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The Ballot Brawl of 1924
Relive the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, at the Democrats' Deadlocked Convention

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 !

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.

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.)

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!"

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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