback kid and he -- "I still believe in a place called hope." He tried to tap into that sort of JFK-like, Camelot idealism.
SESNOGeorge H. W. Bush, when he said, to his detriment, "Read my lips, no new taxes." That came back to haunt him. And, you know, he lost a second term. But in terms of either, just remarkable speeches or acceptance speeches, where do each of you go?
CLIFTYou know, I'm sitting here thinking of Al Gore and the kiss he gave his speech and then they had the long kiss.
KAROLRight. The Tipper…
KAZINWhen they were still married.
SESNOWhen they were still married. Right?
CLIFTThey're not -- they're no longer married. Right. Exactly. Frankly, I can't remember any language from any acceptance speeches that I -- that still linger in my brain.
KAROLWell, I think that the Goldwater speech is one of the big ones. And I think FDR flying to Chicago and really breaking the taboo and starting to make it acceptable for candidates to even appear at conventions has to be mentioned.
KAZINAnd the '32 speech was when FDR unveiled the term "A new deal." In '36 he gave probably the most radical speech, acceptance speech a candidate's ever given. He talked about how he welcomed the hatred of big business, in effect. And so there have been some moments like that. But, of course, in both those cases, he could have said nothing and he still would have won the election.
CLIFT1976 Madison Square Garden, Jimmy Carter. "My name is Jimmy Carter and I'm running for president." That's -- were his first words.
SESNOAnd my name is Frank Sesno. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And we are talking today with three remarkable people who are giving us some insight into these previous campaigns. Michael Kazin from Georgetown University, Eleanor Clift from The Daily Beast and David Karol from the University of Maryland. I want to ask you then, in the context of the conversation we were just having. Thinking over time and with this historical perspective, bringing us to today.
SESNOAnd all the controversy and the national mood surrounding these two conventions, starting with Donald Trump. If he's going to break through and be memorable or if he is going to learn from history, what -- if you were his advisor -- I'm not sure you want to be -- what would you be telling him he should be saying in his speech?
KAZINOh, he's got to come across as a little different from the Donald Trump we know, less of a divisive figure. He's got to come across as someone who people can imagine in the White House making sober decisions. And that's hard to do in a speech. But you can change your tone just enough.
KAROLYeah, following up on what Michael said, we've seen occasions in which Trump has given a conventional teleprompter speech at the APAC convention and other times. And I think he'll probably do that. The issue though, for him, always has been, number one, self-control. He kept interrupting himself and going off script at the Pence announcement. And also, he's been unconventional and it has worked for him so far. So…
CLIFTI think we've seen enough of Donald Trump to know who he is. And I'm really uncomfortable with sort of advice telling him to pivot here or there or do this to make himself more acceptable. I don't want to be fooled into thinking he's something other than he is.
SESNOWe have just a couple of minutes left and I want to go to Nate, in Indianapolis, Ind., for our last question. Nate, I understand you're 19 years old, so you are truly the future. So we take your question enthusiastically.
NATEWell, I'm a -- have a question about the two-party system. I mean, I understand the system and I've read some of the Federalist Papers and what Madison and Hamilton said -- had to say about the benefits and detriments of it. But I think we've kind of come a long way from that because I see our country being offered a false choice. We're offered a few candidates that are not that much different.
NATEAnd we see that when Bernie Sanders accepts, you know, accepts that Hillary is gonna…
SESNOSure, sure. So…
NATE…go to the convention.
SESNOSo what is the question you'd like to leave us with?
NATEWell, my question is how is this corruption -- maybe it's just perceived, but how does this affect the actual political change from time to time? Does the convention make a difference, really?
SESNOOkay. David Karol, let me let you take on…
KAROLWell, we're talking about the major Party conventions. There are gonna be other candidates on the ballot. Some of them -- the Libertarians actually had a convention. There's a Green Party. There are other candidates. You're not required by law to vote for one of these two, but one of these two, in all probability, is gonna be the president. And most voters recognize that.
KAROLAnd that's not a, you know, that's not a conspiracy. And other Parties can get on the ballot. When Ross Perot had a lot of support he got in the debates. So the system is actually pretty open.
SESNOMichael, you're our historian here. We learn from history. What are…
SESNOWell, we hope we learn from history.
CLIFTNo. We repeat it.
SESNOOr we repeat it. But we should certainly be learning from it. What lessons do you think that we should take from our historical past, from conventions past, as we move into these next two very uncertain and probably tumultuous political weeks?
KAZINI guess I'd say the main lesson is to let it happen. I think it's really important that -- I like to have more debates and conventions, actually. I think people learn about -- 'cause after all, presidential elections and the campaign before the elections, are the only time that most Americans who really spend a lot of time thinking about politics. And politics matters. Politics is about who we are as a nation. It's about us, who are a democracy.
KAZINAnd I think it's -- I would rather actually have some fights on the floor of the convention, on both conventions. I'd rather Hillary and Sanders have fought it out, even though it might have hurt them, because at least people would learn something in a way they probably don't learn from the primary campaign.
SESNOAnd this is what lets the democracy breathe. Eleanor, you've got 10 seconds.
CLIFTI would just say buyer beware.
CLIFTJust buyer beware.
SESNOHealthy political skepticism.
SESNOWhich you'll be taking to Philadelphia when you go.
SESNOWell, thanks to all of you. Michael Kazin and Eleanor Clift, David Karol, it was a great conversation. And to our listeners who called in and who wrote in, thanks for your questions. You add a great perspective to the conversation as well. You've been listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno. Have a very pleasant day and watch the conventions with Eleanor Clift's healthy skepticism.
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