Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Matt Lauer led off the "Today Show" this AM agreeing solemnly with Meredith Vieira that, despite rumors to the contrary, there were surprises to be had at the Democratic National Convention. Turned out by surprises he meant Ted Kennedy's "dramatic" appearance, which of course could be seen coming from a mile away by everyone but, apparently, "Today's" hosts. A surprise is defined as "something nobody expects to happen," and while there were plenty of surprises in conventions past, there are few these days. I will of course eat my words if Hillary hijacks the convention and grabs the nomination, but something tells me there will be no sentence-chewing for me.
For another in my series on great convention past, let's try the Republican funfest of 1912.

In 1912, with the exception of Grover Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms, Republican Party candidates had occupied the White House since 1860—an astonishing 44 years. But things were about to change in an especially acrimonious election that saw the Republican Party tear itself apart.
After William Howard Taft’s 1908 victory, former president Teddy Roosevelt congratulated his old vice-president on his victory and headed off to Africa for big-game hunting—the ex-President was personally responsible for killing nine lions, eight elephants, twenty zebras, seven giraffes and six buffalo. Back home, progressive Republicans had a different kind of big game in their sights: Taft, who, naturally more conservative than Roosevelt, had begun to swing back in the direction of tariffs and right-wing Republican bosses. The progressives complained that, despite his promises to the contrary when elected, he was selling out the Party to big business interests and tariffs. Taft in turn whined in a letter to Roosevelt: “It is now a year and three months since I assumed office and I have had a hard time….”
But his former mentor was not the person in whom to confide. As soon as Roosevelt returned home in 1910, he was besieged by progressive Republicans trying to convince him to run for a second full term. It didn’t take much persuasion. Roosevelt began to criticize Taft’s policies claiming that he was a pawn of “the bosses and…the great privileged interests.” Taken aback by the violence of the attack from a former friend, Taft confided to an aide: “If only I knew what the President [he continued to call Roosevelt “the President”] wanted, I would do it.”
What Roosevelt wanted became very clear in February of 1912, when he declared his candidacy for his party’s nomination for president. “My hat is in the ring!” he roared (actually coining that phrase). He also said: “The fight is on and I am stripped to the buff!”
Taft, taking up the Roosevelt’s boxing analogy, came out swinging—well, sort of, in his own, really strange, confessional way:
”I do not want to fight Theodore Roosevelt but sometimes a man in a corner comes out swinging,” the President said. “I was a man of straw but I have been a man of straw long enough. Every man who has blood in his body…is forced to fight.”
By 1912, some states had begun holding primary elections to pick their delegates, a fairly pro forma procedure until now. In what can be considered the first ever contested presidential party primaries, Roosevelt proceeded to kick Taft’s ass, nine states to one. Roosevelt even won in Taft’s home state of Ohio. But things happened very differently at the Republican convention in Chicago in June.
It may be hard for us today, in an age of carefully-orchestrated national political conventions, to understand the mayhem that went on. The very fact that Roosevelt showed up on the first day of the convention wearing a sombrero, smoking a cigar, and referring to the sitting President as “a rat in a corner” shows you how many light years 1912 is away from 2008.
But the real action happened behind the scenes. The delegates Roosevelt won in the primary elections were in the minority—Taft’s conservative political bosses controlled the Republican National Committee and made a point of lining up Taft delegates from non-primary states. In back room wheeling and dealing, they also purchased the support of as many as 200 to 300 delegates from southern states—these states would vote Democratic in a national election, but they did have Republican delegates for sale.
Roosevelt and his men made challenge after challenge when Taft’s men tried to seat these delegates; but their challenges were denied, so much so that progressives began to cry that they were being “steamrolled” (also a new coinage in 1912). Tensions ran so high that police squads were brought in and barbed wire put around the stage. Finally, when Taft ended up with a commanding lead in delegates, 561 to Roosevelt’s 107, Roosevelt and his supporters stormed out of the convention. They formed their own independent party made up of everyone from social workers, reformers and feminists to unhappy mainstream Republicans. They called themselves the Progressive Party but were known popularly as the Bull Moose Party because Roosevelt had proclaimed: “I am fit as a bull moose!”
Thus, the most successful political party of the last half century had managed to split themselves in two, not a recipe for victory, since simple arithmetic at the time showed that Democrats had about 45% of the national vote locked up already. As one onlooker said, referring to Taft and Roosevelt, “the only question is, which corpse gets the flowers?”

