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.
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.