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A different way of defining conventions

There hasn’t been a brokered convention — the kind unhappy Republicans, independents and media elites are dreaming about this year — since the Republicans had their last one in 1948 and the Democrats in 1952.The candidates nominated then, Tom Dewey and Adlai Stevenson, lost the presidency — twice, as it turned out. A brokered convention hasn’t produced a winner since Franklin Roosevelt 80 years ago.A convention becomes brokered if no candidate can be nominated on the first ballot. Thereafter, deals are made and broken and ballots are conducted until someone emerges as the nominee. Sometimes, that someone is a surprise.Brokered conventions were all the rage until primaries came along and spoiled the fun. Although they placed the nominating process in the hands of the party bosses, brokered conventions produced many excellent candidates, along with some real duds.In the latter category, we have the 1920 Republican Convention in which the party bosses assembled in that fabled smoke-filled room in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel and picked Sen. Warren G. Harding as the most malleable of the candidates in a field of not terribly impressive contenders. We know how that worked out. Four years later, the Democrats had their own farce at Madison Square Garden in New York where the party was bitterly divided by Prohibition, with the Wets championing New York Gov. Al Smith and the Drys favoring William Gibbs McAdoo, son-in-law of the late Woodrow Wilson. The convention was also influenced by the revived Ku Klux Klan, which vehemently opposed the Catholic Smith. It took 15 days and 104 ballots before a compromise candidate, lawyer and diplomat John W. Davis, won the by then worthless nomination.Discussing that convention years later, John Kennedy joked that a Massachusetts delegate said they’d either have to find a candidate or a cheaper hotel if the convention lasted much longer.The demise of the brokered convention in the early 1950s coincided not only with the rise of state primaries but also the coming of television. The 1948 conventions in Philadelphia were the first to be televised, reaching 13 states and not many more TV sets on the East Coast. The 1952 conventions were the first to be seen nationwide.These conventions offered their parties a good selection of worthy candidates, far different from the Republican dilemma this year.In 1948, the Republican front runner was the eventual winner Dewey, who arrived in Philadelphia short of delegates but with a formidable group of challengers, Sens. Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg, Govs. Earl Warren and Harold Stassen and a dark horse, Gen. Douglas MacArthur. After Dewey led on the first two ballots, his opponents called for a recess to organize a stop Dewey movement but they failed, and Dewey emerged as the nominee and the prohibitive favorite to win the 1948 election. We know how that worked out, too.Four years later, Sen. Estes Kefauver, who had defeated President Truman in the New Hampshire Primary and prompted his retirement, went to the convention with a dozen wins in 15 primaries. But the Democratic establishment saw him as weak and wasn’t enamored with two other challengers, Averell Harriman and segregationist Richard Russell, either.Stevenson, the governor of Illinois, had refused to seek the nomination but did agree to deliver the keynote address and his witty and stirring speech turned a lot of delegate heads. Truman intervened, convinced Harriman to withdraw and Stevenson to run. He was nominated on the third ballot and lost to war hero Dwight Eisenhower twice.Since then, we have come close to brokered conventions from time to time. The assassination of Robert Kennedy the night he won the California Primary in 1968 eliminated what surely would have been a convention showdown between him and Hubert Humphrey, President Lyndon Johnson’s choice. Sitting presidents haven’t been immune from challenges at conventions either. Ronald Reagan came close to unseating the unelected President Gerald Ford in 1976, and Ted Kennedy tried and failed to do the same to Jimmy Carter in 1980.What was most striking in researching these last brokered conventions was how the Republican Party has changed since the days of Dewey and Eisenhower. While today’s final four of Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul squabble over earmarks and contraceptives, the 1948 Republican Party platform was recommending federal aid to the states for slum clearance and low cost housing, an anti-lynching law and the abolition of the poll tax, international arms control and — get this — “extended Social Security benefits.” A few years later, the party moved south and lost its soul.Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at dahles@hotmail.com.

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