Ritchie's ambitions

Baltimore Glimpses

April 02, 1991|By GILBERT SANDLER

THE DEMOCRATS are going to have to put up a candidate," Governor Schaefer says. "Who else? Who else but me? Who else? Who right now, would run against Bush today? Me. Everybody thinks I'm joking."

But maybe he isn't. After all, there is solid precedent for a Maryland governor not only to seek the presidency but to get his name in nomination at the national convention (to the accompaniment of blaring music, marching delegates, waving flags, falling confetti). Maryland Gov. Albert C. Ritchie, in fact, did it twice. And he wasn't joking.

Like Schaefer in the 1980s, Ritchie in the 1920s enjoyed immense popularity, and he went into the presidential campaign as a dark horse. In Ritchie's case (God only knows what it will be in Schaefer's), his chance of winning the nomination was as a surviving candidate. In 1924, he hoped, William G. McAdoo and Gov. Alfred E. Smith of New York would fight until they knocked each other out of the race. Frank R. Kent and Henry L. Mencken, then influential political writers with the Sunpapers, along with Wall Street heavy and adviser-to-presidents Bernard Baruch, brought their support to Ritchie and to the strategy. Ritchie made speeches around the country. He appeared to have the votes of the states' rights crowd, the blacks, the anti-prohibitionists and the Catholics. Baltimore's Archbishop Michael Curley said he spoke for 300,000 Marylanders when he said that "no one in the country is worthier or better qualified to fill the highest executive position."

His bandwagon rolling, Ritchie stuck with his strategy, and as McAdoo and Smith slugged it out, he lay low and waited for his moment. It came at the Democratic National Convention in New York, July 1924. Baltimorean Howard Bruce put the Ritchie name in nomination, calling him "the foremost champion of the doctrine of less paternalistic, less bureaucratic government in Washington." Pandemonium broke loose, urged on by a band which played stanza after stanza of "Maryland, My Maryland" and (believe it or not) "Dixie." The demonstration went on for half an hour. (Governor Schaefer, are you listening?)

The balloting went on for two weeks, and, as expected, neither Smith nor McAdoo was able to obtain the 732 votes needed for nomination. In his biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, historian Nathan Miller noted that the delegates, "red-eyed, unshaven and drunk with bootleg booze, often came to blows." On the 103rd ballot, the delegates finally nominated a "compromise" candidate, but it was not Ritchie; it was John W. Davis, a West Virginian and Wall Street lawyer.

Ritchie flirted with the presidential idea again in 1928, but never quite got the effort going and withdrew. Pundits thought Ritchie's withdrawal in 1928 signaled that he had the promise of the backing of Smith for a run in 1932. (Roosevelt, they assumed, was a one-term president if ever there was one.)

The time for Smith to make good on that promise came at the Democratic convention in Chicago. Ritchie was given a rousing send-off; 30,000 gathered at Penn Station and sang something called, "There's a President in the Heart of Maryland." When he arrived in Chicago, thousands of supporters were wearing armbands: "Win With Ritchie."

Sensing the Ritchie power, James A. Farley, manager of the campaign of Ritchie's chief rival, Roosevelt, offered Ritchie the vice presidency. (Governor, are you still listening?) Ritchie believed in Al Smith's earlier promise; he gambled on the New York governor's power to stop Roosevelt. It was a bad gamble; Roosevelt got 664 votes to Ritchie's 21 on the first ballot, and eventually FDR chose John Nance Garner of Texas as his vice president.

When it was all over, after 12 years of heady campaigning, Ritchie did have the sweet memories of two nominating speeches made in his behalf at national party conventions and two rafter-shaking demonstrations. He also had a place in history. And a highway named for him at the heart of his state.

Go for it, governor!

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