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dreaming on

The other day's description of my little dream conversation with Obama and George Bush brought other dream sequences out of the woodwork. One friend claimed that John McCain approached him on the street and insisted he touch his skin cancer surgery scars. My friend declined. Another emailed me a startling dream he had, in which he was watching the Democratic National Convention, Hillary and Bill both on the stage together, and Hillary pulls out a gun and shoots Bill for sucking up all the attention. My friend said the networks replayed the shooting in all kinds of slow motion and different angles, as if it was an Olympic event, but nobody seemed really shocked, just fascinated.
Here is yet another rockin' convention, from 1880.
After he was elected in the contentious contest of 1876, Rutherford Hayes led America into the very heart of what Mark Twain dubbed “the Gilded Age.” A huge economic expansion was led by a few robber barons (er, industrialists) like Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, John Jacob Astor, Jay Gould, and Cyrus W. Field, but while the rich were getting very rich indeed, the poor got poorer, the disenfranchised more disenfranchised. As America surged towards the twentieth century, the country faced pressing issues—the need for child labor laws, the lack of an eight-hour work day, the plight of blacks, the rights of women, the idea of a graduated federal income tax, just to name a few. Yet the two major parties were still fighting the Civil War, a decade and a half after it ended. Like punch-drunk fighters who do not know the bell has rung, the two parties “waved the bloody shirt” and ran two heroic generals against each other for the Presidency.
Although contemporary historian Henry Adams called him “a third-rate nonentity,” Hayes had not been a bad president. He was personally honest and had attempted, although with little success, to reform the highly corrupt, patronage-ridden Civil Service. But he was hamstrung by the promises he had had to make to Democrats in order to win in 1876. Hayes’s fellow Republicans saw their President withdrawing troops from the South (troops which supported corrupt Republican carpetbag state governments), giving important positions to Southern Democrats and approving money for Southern pork barrels, all as a result of 1876. And they didn’t like it.
Hayes wisely decided not to run for a second term, which set the stage for an internal Republican Party battle which has seldom been equaled in American political history. The party was divided into two wings. One was called the Stalwarts, meaning those loyal to the old-line party of General Ulysses S. Grant, who was fishing for a third term as President. The other was dubbed the Half-Breeds—moderates who wanted reform within the party and abhorred the thought of another four years of “Grantism”—i.e., the General’s corrupt cronies dipping into the public trough at will.
As the Republican Convention met in the brand-new glass and iron Exposition Building on June 2, 1880 in Chicago, Roscoe Conkling, the powerful and vain U.S. Senator from New York, thought he had votes locked up for General Grant, who had been out of the country on a two and a half year long world tour, long enough for people to forget the scandals of his administration and look upon the gruff General with nostalgic fondness. The Half-Breeds were led by Maine Senator James G. Blaine, Conkling’s sworn enemy (who had unforgettably once called Conkling “a majestic, supereminent, overpowering, turkey-gobbler strut.”).
It was personal between these two, but the fate of the party was at stake—as well as that of the nation, since most assumed the Republicans would win the White House, as they had done since 1856. (One reason why Thomas Nast had just caricaturized the Republican Party as a stolid, dependable elephant—an image which stuck.) Thousands crammed the convention halls as ballot after ballot between the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds was cast. Spontaneous demonstrations arose during the alphabetized roll calls, either for Grant or for Blaine himself for President. One woman spectator climbed a “Goddess of Liberty Statue” on the convention stage and began ripping off her clothes; she had to be pulled down and restrained.
Conkling put Grant in nomination with a fiery speech culminating in a sappy poem:

When asked what state he hails from
Out sole reply shall be:
He hails from Appomattox
And its famous apple tree.

But a new Senator from Ohio, James G. Garfield arose and nominated fellow Ohioan Treasury Secretary John Sherman, brother of William Tecumseh Sherman, a favorite of the Half-Breeds although not of the public at large, for reasons that are evident in his nickname: The Ohio Icicle. But as ballot after ballot was taken, an extraordinary thing began to happen: more and more delegates began to vote for Garfield himself, swayed by the idea of Garfield as a moderating force between the two sharply-divided factions. After 36 ballots—the most ever cast at a Republican convention, before or since—the 48-year-old Garfield became the dark horse Republican candidate for President. As a sop to the Roscoe Conkling , Chester Arthur, Stalwart machine politician from New York was chosen as vice-presidential candidate.After this uproar, the Democratic convention seemed like a puny afterthought

