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Political Conventions Are Can't Watch TV

August 28, 2008 - John Whittaker

For most political junkies, the national party nominating conventions are must-see TV.

I'm probably going to get kicked out of the political science club, but I just can't get excited about them.

We know who the candidates are. We know what they stand for. The only drama was whether or not Hillary Clinton would stand up and back Barack Obama or go to the convention and make a last stab at the nomination. That's pretty much it. You couldn't pay me enough to cover a convention now - everything's too preordained.

Don't get me wrong. Bill Clinton's speech Wednesday was great. I always love Slick Willy. Joe Biden gave an impassioned speech, probably one of the top five he's ever delivered. I thought Obama's surprise appearance upstaged his vice presidential nominee a bit. But, what happened that had any real substance?

In the last 44 years, conventions have gone from a place where nominees are crowned and platforms molded and approved into four days of listening to talking heads interpret speeches not written by the candidates that you don't have to listen to since they are available on the Associated Press before the speech happens. Nothing really happens.

You might ask why I picked the arbitrary 44-year figure -- and not the much more historically important 1968 election -- in the paragraph above. It's because I've been reading Theodore White's Making of a President 1964 -- I got it for $1.75 at the Prendergast Library book sale in June and wanted to finish it before reading Making of a President 1968. I'm not all the way through the book yet, but the chapter on the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco provides such a contrast between conventions now and 44 years ago.

Barry Goldwater's nomination team, led by a young man named Clif White, secured enough delegates that, going into the convention, Goldwater's nomination was a moot point. The delegates might as well have been chained to Goldwater's waist.

The problem is, Goldwater had this problem -- he couldn't keep his mouth shut, or at least keep his mind on the campaign's message. He was the original reporter's dream. Before the New Hampshire primary, Goldwater suggested, in no particular order, the use of atomic weapons by NATO commanders, that the Tennessee Valley Authority (an FDR public works program) be shut off, that he wanted to abolish the graduated income tax and that the U.S. should withdraw its formal diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union. He watned to abolish the graduated income tax.

It didn't stop in New Hampshire. He told reporters in New Hampshire that American missiles were undependable. He said Social Security should be made voluntary. When told there are people who lack skills and thus can't find jobs, he replied, "The fact is that most people who have no skills have no education for the same reason - low intelligence or ambition."

I'm not saying Goldwater didn't make some valid points. I'm saying those are things you can't say in a national campaign, especially one being contested by two strong challengers within your party and by a sitting president who, at the time, was pretty popular himself.

Early in the campaign, Pa. Gov. William Scranton had said he would serve as vice president if he was asked. As the Goldwater statements piled up, however, Scranton began to have second thoughts. Then, Goldwater did the unthinkable to moderate Republicans and voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the U.S. Senate. A group of anti-Goldwater Republicans drafted Scranton into the race because they didn't want to see the party turned over into the hands of someone who was on the record against civil rights and was increasingly being seen as unelectable in November. They were certain Goldwater's statements could cost him an election against Lyndon Johnson and was putting the party on the wrong side of history. Scranton won 10 states in primary elections, but Goldwater had the backing of the majority of delegates. Undeterred, Scranton went to the convention and attempted, unsuccessfully, to shake loose delegates from Goldwater's side in a bid for the nomination. His aides circulated letters denouncing Goldwater's statements on civil rights and nuclear armament, and he worked the backrooms tirelessly, but the delegates stuck with Goldwater.

While all this was going on, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and his moderate Republicans openly clashed with Goldwater's conservatives during the convention, with Rockefeller being booed during his speeches by Goldwater backers.

All in all, even though the pre-ordained candidate was nominated, there was action and fighting in the trenches. You knew that Scranton and Rockefeller felt, in their heart of hearts, that Goldwater was a poor choice. There was no doubt the way Goldwater thought. It was all out in public. All the candidates had their say, on the floor, and people had a final chance to make up their minds who the party's candidate should be.

Now, picture Barack Obama wearing Goldwater's shoes and Hillary Clinton in Gov. Scranton's clothes. There was no doubt, watching her speak on the TV in the newsroom, that she was going to step up to the microphone and plead with Democrats to vote for Obama in November. Forty-four years ago, there would have been a floor fight. Stories would have been written about the desperate fight of a candidate who wanted to go down swinging until the very end, doing what they thought was right. Obama would have been written about as the candidate who survived a strong fight on the floor, the undisputed king of the hill proceeding into the November election to do battle against John McCain.

Know what you wouldn't have heard? You wouldn't have heard arguments that Clinton/Scranton needed to "heal the party." There wouldn't have been talk about the need to unify. There was business to attend to, not just a picture to be painted.

Scranton was convinced Goldwater was a losing candidate who would harm the party, and so he did what he thought was necessary. Goldwater said what he felt, even if it wasn't popular. It ended up costing him the presidency, but, when you think about it, his candidness is refreshing.


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Barry Goldwater's candidness helped Lyndon Johnson paint a scary picture of a potential Goldwater presidency in the 1964 election. Give the man credit for not issuing a "no comment" though.