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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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Just to make things more interesting, a lot of McAdoo's rooters were members of the Ku Klux Klan, which was then at the height of its power. The Klan hated Catholics and Smith was a Catholic. (Needless to say, there were exactly zero black delegates.)

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It wasn't going to be easy uniting these factions, but the party bosses tried. They managed to finesse the Prohibition issue with a compromise that called for the enforcement of all laws but avoided mentioning the hated law against hooch. They tried to finesse the Klan issue in the same way, writing a platform that denounced violent secret societies but neglected to actually mention the Klan.

That didn't work. The anti-Klan folks balked, demanding a resolution that named the Klan. This sparked an anti-Klan demonstration on the floor that led to fistfights as pro- and anti-Klan delegates fought for possession of various state banners. Believe it or not, the governors of Kentucky and Colorado got into fistfights trying to keep their state banners out of the hands of anti-Klan delegates.

Governors throwing punches -- now, that's the kind of convention high jinks you just don't see anymore!

Ultimately, the anti-Klan resolution that didn't mention the Klan beat the anti-Klan resolution that did mention the Klan by exactly one vote.

And then this seething, angry crowd settled down to try to pick a presidential candidate. First came 15 windy nominating speeches, followed by 15 windy seconding speeches. This torrent of oratory produced only two words that anybody still remembers: FDR calling Smith the "happy warrior."

When FDR ended his speech, the crowd went nuts. Smith's Tammany machine had packed the galleries with thousands of hacks armed with drums, tubas, trumpets and a bunch of ear-piercing electric fire sirens that were so loud that people scooted out of the hall with their fingers in their ears.

"It sounded," The Post reported, "like 10,000 voodoo doctors in a tropical jungle beating 10,000 tom-toms made of resonant washtubs."

The hacks in the galleries weren't so friendly to McAdoo. Anytime a speaker uttered his name, the hacks chanted, "Oil! Oil!" -- a snide reference to the fact that McAdoo had received two mysterious payments from an oil baron implicated in the Teapot Dome scandal. It was as if Obama delegates greeted any mention of Hillary by hollering, "Whitewater! Whitewater!"

Anyway, after all this folderol, they finally called the roll for the first ballot and, needless to say, nobody got the 732 votes needed to win. McAdoo led with 431, followed by Smith with 241, and 13 other guys, mostly favorite sons with delusions of grandeur, each with fewer than 60 votes.

What happens when you get no winner? Those TV yappers probably don't know but the answer's simple: You vote again. That first day, which was June 30, they took 15 roll-call votes and still nobody was anywhere near victory. The next day, they came back and took 15 more roll-call votes and still nobody won.

This was the first convention broadcast on radio, and all over America people listened to the endless roll calls, each of them beginning with an Alabama delegate drawling, "Al-a-ba- ma casts twen-ty fo-ah votes fo-ah Os-cah Dub-ya Unnn-der-wood!" Soon, everybody in America was mimicking that drawl, saying, " Os-cah Dub-ya Unnn-der-wood!"


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