Monday, August 18, 2008


Woke up this AM to the strangest dream--I was standing around at a cocktail party with Barack Obama and George Bush, making small talk. Although we were indoors, Barack wore the trench coat he's been wearing in his Olympic commercials. George wore a Mr. Rogers-esque cardigan sweater. They both asked me what I was doing today and I told them I would be playing pool--I don't play pool, so the answer surprised even me. My reply caused George to let out a barking laugh and clap me on the back. Barack merely smiled and shook his head, whether at my folly or George's, I wasn't sure....
Anyway, shaking that off--and it's taken several cups of strong coffee--here is the latest in my mini-series of great national convention moments in the past. This is from 1860, one of our most important election years ever.
When the Republicans met in Chicago—at the “Wigwam” hall constructed especially for this convention in one month's time, out of pine planks—they knew that whoever they picked for President would almost certainly win that high office, because of the disarray among the Democrats. Going into the convention, the chief contender was William Seward, former governor of New York and powerful antislavery speaker, who had the backing of New York City Boss Thurlow Weed and his Tammany machinery. So sure were Seward’s supporters of victory that a cannon had been set up on Seward’s lawn in Albany, ready to blast a celebratory shot at the right time.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the convention….a guy named Abraham Lincoln appeared. Actually, Lincoln had been there all along. Former Congressman, senatorial candidate against Douglas in 1858 (Lincoln had lost, but made his bones in their celebrated debates), Lincoln was the more moderate candidate that many of the delegates were seeking. As the nomination battle heated up, dirty tricks abounded. Thurlow Weed promised the Indiana and Illinois delegations, which supported Lincoln, 100,000 dollars if they threw their votes to Seward. No deal. In return, Lincoln backers waited until Seward’s delegates were outside marching in demonstration around the convention hall, then distributed counterfeit tickets to Lincoln backers. When Seward’s men came back, they found they could not get into the Wigwam to vote.
The Wigwam was set for a rocking, rolling, reeling ride such as would not be seen again in Chicago until 1968. When the voting began, there 10,000 people inside the hall, twenty thousand screaming and chanting on the streets. One observer described the noise inside the place: “Imagine all the hogs ever slaughtered in Cincinnati giving their death squeals together, plus a score of steam whistles going.” After four rounds of balloting, the vote went to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, waiting anxiously in Springfield, was informed by telegram of his victory but advised not to come to Chicago—Seward backers, many of them weeping profusely, were in such a state that it was not advisable for the new Presidential nominee to meet with them. The party’s judicious choice for Lincoln’s vice-president would be Hannibal Hamlin, Senator from Maine and a friend of the defeated Seward’s.
Lincoln would go on to defeat Stephen A. Douglas and become president--and just when we needed him.

Friday, August 15, 2008


The conventions are coming up soon of course and while I love a good convention as well as the next political junkie I sometimes really crave a bit of the spontaneity that characterized the good old days, even if it did mean that nominees would make their acceptance speeches at 7pm--Guam time, that is.
In the next few weeks I'll be sharing my store of information about fabled conventions of the past. I thought I'd start with 1948, the year Harry Truman would run against (and upset badly) Thomas E. Dewey.
By 1948, technology had made televisions both better and cheaper, and 148,000 people nationwide had shelled out for the big black boxes. The 1948 political conventions of both parties were televised only the East Coast. In order to facilitate this, Republicans and Democrats agreed to hold their conventions in Convention Hall in Philadelphia—the Republicans in June, the Democrats a month later. For the first time in history, television cables ran all over the convention floor and batteries of hot lights arched over the stage (in the un-airconditioned Hall, the temperature at the podium was 93 degrees). Speakers wandered around wearing thick pancake makeup (women were told that brown lipstick showed up better on black and white television sets of the day, so most female orators looked like they’d just bitten into a big piece of chocolate).
But people, especially at the Democratic Convention, seemed to get it—TV was theater, TV was spectacle. When India Edwards, executive director of the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee, reached the podium to speak, she waved a steak in the air to demonstrate the high price of meat. The best spectacle of all, however, did not quite come off the way it was intended. At two o’clock in the morning, when President Truman reached the stage to accept his party’s nomination, a flock of pigeons was released from a huge Liberty Bell. The birds, who had been trapped all night in the hot and humid bell, went crazy and in a scene straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds,” began dive-bombing delegates, smashing into the rafters of the Hall, and flying straight into the television lights.
Truman and everyone in the Hall, after a moment of stunned silence, broke into uproarious laughter. The few people awake and still watching were privileged to see one of the most wonderful moments of live television ever recorded.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Footprints in the sand

