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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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The voting was weird, even for Democrats: On the 20th ballot, the Missouri delegation switched all 36 votes from McAdoo to John W. Davis, the favorite son from West Virginia, which got everybody all excited, but on the 39th ballot, they all switched back to McAdoo.

On Wednesday, the third day of voting, William Jennings Bryan asked the chairman for permission to explain his vote for McAdoo. Bryan was the grand old man of the Democratic Party, which had nominated him for president three times. He was the "Great Commoner" who'd delivered the legendary "Cross of Gold" speech at the 1896 convention. But when he started orating for McAdoo, he was drowned out by angry boos from the gallery and chants of "Oil! Oil!"

"His voice, which had competed in the past with foghorns and tornadoes, sounded like the hum of a gnat," The Post reported. "For the first time, Bill Bryan's larynx had met its master."

Listening on the radio, Americans were shocked to hear the rabble of evil New York shouting down a good Christian gentleman like Bryan.

On and on the voting went -- 50 ballots, 60 ballots, 70 ballots. The convention was supposed to be over but it still hadn't nominated a candidate, so it went into extra innings, like a tied baseball game. Some delegates gave up and left, others wired home for more money. The McAdoo people complained that rural delegates couldn't afford New York prices and urged the party to pay their hotel bills, which caused the Smith people to accuse the McAdoo people of trying to bribe the delegates by paying their hotel bills.

"This convention," wrote H.L. Mencken, the most famous reporter of the age, is "almost as vain and idiotic as a golf tournament or a disarmament conference."

But still it continued, day after day -- 80 ballots, 90 ballots, 100 ballots. Finally, both Smith and McAdoo gave up and released their delegates and on July 9, after 16 days and 103 ballots, the Democrats nominated John W. Davis of West Virginia for president.

The band played "Glory, Glory Hallelujah" and the delegates limped home, weary and bleary, their self-loathing exceeded only by their loathing of the other Democrats.

In the November election, Davis was creamed by Calvin "Silent Cal" Coolidge, a laid-back dude who didn't let the duties of his office interfere with his afternoon nap.

* * *

What? Speak up, young fella, I don't hear too good. Those Tammany fire sirens ruined my ears.

Fun? You wanna know if the 1924 convention was fun? Well, it was fun for the first 20 or 30 ballots, but after 50 or 60 it got a tad tedious, and by the 80th or 90th even the driest of the dry delegates longed to take a swan dive into a bottle of bootleg bourbon.

People said the 1924 convention was so ugly it would kill the Democratic Party. It didn't, but it did kill the romance of the deadlocked convention. After 1924, Democrats hated deadlocks even more than they hated rival Democrats.

At the 1932 convention, the party leaders started to panic after three ballots and McAdoo got up and urged the convention to avoid "another disastrous contest like that of 1924." FDR's people offered the vice presidency to anybody who controlled enough votes to break the deadlock. John Nance Garner took the deal, delivered the Texas delegation and ended up vice president, a job he later reportedly described as "not worth a bucket of warm spit."

The last time a convention went more than one ballot was 1952, when the Democrats took three ballots to nominate Adlai Stevenson, who was trounced by Dwight Eisenhower. These days, both parties confine their brawling to the primaries and by the time the convention rolls around they're cooing and kissing like newlyweds. Now, conventions are just long infomercials for the candidates. They're so dull they make you pine for a deadlock.

Maybe that's why the TV yappers are jabbering about a deadlocked Democratic convention. If Clinton wins Texas and Ohio today, they say, then neither she nor Obama may have enough delegates to win, so the nomination will be decided by the 796 superdelegates, the people we used to call the party bosses.

Well, I think they're full of baloney, but I hope they're right. A little deadlock livens things up, and the prospect of floor fights, fistfights and backroom wheeling and dealing quickens the blood.

Two ballots, five ballots, 10 ballots -- that would give an old geezer a reason to go on living. But, please, not 103 ballots. Take it from me, young fella, that's a little too much of a good thing.


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