News & Politics

It’s Party Time

Memorable Moments From the Days of Political Bosses, Smoke-Filled Rooms, and Presidential Conventions That Really Mattered

Gather 'round, political junkies, and we'll talk about a time when party bosses walked the earth, presidential candidates were picked in smoke-filled rooms, and national conventions were weeklong political orgies.

Those were the good old days, before reform reared its antiseptic head. All we'll be getting this year from the Democrats in Boston and the Republicans in New York are extended photo ops, what the late Daniel Boorstin called pseudo-events.

There was nothing pseudo about the events that took place in Chicago the first year both conventions were telecast nationally. That was 1952, a year that featured two heated contests for the party nominations–Eisenhower versus Taft on the Republican side, Stevenson versus Kefauver on the Democratic.

Those who were around half a century ago still recall the scene, the players, the unscripted melodrama that kept Americans riveted to their black-and-white TV sets for two weeks.

If you want to know what convention speechmaking was like when speakers aimed their remarks at the delegates, not the cameras, catch the film of Adlai Stevenson accepting the nomination in '52. Or Everett Dirksen's scorching Tom Dewey and the Eastern establishment in a GOP floor fight the same year.

Here, for those too young to have seen and heard the real thing, is a highlight run of the best and worst convention moments of the past half century.

Most dramatic convention: Philadelphia 1948, when the Democrats gathered to nominate Harry Truman, a presidential candidate they felt was a sure loser. Frank Mankiewicz, a political reporter at the time, remembers Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey's fiery speech urging a strong civil-rights plank in the platform. It passed, after which a contingent of Southern Democrats led by South Carolina's Strom Thurmond walked out and formed a third party. This was the convention that saw Humphrey make rhetorical history by using the term "human rights."

Biggest convention bust: Retired general Douglas MacArthur, Chicago, 1952. Hoping for a Taft-Eisenhower deadlock, MacArthur thought he could win the presidential nomination with a rousing keynote speech. But as Wesley Clark learned this year, generals who show up in civvies often lose their luster. Eisenhower managed the switch, but MacArthur fell on his five-star rear and faded into history.

Worst keynote speech: No, not Bill Clinton in 1988 but another Southern governor, Frank Clement of Tennessee, in 1956. In a 60-minute harangue against the Eisenhower White House, Clement kept invoking the Biblical lament, "How long, O Lord, how long?" After the 40th minute, irreverent voices in the convention hall were asking the same of him.

Most surprising vice-presidential pick: For under-40 convention watchers, it's Dan Quayle. But if you're old enough to remember Miami Beach in 1968, Richard Nixon's choice of Spiro Agnew remains the biggest shocker. Only one reporter on the scene, the Washington Post's David Broder, predicted the Maryland governor would be Nixon's veep.

Best concession speech: First-term senator John F. Kennedy's conceding the vice-presidential nomination to Estes Kefauver at the '56 Democratic convention in Chicago. Undecided on a running mate, presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson let the convention make the choice. For a time Kennedy looked like the winner, but after Senator Albert Gore Sr. swung his support to fellow Tennesseean Kefauver, JFK gracefully gave in.

Best nominating speech: Senator Eugene McCarthy's eloquent plea on behalf of Stevenson at the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles. Adlai, by then a two-time loser, was passed over by delegates who were looking for, and found, a fresh voice in John F. Kennedy.

Most jaw-dropping acceptance speech: Barry Goldwater's at the 1964 Republican convention in San Francisco. Lyn Nofziger, then a reporter for the Copley chain, recalls that everyone in the press area thought that after being nominated Goldwater would tone down his right-wing rhetoric. Then came the line "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." At which point, says Nofziger, one Eastern reporter blurted out, "Good God! He's gonna run as Goldwater!"

Biggest convention double-cross: Call this one "The Making of a Vice President." Again it's Chicago, 1952. With Taft and Eisenhower head-to-head, California governor Earl Warren saw himself as the compromise presidential candidate. But ambitious young Dick Nixon, California's junior senator, cut a deal with the Eisenhower forces, split the California delegation, and ended up as Ike's running mate. Warren didn't forget, even after becoming Chief Justice of the United States. Other than swearing Nixon in as president in 1969, he never spoke to him again.