I wish the delegates had done their homework. I assigned the chapter "Romantic Intermezzo" in H. L. Mencken's amiable, autobiographical "Heathen Days." Reading it would have melted the hardest Democratic heart. Reason has already induced the Democrats to provide the appearance of unity, but emotion would have made the unity lovely and profound. Instead of itching to fight like tomcats in a burlap bag, they would have embraced one another in a display of unity guaranteed to give them total triumph in November. They would have waltzed their way to the White House. All they would have needed was to read Mencken; and it would have been Mencken at his mellowest.
"Romantic Intermezzo" is his account of the most charming and delightful of all political conventions -- in fact, the only charming and delightful one he ever went to. It was the Democratic National Convention of 1920 -- held, in case you haven't guessed, in San Francisco. He was a connoisseur of conventions, attending them every four years, sweating and complaining at them, but reporting on them in so witty and urbane a prose that nobody has ever equaled it. If this particular report was tinged with male sexism and love for old-fashioned liquor, we should remember that he was writing in 1920.
The prime source of the convention's success was a kindly, solicitous predecessor of Dianne Feinstein, Mayor James Rolph. He ordered not only excellent accommodations for the convention, ranging from elegant hotel rooms to a pristine convention hall; he also ordered nectar for every delegate willing to sip it. It came, according to Mencken, in the form of "a carload of Bourbon whiskey, old, mellow and full of pungent but delicate tangs." This was at the onset of Prohibition, when most of the illegally available drink was a mix of rum, turpentine and rye with odd things floating in it.
Daily the bourbon was escorted to the delegates' rooms by comely Democratic ladies of the hospitality committee. The result was that the convention proceedings were, at the worst, as courtly as a conference of ambassadors. At the best, the proceedings were aglow with human warmth. The cause for that, besides the bourbon, was the convention band.
Full of the ripest of harmonies, the band saluted every speaker with an appropriate tune. It greeted a congressman from Indiana, for example, as he went to the podium, with "On the Banks of the Wabash." It happened that 1920 was the first year that female delegates attended the convention. The first to speak was a very attractive woman from Massachusetts. When she reached the platform the band played "Oh, You Beautiful Doll," and the male delegates rose to their slightly unsteady feet and cheered. The next female delegate to address the convention was a lady from West Virginia, an ex-actress who, as Mencken put it, "knew precisely how to walk across a stage and what clothes were for." When the band played for her, the cheers could be heard as far off as San Jose.
When the governor of New York, Al Smith, made his appearance, the band swung into "The Sidewalks of New York." By the time the second stanza was reached, some delegate started singing the words. The result was magical. A hundred delegates joined in. Encouraged by this outburst of song the band segued into "Little Annie Rooney," then into "The Bowery," and then into other sprightly tunes, all in waltz time. Soon a male delegate, blood brother to the one who'd started the singing, seized the nearest female delegate and began to waltz her along the aisles. After the first half hour the only delegates not pirouetting were some Baptist fundamentalists from Mississippi, plus a one-legged war veteran.
The days passed in happy abandon. When the convention hall grew a bit confining, the delegates moved outside into the salubrious San Francisco sunshine. They adjourned temporarily over a weekend, but that was so they could explore the rest of California while clutching their bourbon bottles to them.
When the delegates left for home at last, they took with them nothing but lovely memories. They blessed Jim Rolph, who remained in office the next 11 years and then became governor of California.
However, I have a confession to make. Honesty compels me to report that the presidential candidate picked by that delightful convention turned out to be the highly forgettable James Cox, who was trounced in November by Warren Gamaliel Harding. The electoral count was 404 to 127.