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Jewish World Review
April 16, 2008
/ 11 Nissan 5768
No train wreck in Denver
Could the contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton go all the way to the Democratic National Convention? Conceivably, depending on the results next week in Pennsylvania and in later primaries. Clinton has said that, even if behind in elected delegates, she would take her case to the credentials committee and perhaps to the convention floor. Would this mean that we could look forward to an old-style convention, in which the outcome is not known until the roll is called?
Almost certainly not.
The reason: The old-style conventions operated as a communications medium at a time when other communications media were unavailable. The last multiballot convention occurred when the Democrats met in Chicago in July 1952 and nominated Adlai Stevenson on the third ballot. But another communications medium came into existence eight months before, in November 1951, when the mayor of Englewood, N.J., dialed a telephone and placed a long-distance call to the mayor of Alameda, Calif. the first "direct distance dialing" long-distance phone call ever made. As long distance spread in the 1950s and '60s, politicians could negotiate and convey information confidentially over the phone something that was possible only at the national convention city in the days of multiballot conventions.
It might seem odd to the BlackBerry generation, but until the 1960s people seldom spoke directly with people who lived elsewhere. Men of business (there weren't many women of business) spent much of their time in the offices reading mail and dictating replies to secretaries. They would proofread and sign the letters before heading home. Long-distance calls were hugely expensive, it took time for operators to make connections and the audio quality was terrible.
James Farley, Franklin Roosevelt's campaign manager in 1936, reported in his memoirs that he gauged opinion by placing a call to one politico in each non-Southern state once a week. Doing business by telephone was uncommon enough as late as 1964 that it was considered newsworthy that President Lyndon Johnson spent most of his day on the phone.
Politicians don't disclose their political strength or set out their final bargaining positions on pieces of papers, lest they be seen by the wrong eyes (hence the 19th-century P.S., "Burn this letter!"). In the old days, delegates were usually local politicians who kept their mouths shut and, in many cases, waited for their political orders. They could start communicating with each other only when they got off the train at the convention city. Even then, they usually waited for the first ballot to see how much strength each candidate had.
Canny convention managers would contrive to have delegates switch to their man on later ballots, to show momentum. Candidates vied to organize the loudest and most enthusiastic demonstrations on the convention floor after they were nominated. Governors or senators would run as favorite sons, waiting to see what reward they could get for their state's votes or for men in a smoke-filled room to decide on them as the dark-horse nominee. All this seems pointless hoopla now. But in the old days, as when the Democrats took 103 ballots to nominate John W. Davis in 1924, conventions served an indispensable communication purpose.
This began to change as long-distance calls became part of everyday business life. The first delegate count was conducted by CBS News in 1964. In the next few years, Democrats changed their party rules, and most states started selecting delegates in primaries, which made delegate counting easier. In 1976, the delegate counters were spot on in the close Republican race between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. By the 1980s, the real action took place not among delegates on the floor or among their bosses in smoke-filled rooms, but in TV interviews with campaign managers and the like. Delegates started bringing little TVs into the convention hall to find out what was going on.
The point is that all the communication that once could take place only in the convention city during convention week is now going on all the time, all around us and has been for more than a year. You can get the latest delegate count with the click of a mouse, and reporters can keep track of the superdelegates and count votes on the credentials committee.
If journalists are too lazy to do this, the campaign that's ahead will be sure to fill them in on the details. It's theoretically possible that the superdelegates whose votes will decide the Democratic nomination will hang back and decline to state a preference: It's hard choosing between rejecting the first African-American and rejecting the first woman with a chance to win. But at some point, almost certainly well before the delegates arrive in Denver, the train (in the old political phrase) will seem to be leaving the station, and the last passengers will scurry to get aboard.
Some lament the demise of the old-style conventions and argue that the political bosses made wiser decisions than today's primary voters and caucus-goers. But the old conventions gave us not only Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, but also James Buchanan, who couldn't keep the Union together, and John W. Davis, who got the lowest Democratic percentage of the popular vote ever. True, the transparency of our maddeningly imperfect selection process doesn't guarantee wisdom. But we couldn't bring back the old-style convention without confiscating every cellphone and BlackBerry in the land.
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The New Americans
Now, more than ever, the melting pot must be used to keep America great. Barone attacks multiculturalism and anti-American apologists--but he also rejects proposals for building a wall to keep immigrants out, or rounding up millions of illegals to send back home. Rather, the melting pot must be allowed to work (as it has for centuries) to teach new Americans the values, history, and unique spirit of America so they, too, can enjoy the American dream.. Sales help fund JWR.
JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report. Comment by clicking here.
Michael Barone Archives
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