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An Unconventional Convention | The Nation

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An Unconventional Convention

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Thrills in a party convention? After Cleveland it seemed impossible. But Saturday, June 27, 1924, will long stand out in the memories of professional convention-goers like myself. For that afternoon we were treated to the spectacle of what a convention can and ought to be. We were thrilled; we were stirred to our depths by two genuine debates staged as if for the purpose of demonstrating that if one could only get rid of the familiar flummery and foolishness and boorishness and the days of sickening, meaningless "oratory," we could have a quadrennial political gathering that would be worth while. All because men and women suddenly rose up after days of utterly degraded and demoralizing vaudeville performances to declaim with passion about two big subjects. True, they were less debates about party principles than about party policies. It was a battle over the simple question as to whether a political party should say what it meant and mean what it said. It is, of course, an indictment of any party that such a question should have to be discussed, but it is so clearly the nature of the political beast to use platform language in order to conceal its thoughts that it stirred us profoundly to have the old cut-and-dried formalities disappear, to find a convention which had got beyond its bosses and dared to take up questions which aroused it instead of being dominated by the historic expediency of the American political gathering.

About the Author

Oswald Garrison Villard
Oswald Garrison Villard (March 13, 1872-October 1, 1949) was a US journalist who wrote many articles for The Nation. He...

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Parties, when no longer young and reforming, would, if they could, invariably and exclusively use euphemisms--it was my old teacher Barrett Wendell who once told us that euphemism is to language what the fig-leaf is to art, and politicians usually have more nakedness to hide than any other group of men. In this case the politicians had to expose their secret troubles while seeking to hide them. The issues were too burning, the feelings too intense, the outrage too flagrant to be passed over for harmony's sake. So we had the amazing spectacle of a party quickened and galvanized into genuine vitality by the power of two issues which to many of the protagonists involved deep and sacred principles. Yes, as a case-hardened reporter, I admit that I would not have missed that night session for a great deal, and that I got thrill after thrill as though I were the veriest tyro, in hearing men and women say out loud that they would prefer to have their party wrecked and wracked and ruined rather than have it, as Wendell Phillips used to say, silent in the presence of a sin that threatens the very fundamentals of our American life. It was worth days of exhausting heat and still more exhausting platitudes, of hypocrisy, and of hours and hours of driveling laudations of politicians, nine-tenths of whom are now holding higher office than their abilities entitle them to. To see men and women fight like William Pettangall of Maine, Mrs. Carroll Miner of Pennsylvania, and that most amazing Georgian, Andrew C. Erwin, who evoked the most spontaneous and enthusiastic ovation of the convention, was nothing short of a treat. Mr. Erwin is a poor speaker and he was at first misunderstood, but soon that great gathering realized what he was about--"I've been trying," he explained, "for years to get you Yankees to look into this Klan business" and what it meant for a Georgian to take the stand he did. So, like all American crowds, it applauded a brave man as he deserved to be cheered. For once some of the standards were "trooped" to good purpose, a worthwhile parade was formed, and the audience let itself loose.

Yet that plain ocular demonstration that courage pays in American politics, that our people are longing and thirsting for bravery and independence in public men, and that any man who is ready to risk everything, yes, perhaps even his life in Georgia for his convictions is a certain winner, passed over some of the politicians' heads. We were treated once more to whining appeals not to disrupt the party, to remember the innocent but misled members of the Klan whose motives are so good and so high and so patriotic that they have to express them by skulking around at night in masks and nightgowns and discriminating against equally worthwhile or better Americans who happen to be Negroes, or foreign-born, or Catholics, or Jews. The crowd's sympathies were nearly all one way, and besides the men and women of principle the Catholic bosses and senators fought as if to show us what they could do all the time in this country if they only engaged themselves with issues, with genuine reform, with sound political principles, instead of devoting their lives to miserable schemes to placate a voter here and a voter there.

Yet the Klan won by four and a half or five votes. But of what avail is that victory? How ridiculous to tell the country that the Democratic Party did not name the Ku Klux Klan in its platform when speaker after speaker got up and called that abominable society by its correct designations! Mr. Bryan and his Klan allies may really feel that they saved the day and protected the party from disruption. That is ridiculous. Every one of the millions who listened to the proceedings over the radio knows that the heart and soul of that convention were opposed to the Klan and not only wanted it described, but actually described it as it is. If the Klan voters are going to vote in accordance with the attitude of the two conventions, they will vote the Republican ticket because the decadent Republicans side-stepped the issue without debate. The mere technical language of the Democratic platform ought not to hold the Klan votes. They belong in the Republican camp. I hope they will go there, and I believe that their seats in the Democracy will be more than filled by those who will come to take their places and to give their allegiance to a party that is not afraid to talk out in meeting. Mr. Bryan's victory? Well, it was worthy of that great fundamentalist. The futility of the man, the confusion of his talk, his terrible lack of sound political and moral education were never so demonstrated. He is now a pathetic figure, so pathetic one hates to speak of him. Age is beginning to tell upon him, and when he dragged religion, yes, even Jesus Christ himself, into the debate in order to keep the Democratic Party from saying what it meant, he was incredibly sad. Bryan hissed and booed in a Democratic convention! Who would have thought it possible?

