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The Ballot Brawl of 1924

After 103 ballots, the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York came up with a nominee, but it's hard to say that the bruising 16-day gathering produced a winner.
After 103 ballots, the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York came up with a nominee, but it's hard to say that the bruising 16-day gathering produced a winner.
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By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Those TV yappers are in a tizzy about the upcoming Democratic convention. They keep jibber-jabbering about how neither Clinton nor Obama will have enough delegates to win the presidential nomination and they'll need to woo the high-powered superdelegates. They keep yakking about a deadlocked convention! Or, better yet, a brokered convention !

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These young whippersnappers don't know doodley about a deadlocked convention. Most of them weren't even born the last time a convention fight went beyond the first ballot, which was in 1952.

Back in my day, Democrats had real conventions with real nomination fights that went on for dozens of ballots. It took 46 ballots to nominate Woodrow Wilson in 1912, and 44 ballots to nominate James Cox in 1920. Jeez, it took four ballots to nominate Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 -- and he was FDR, for crying out loud!

In those days, people weren't in such a damn hurry. They liked to vote for their state's "favorite son" candidate for a few ballots just to show some local pride. In 1932, FDR's campaign manager asked Sam Rayburn, who was the campaign manager for John Nance Garner of Texas, if he could get the Texas delegation to vote for FDR after the first ballot.

"Hell, no," Rayburn said, "we've got a lot of people up here who've never been to a convention before, and they've got to vote for Garner a few times."

But you didn't come all the way out here to the old folks' home to hear me beat my gums about the good old days. You want to hear about the greatest deadlocked convention of them all, don't you? That would be 1924, when the battle went on for 103 ballots and even governors were getting into fistfights on the convention floor.

Give me a minute to put my teeth in and I'll tell you all about it.

* * *

It was the Roaring Twenties, the days of hot jazz and bathtub gin, and the Democrats met in Madison Square Garden, which was packed to the rafters with New York characters, described in The Washington Post as "Tammany shouters, Yiddish chanters, vaudeville performers, Sagwa Indians, hula dancers, street cleaners, firemen, policemen, movie actors and actresses, bootleggers . . ." Plus 1,098 delegates and 15 presidential candidates.

To win, a candidate needed the votes of two-thirds of the delegates and, as the convention opened on June 24, nobody was even close. But the obvious front-runners were Al Smith, the governor of New York, and William McAdoo, a California lawyer who had been Woodrow Wilson's Treasury secretary and was Wilson's son-in-law.

Smith and McAdoo represented the two sides of America's cultural divide -- what today's TV yappers would call the red states and blue states. Smith's backers tended to be Northern, urban, Catholic and "wet," meaning anti-Prohibition. McAdoo's supporters tended to be Southern or Western, rural, Protestant and dry.


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