One of the great articles in my beloved New York Daily News yesterday was about what type of flip-flop Obama is wearing while he sojourns in Hawaii, giving rise to the impression that perhaps John McCain is right all along--the dude is a celebrity. Can you imagine anyone caring what kind of footwear, of any type, Old Mr. Wingtip is shod in?
The News also carried a column from Michael Goodwin, Hillary Alarmist, about the Clintons who, of course, are about to sucker poor Obama and suck the air out of the Convention. Poor guy, flip-flopping around Hawaii, while these malevolent old Boomers plot to do him in. I guess things are a bit dull lately--if you don't listen to this kind of hot air, all there is to do is tune in to the hot air announcers at the Olympics, one of whom, the other day, said about an injured American gymnast, "It's like she's gotten a tear in her wedding dress."
Yeah. Oh, but I forgot, there is Jerome R. Corsi, the guy who wrote Unfit to Command, which torpedoed Kerry's hopes in 2004. He's published another book called Obama Nation, which he hopes will to do the same to the Flip-Flop Man. Well, I said recently that Obama needs a good swift-boating to get him going, so maybe here it is (although it sounds like Corsi's book, with its tired melange of stories about drug use and Jeremiah Wright, won't be quite so inflammatory).
In its article on the book, the New York Times acted like these attack bios are a relatively new phenomena but of course they've been with us a long time. Davy Crockett, or his ghost writer, wrote one of the best of them, in 1836, claiming that Martin Van Buren wore women's clothing. You can find it on google.books, a reminder that even hacks like Corsi have nothin' on our forebearers when it comes to vitriol.
Speaking of hacks, anyone interested can hear me blather away in Bill Harnsberger's "Cheers and Jeers" at the Daily Kos, today and tomorrow. I reveal a little know and quite salacious campaign song of the 1950s, having to do with a major candidate's private parts....very shocking

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Johnny, Johnny, Johnny

Well, it turns out to be true, at least the part about John Edwards screwing Reille Hunter, as the National Enquirer reported way back last winter, and you wonder, once again, how a supposedly smart guy can be so stupid. Not necessarily about the affair, although that's not too smart, but about the lying and the cover-up. I mean, when will these guys ever learn? And for how long can we have politicians who compartmentalize their lives in such a way? Who of these men is a whole? One suspects Edwards is just a hole, plain and simple.
I have friends who really supported the guy, who described meeting him and being impressed by his energy and seeming empathy. But I've never understood it, because he did seem like quite a phony. Now, of course, any chance of a position in an Obama administration is down the tubes. Not only did he lie publicly about the affair, but while proclaiming loudly on "Nightline" (scheduled of course just as the Olympics are sucking up all attention--and now this convenient Georgian war!) that he would take a paternity test, he is saved from that by Rielle's adamant refusal not to have one taken. Anyone think that wasn't choreographed? Of course Andrew Young, Edwards' former aide, is claiming to be the father, so if true this means both men were screwing her, which is even seamier, although almost certainly bullshit. Add to this the fact that his national fiance chairman paid her to get out of North Carolina and it all smacks of politics, old school, the kind played way back in 1920, when the Republicans had to clean up presidential nominee Warren G. Harding's sperm trails, and thus sent at least one girlfriend packing on a long, long vacation.
Oh, well. The only consolation is that Edwards is off the public stage and we really don't have to hear about him for a long, long time now. Unless of course we read the Enquirer.

Monday, August 4, 2008

That Dollar Bill

More fuss over John McCain accusing Barack Obama "playing the race card" recently of course, most of it quite manufactured. As Bob Herbert points out in his recent NY Times column Obama's remarks about "not looking like all those other presidents on dollar bills" was a direct response to attacks on him from the McCain faction, not something he had simply invented on the spur of the moment. This is not to say that the Obama campaign is entirely innocent of playing the race card--they played it against Hillary Clinton, taking her remarks about Lyndon Johnson's role in passing the Civil Rights Act and Bobby Kennedy's assassination entirely out of context--but in this case the Democratic candidate was responding to McCain advertising which smeared him.
However, there is a sense in which all this is a false issue. If Obama plays the race card--so what? Presidential candidates play the cards they are dealt. JFK played the "Catholic" card, (while pretending not to), while George Bush played the "white guy" card. Presidents and Presidential candidates from Andrew Jackson to Hubert Humphrey have played the "war" card. Obama will also be subtly playing the "age" card against McCain.
It really is all about who ends up on that dollar bill--or that ten or twenty or fifty--and getting there involves a lot of card dealing, sometimes from the bottom of the deck.