The 1932 Democratic Convention, the Emergence of FDR -- and How America Was Changed Forever

By Steve Neal

Morrow. 371 pp. $26.95

The Democratic Party that convenes in Boston a week and a half from now bears the same name as the one that convened in Chicago 72 years ago, but not much else is the same. Quite apart from the innumerable ways in which the party has evolved over those seven decades -- progressed or regressed, according to one's point of view -- the political convention itself has changed almost beyond recognition. In 1932, as in most years previous, it was a tumultuous, suspenseful event that the nation followed avidly as the ultimate outcome was undecided almost to the end; now it is merely pro forma, a coronation so devoid of drama and popular interest that the television networks barely notice it and the public follows suit.

Readers of this newspaper, with its heavy diet of political news and analysis, don't need a rehash of all the explanations for this: the replacement of the smoke-filled room with the primary system, the decline of the big-city bosses, the disappearance of favorite-son candidacies, the early concentration of big money on politicians who have the winning look. It's all as true of the Republicans as of the Democrats, as emphasized by the early lock that George W. Bush got on the 2000 nomination and the lifeless party convention that followed.

In 1932, though, the Democratic nomination was completely up for grabs as the convention began. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, governor of New York, came in with about 600 delegates, more than a simple majority of the total of 1,154, but a two-thirds majority of 770 votes was required for the nomination. Roosevelt had a capable organization, led by Louis Howe and James Farley, but there was little passion for his candidacy and significant opposition to it. There also were plenty of actual or potential competitors, including Al Smith, the 1928 nominee who had been defeated by Herbert Hoover; Newton D. Baker, former secretary of war in the Wilson administration; John Nance Garner, speaker of the House; Harry F. Byrd, former governor of Virginia; William Gibbs McAdoo, former secretary of the Treasury; and Albert C. Ritchie, the governor of Maryland.

The last of these was in effect a favorite-son candidate, a creature that no longer exists in American politics. A favorite son's name (always a son, never a daughter) was put in nomination by delegates from his own state as a way of turning the national spotlight on a local boy, but also as a way of giving the delegation leverage in the brokering process that was the convention's main, if mostly behind-the-scenes, business. A small state such as Maryland had only a handful of votes, but in a deadlocked convention those votes could take on a great deal of weight; holding on to them in Ritchie's name until the right moment could give the state influence out of proportion to its population.

As it happens, Maryland lost out in the brokering game in 1932; the states that turned the tide to FDR were Texas and California. But it was a very close call, and Steve Neal's account of the convention leaves no doubt that FDR came within a hair's breadth of losing the nomination. "Happy Days Are Here Again" is the 10th book about American politics by Neal, a prolific Chicago journalist who died suddenly in February at the age of 54. He was not an unduly interesting or fluid prose stylist, but he knew his politics and he knew how to tell a story.

The one he tells in "Happy Days Are Here Again" is a cliffhanger, even though we know how it ends. Nearly 60 years after Roosevelt's stupendously long, eventful presidency, it's easy to forget that the path to his first nomination was no cakewalk, that opposition to him within the party that eventually would venerate him was widespread, deep and in some instances venomous. Many politicians thought he was a lightweight -- a view sedulously elaborated by the influential newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann -- and many feared that his polio, a "massive disability," was reason enough to doubt that he could "withstand the rigors of a national campaign." The big-city bosses, notably those in Chicago, Jersey City and Albany, had their own concerns:

"Their reasons for opposing Roosevelt were not complicated. The urban bosses, who stood to control their city's liquor licenses, were determined to have the party come out strongly for the repeal of Prohibition, while FDR preferred to keep this controversial issue out of the campaign. A larger factor in their opposition was that these tough, hard-boiled men regarded FDR as a 'goo-goo' reformer unfriendly to their interests. When [one of them] interviewed presidential contenders, his first question was whether they would 'cooperate with, or disregard the party organization.' "

Personal elements were at work as well. Though Roosevelt and Smith once had been allies -- it was FDR who famously called him "The Happy Warrior" -- their relationship had declined into deep bitterness, mainly on Smith's part. Goaded by the meddlesome financier Bernard Baruch, Smith joined McAdoo in an alliance to "beat this feller," as Smith put it. Then there was William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher and political wannabe, who nursed rivalrous sentiments toward virtually all politicians and, as a practicing isolationist, feared FDR's internationalist inclinations.

It all came to a boil in Chicago, a city determined to improve its reputation after the gang wars of the 1920s, and to bolster its economy as the Depression grew ever deeper. One anecdote Neal passes along is deliciously echt Chicago. It was reported by Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., who went to a speakeasy with H.L. Mencken:

"At the end of the room was a piano and a species of male singer, in vogue at the time, known as a crooner. Mencken and I ordered drinks and, as we stood drinking, the crooner's voice became more and more objectionable. Finally, Mencken said to the young lady behind the bar, 'I'd like to shoot that son of a bitch.' The young lady did not bat an eye or change her supercilious expression. She reached under the counter, pulled out a Thompson submachine gun, laid it on the counter, and with a condescending fluttering of her eyelids said, indifferently, 'Go ahead.' "

In such an atmosphere (Neal says Chicago then had 600 speakeasies, i.e., one for every two convention delegates), the Democrats of 1932 met to set their party's course. No doubt there were hangovers and clandestine assignations beyond counting, as surely will be true when the Democrats of 2004 gather in Boston later this month, since raising hell is the secret agenda of every convention, political and otherwise. But unlike 1932, when the question on everyone's mind was whether FDR could hang on and win nomination, the only question now is: Why are they bothering to have the thing at all?