The Foregone Convention

The Foregone Convention

George McGovern carried the day, but the passion was provided by Ted Kennedy.


AP Images
Ted Kennedy provided the convention charisma in a memorable nomination speech.

When the Democratic party handed its nomination to George McGovern at the 1972 convention in Miami, correspondent Robert Sherill reported on Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American candidate to seek the nomination of a major party; explored the diminished role of George Wallace; and served up sharp observations of the protesters outside the convention, who, in stark contrast with 1968, found themselves with nothing to protest.

Miami Beach

On the morning of the second day–looking out at the drizzle, both meteorological and political–John Kenneth Galbraith observed: “The only hope for this convention now is that it doesn’t become totally boring.” It wasn’t totally so, but this tasteless, enormously costly, lukewarm stew of Democratic politics didn’t miss by much.

By the third day things had become so predictable that it was almost a relief when a minor wave of unhappiness washed through the McGovern troops, they having heard that he had promised some POW wives that he would keep troops in Thailand and ships off the Indochina coast until the prisoners were released. In some caucuses that afternoon there was even talk about bolting.

Actually the statement about residual militarism sounded less like something McGovern would say than like something one of his aides, in a smartalecky moment, might have dashed off for the press, in an independent effort to “moderate” his candidate’s position. It wouldn’t have been the first time that one of McGovern’s lieutenants had landed him in trouble; it’s the sort of thing that has made quite a few of his supporters wonder if the old Kennedy gang who surround him may not sometimes be too smart for his good.

Anyway, it was probably time that the true believers learned that their hero would have to be saying some things a little differently in the months ahead. There were clues to this when McGovern’s top assistant, Frank Mankiewicz, took to referring to Humphrey as “distinguished” and to Daley as a beautifully loyal person.

Until the last session and the rousing speeches by Allard Lowenstein, Edward Kennedy and McGovern himself, this convention stirred no passions, and probably that was for the best. But when the endless and abominable rhetoric which still flourishes at these events has little passion to support it, the weakness of the convention hall’s air conditioning becomes noticeable.

There was very little intense lobbying for anything because just about everybody seemed to feel that fate had them by the throat. Exceptions, happily, were Sen. Fred Harris and the National Welfare Rights Organization. But NWRO, that remarkable group of tough mothers who demand $6,500 a year minimum for a family, had been demonstrating and buttonholing in Miami Beach for a week, and most of its members were broke and headed for home before the convention even opened. They wanted that $6,500 minimum written into the platform, but the McGovernites wouldn’t talk about anything higher than $4,000, which is approximately what Nixon is offering.

Harris asked the convention to junk the vague McGovern tax plank, which talked about studying the loopholes for a couple of years and plugging the more gaping ones. Harris came on strong, reminding delegates that 40 per cent of the largest corporations (including ITT) last year paid no taxes at all. His proposed plank would have taxed all income, without exception. The voice vote in support of his proposal sounded loud, at least as loud as the vote against him, but the chair was quickly killing substitute planks with its gavel that evening.

The McGovern platform is sensible and humane, but hardly revolutionary. It’s the kind of platform that unhappy political hacks say they “can live with.” It calls for the abolition of the death penalty, but the Supreme Court has already taken that step; it demands controls that would prevent the “improper use of handguns,” but many moderates like Mayor Lindsay are convinced from experience that nothing short of an outright ban on handguns will do; it demands a “substantial” cut in defense spending, but that is a waffling word that even Humphrey and Muskie would probably have been happy to run with.

Blacks have now been thoroughly baptized into party politics. In an effort to deprive McGovern of a first-ballot nomination, some of the Humphrey blacks, among them Charles Evers of Mississippi, proposed with a straight face that all candidates release their committed black supporters so that they could vote in a bloc for Rep. Shirley Chisholm. It was all presented under the guise of “black pride,” but the idea was to weaken McGovern’s hand. Few blacks fell for it. Of the 3,085 delegates, 454 were blacks. That is 15 per cent of the total, as compared to 5.5 per cent in 1968. Mrs. Chisholm polled 151.95 votes.

This was the first reform convention, built around age, sex and race quotas, and it did have at least a kind of freshness. But except for the question of the Vice Presidency, everything was wrapped up before the first session was called to order. The wrapping may have been done in a fashion far superior to that of the old backroom bosses’ era, but it was no less wrapped.

