With the national political drama heating up, it seemed like a good time to start reading a book that had been sitting on my shelf for years, Happy Days Are Here Again by the late Chicago writer Steve Neal. It’s all about the 1932 Democratic Convention held in Chicago, at which Franklin Roosevelt was nominated for President. Nowadays any book about a Party Convention would be a snoozer, since the nominee is known before the convention starts, the speeches are vetted to show a united front, and the whole thing plays out like one long infomercial that a declining number of voters bother to watch. Things used to be very different. The television networks all provided gavel to gavel coverage, because what happened at party conventions was often breaking news. And as the 1932 Convention opened, there were at least a dozen Democrats who still had hopes of gaining the nomination and unseating President Hoover.
I started following political conventions very much by accident when I was eleven years old. The day the 1964 Republican Convention opened in San Francisco, I had two teeth pulled to ready my mouth for braces. I was instructed by the dentist to lie still to control the bleeding. With only the three networks (plus “Educational TV”) on the tube, there was nothing else to do but watch the Convention. Even with Goldwater fairly certain to get the nomination and then fairly certain to lose the election, the deal was not done until the third night. There were passionate speakers and some of them got booed. For drama and excitement, though, nothing could match the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago when the Party literally wrestled with its identity both inside and outside of the Convention Hall. I believe the last of the old-style conventions was the 1972 Democratic Convention, when the very liberal George McGovern ended up with the nomination. I recently saw a clip of McGovern’s acceptance speech; and it was a perfect example of how things are not done today. His speech took place in the wee hours of the morning. He obviously needed a shave. Crew members were already in the process of removing part of the backdrop while he was talking. McGovern was praising the lengthy process that allowed delegates representing all different viewpoints to have their say in crafting the party platform. A few weeks later at the Republican Convention, everything was super smooth. Every detail was tightly controlled, carefully scripted, and time sensitive to capture the largest number of viewers. It was one big celebration for their candidate for reelection, Richard Nixon. Of course, we did not know then how thoroughly controlled everything was. That October, prior to the election, Edmund Muskie, who had been the early leader for the Democratic Nomination, spoke at my college. He waved a copy of (I believe) Time Magazine and asked us to read a small story about this break-in at the Democratic Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. Why was Muskie so upset? It did not seem like that big a deal.
While much has changed since the 1932 Convention, what has not changed is the ability of politicians and media to focus on everything except what actually matters. The Great Depression had given the country an unemployment rate of 24%. In Chicago, teachers, firefighters, and police were not being paid or were being paid with fake money called script. Thousands of people were living in Shantytowns west of the Loop or sleeping in parks because they had lost their homes. More than 300,000 parcels of property in Cook County were about to be auctioned off because of delinquent taxes. The nation’s banking system was on the verge of collapse. Segregation was almost as ironclad in Chicago as it was anywhere in the South. Yet, what were the big issues heading into the Convention: Should a two-thirds majority or a simple majority be required to nominate a candidate; should Prohibition be repealed, and, if repealed, should the states or the federal government regulate liquor sales; and how about the nifty sights and fireworks displays at the World’s Fair!
When he finally won the nomination after an all-night convention session, Roosevelt came to the podium and energized the convention and the nation by promising us all “a New Deal.” This New Deal did not work as fast or as effectively as some people think, but it did put the focus on the nation’s real and immediate problems. I believe this is one of the reasons why so many people around the world have found Pope Francis so refreshing. While not ignoring the Church’s moral teaching, he has asked us to focus on what was important to Jesus: God’s special love for the poor, being good stewards of the earth, and purging from our collective consciousness the worship of false gods.