Then we had the League of Nations fight, and in this Newton D. Baker undoubtedly distinguished himself--I say it with the more pleasure because I have no admiration for the man himself. Exhausted by days and nights of sleepless labor, his was a marvelous physical achievement. He stirred the delegates so that, as I sat among them, I saw men and women in tears all around me. That was real oratory, though dangerously near the verge of hysteria, dreadfully overemotionalized and accompanied by gesticulations and contortions which revealed the terrible nerve strain the man was under. In more than questionable taste was his assertion that the spirit of Woodrow Wilson looked down from alongside of God's throne and spoke through his, Baker's, lips. And I for one could not forget as he told of having seen hundreds of dying American soldiers in France, dying with a prayer on their lips for someone to build a permanent temple of peace upon their sacrifices--that this same Newton D. Baker was one of the men who sent these youths into a needless and fruitless war; that it was he as well as the others of the Cabinet who planted hate and bitterness in their hearts; that it was he who, in the last analysis, was responsible for the torturing of the conscientious objectors; who consented to the crimes of a military court against the Negro soldiers of the 24th Infantry, now being released by Calvin Coolidge; that it was he who forswore and denied his pacifism and liberalism from the beginning to the end of the war.

But if I could not weep with this man, I could freely and cheerfully admit the fervor and conviction with which he spoke and the logical correctness of his position. His party ought to favor the League of Nations or be against it; it has now resorted to a subterfuge which leads nowhere and will probably be followed in 1928 by a failure to mention the League at all. As things stand, tactically Baker went too far; the Republican newspapers are already harping upon his declaration that defeat for his long-drawn-out and bitterly worded amendment meant the disavowal of Woodrow Wilson by Woodrow Wilson's party. Nor was it wise to denounce so unreservedly as traitors and quitters the men who differed with him on this issue. But here, too, we got a thrill; we had a real debate; we had a speech which stirred the emotions, which tore passion to tatters, which made the delegates think and ponder and weep. And having thought and pondered and wept, whether because of their own volition or because of the cracking of the party whips, they voted two to one against Newton Baker --one wondered if those who wept were allowed to vote. And so the League of Nations is laid on the shelf. The referendum agreed to cannot come to pass in years, if ever, and no one will be happier than the Democratic senators in Washington, for those who are on the inside tell me that there are not over five senators who are really heart and soul in favor of the League. The rest give it lip service because the party tells them to. Probably we shall hear a hundred speeches about the Klan to one about the League in the coming campaign.

All of this, I repeat, made up for the dreary wasted days, days thrown away because the Committee on Resolutions did not at once realize that it could not prevent these issues from coming up on the floor, and that it was worth infinite things to the Democratic Party thus to wrestle with itself and its beliefs. What a contrast that was to the sickeningly dull and dead Republican convention in Cleveland! If those who were present at both had to decide which party merited by vitality and vigor and character the award of the highest offices in the government, the vote would certainly be overwhelmingly for the Democrats. Yet fundamentally we have not gotten anywhere. The platform is barely progressive, not really liberal and not radical in its reasoning or its proposals. The dead hands of expediency and compromise rest upon it; it would have been far better to have enunciated principles and let it go at that. True, economic issues have entered into the platform in unusual degree; there are actually many proposals in it which a few years ago would have been denounced as purely socialistic, such as government supervision of the coal industry, the oil resources, etc. It was amusing to hear everyone assent to the proposal that the government go into the business of manufacturing cheap fertilizer for the farmer when we know how that plank would be denounced in a La Follette or a Socialist platform. At least we are moving toward a recognition of what a role economic issues are playing in our modern life. But I repeat there is no realization of the underlying fundamentals. How one did long for a single straightforward unequivocal stand on a matter like free trade and protection, similar to the admirable promise of immediate freedom for the Philippines and the promise of a popular referendum on war (though the latter was weakened by the weasel words "except in case of invasion").

Upon the minor incidents I have neither space nor time to dwell. It is a pleasure to record that the women have stood out better in this convention than in Cleveland--but no one could have stood out well against such a background as that afforded by the convention of the fit-to-rule. If one Democratic woman delegate in cowardly and unworthy manner changed her vote, but not her beliefs, on the Klan issue, it nevertheless appears that the majority resolution would have carried had she stood to her guns. As a whole, the speaking of the women was far finer than at Cleveland; they seemed of a higher grade. But what a terrible indictment of our public-school system is afforded by such a convention! Out of the sixty or seventy speakers we had to listen to not more than six attracted by the refinement of their voices, the form of their addresses, the charm or the correctness of their diction. In this respect Franklin D. Roosevelt shone. His speech was admirable; his spirit was fine and his courage in rising above his great physical misfortune is surely beyond all praise. Were he physically strong it seems to me that he would be the ideal compromise candidate for the Presidency from the Democratic point of view. As it is, the struggle between McAdoo and Smith is going on as I write, and at this hour no one knows the outcome or can guess when the bosses and leaders will get together and put the delegates out of their misery by sending word who is to be the candidate--unless, indeed, the convention once more takes the bit into its teeth and proceeds to think for itself.

Fortunately, we are not confined to the choice between the Republicans and the Democrats. At Cleveland on July Fourth there will come a happening which will give those free men and free women who, are tired of election by disgust and nomination by exhaustion to vote for one who, whatever his faults may be, is a devoted public servant of constructive mind, who at last realizes that the time has come to cut loose from that which is the Democratic Party and that which is the Republican Party. It is now Robert La Follette's move, and the politicians, yes, the country will do well to watch it.

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