All the fight had gone out of Muskie and Humphrey before they got here. Their headquarters had the liveliness of a clearance sale–a last, hysterical flurry. As for Wallace, it was clear from the beginning that he had come to town with no higher ambitions than to display his physical courage by delivering one more shopping-center speech. One of the finest things about this convention was that the delegates did not allow his wheelchair to excite them into an emotional show of support.

Actually nothing happened in Miami Beach that changed in the slightest the course of Democratic Presidential politics as it was already proceeding–nothing, that is, except the resolving of the fight over the California delegation, which was a voting issue to begin with.

As soon as McGovern won back on Monday the 151 California seats which the credentials committee had taken from him a few days earlier, his nomination was assured. Even the networks–which had sunk millions of dollars into selling this show–had trouble pretending that Humphrey, much less Muskie, came to Miami Beach with a chance of pulling a coup.

Conventions have a way of making nice people appear silly through no fault of their own. Although presumably soliciting support is what the event is supposed to be about, just about anybody (but The Top Four) who actually went around seriously recruiting votes for anything was looked upon as a kind of clown. Fellows like Hodding Carter III and Sen. Mike Gravel–“candidates” for the Vice Presidential nomination–were somehow plunked into the same category with Dean Templeton, who was running as a right-wing candidate for President on the promise to build a bridge from Alaska to Russia. Or at least that was the attitude until the last evening, when the delegates showed some of their previously suppressed independence by giving a solid 407 votes for Vice President to that amazing woman from Texas, Sissy Farenthold, who had been seeking votes for less than a day.

Security was tight; it was also stupid. The Secret Service had been slinking around town for six months before the first delegate arrived, working out details to the last link of the chain-link fence. Nevertheless, some rascal penetrated their defenses and stole a 5 ft. x 8 ft. picture of Lyndon Johnson from the convention hall rafters. It was replaced before the festivities started.

On the other hand, former Speaker John McCormack and Senators Symington and Magnuson were at various times turned away at the gate because they lacked sufficient identification for the security-happy guards. The Catholic churchman who gave the opening prayer was prevented from getting out of the hall until one of the convention officials came along and vouched for him. There was absolutely no logic to the distribution of passes. Fudgy “reporters” for “newspapers” like the underground Great Speckled Bird got into the hall with no trouble, while some first-rate newsmen had almost to fight their way in. Jimmy the Greek, the Las Vegas bookmaker, was all over the floor, wearing an official security badge. Several movie starlets flounced about with “media” passes. These conventions are set up for the prima donnas of television, not for straight newsmen.

The weather in Miami Beach was miserable weather to move about in, and moving great distances was the one thing you had to do, for the geography of the convention could benefit only one group: the taxi drivers. The Mississippi delegation was quartered a $6 ride from convention headquarters, and they weren’t the most remote delegation.

Hippies and Yippies and Zippies were an important part of 1968 Democratic Convention history; they were of no significance in Miami Beach. In fact, far from being a “threat” to the community’s peace of mind, the street people were even duller than the convention, for the obvious reason that they had little reason to be there doing their thing. The cops weren’t beating them; the politicians weren’t sneering at them; the candidate closest to their hearts was inside winning the nomination. Having no cause at the moment, the street people are willing to settle for publicity, Once I saw them gather at a locked gate, shaking it and cussing the troopers on the other side. That was futile, so they began shouting “where’s the media?” A moment later a TV truck moved slowly up the street and the young people turned happily and trotted toward it, waving.

The leaders of the political youth cult have become as embarrassing as over-the-hill actors. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were always available for interviews, and they always said the same thing, making jokes about covering the convention for Mad magazine and Popular Mechanics. At the 1968 convention they were spending their time in splendid protest against Mayor Daley’s cops; this time they could be found in the Poodle Lounge and the Boom-Boom room of the Fountainebleau.

People used to think that national conventions were wasted time because they were dominated by political bosses. Now the bosses are gone and they are still wasted time. Last May, the Gallup poll asked: “It has been suggested that Presidential candidates be chosen by the voters in a nationwide primary election, instead of by political party conventions, as at present. Would you favor or oppose this?” Some 72 per cent of the general public said they did favor it.

The dealers who rented 1,200 automobiles to the Miami Beach conventioneers would be unhappy, and so would the hotel landlords who gouged the 50,000 persons officially connected with the 1972 Democratic Convention. But the New Politics is supposed to move this country away from its commercially-based mediocrity, and the national convention seems like one hell of a great place to begin.

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