Tradition! Democrats at N.Y.'s Garden

NEIL A. GRAUER

July 13, 1992|By NEIL A. GRAUER

When the Democrats convene in Madison Square Garden today,they will return to the site of the last convention in which they nominated a winner -- and to the namesake of the hall in which they experienced their most horrendous conclave.

In 1976, the Democrats gathered in the Garden to nominate former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, culminating his phenomenal rise from obscurity to the pinnacle of American politics. In 1980, they returned to the Garden to renominate him, which given the rise in Mr. Carter's reputation due to his exemplary endeavors as an ex-president, is looking like a wiser decision than it appeared at the time.

The Democrats have not been back to the nation's most famous arena in a dozen years, but that is nothing compared to the three decades that elapsed until their 1976 convention after the disastrous 1924 gathering in the current Garden's predecessor, which actually was located on Madison Square, unlike its present incarnation.

The 1924 Democratic Convention dragged on for a ghastly 103 ballots before passing over Maryland's Gov. Albert C. Ritchie and some 15 other candidates to nominate a dark horse standard-bearer doomed to failure. The memory of that disaster may have kept the Democrats out of New York for the next 32 years.

As the delegates to the 1924 Democratic National Convention converged on New York City, Will Rogers sought to assure them that ''the city is doing all it can to make their stay here remembered.''

''The Mayor issued orders that no delegate was to be robbed until after the convention was called to order,'' Rogers wrote in his newspaper column.

The convention, which would turn into the longest ever, began on June 24 in the old Moorish-style Madison Square Garden, built in 1890 at Madison Ave. and 26th St. The building became a mammoth Turkish bath for the 1,098 delegates and their alternates as temperatures outside rose to 83 degrees in that pre-air conditioned age.

From the beginning, a deadlock developed between the forces of two front-runners, New York Gov. Al Smith and Californian William Gibbs McAdoo. Among those hoping to take advantage of the impasse was Ritchie, who headed the Free State's delegation.

The highly emotional issues that fueled the stand-off included debates over Prohibition, which Smith opposed and McAdoo supported; the then-powerful Ku Klux Klan, which had given support to McAdoo; and possible U.S. membership in the League of Nations, the dream of former President Woodrow Wilson, who happened to have been McAdoo's father-in-law.

An anti-Klan plank to the party's platform, which Smith supported, was defeated by one vote after a blistering five-day debate; tepid approval was given to the League, which many Americans opposed, and the Prohibition question was side-stepped.

While these debates proceeded, the nomination of presidential candidates began. In all, 17 names were placed before the delegates. An editorial in The New York Times observed wearily of the choices: ''It cannot honestly be called an embarrassment of riches.''

Marylanders whooped it up for their governor when Ritchie's name was placed in nomination, while Will Rogers sniffed: ''Maryland has a flag that looks as if they were advertising a Turkish cigarette.''

The convention's rules required that the nominee receive two-thirds of the delegate votes -- or 732 -- to win. On the first ballot, McAdoo got 431 votes to Smith's 241, with the other nominees dividing up the remaining delegates. A torturous, see-saw battle ensued.

By the 99th ballot, Smith and McAdoo were tied with 353 delegates each. Marylander B. Howell Griswold, a non-delegate friend of Ritchie's, suggested that the front-runners free their delegates to vote their consciences. When Smith and McAdoo agreed, the stampede to a compromise candidate commenced.

The dapper Ritchie was the first favorite son to back the eventual nominee, John W. Davis, a distinguished diplomat and attorney from West Virginia, who had received a scant 31 votes on the first ballot.

When McAdoo had released his delegates, legend has it that a hot and haggard H. L. Mencken sent a story to The Sun beginning: ''Everything is uncertain at this convention but one thing: John W. Davis will never be nominated.'' The following day, Mencken supposedly grumbled: ''I wonder if those idiots in Baltimore will know enough to strike out the negative.'' (Alas, the microfilm of The Sun and The Evening Sun show no Mencken story with either lead.)

During the convention, incumbent Republican President Calvin Coolidge had been one of the many intrigued listeners to that new household device, radio. The Democrats became the first party to commit, in the words of one commentator, ''the loudest and most spectacular suicide'' imaginable over the airwaves. The voters did not forget the debacle, and chose to remain cool with Coolidge.

Ironically, the most memorable event of the 1924 Democratic Convention was not recognized by many contemporary observers.

The young delegate who placed Al Smith's name in nomination was Franklin D. Roosevelt, coining one of the most enduring phrases in political history by calling Smith ''the Happy Warrior of the political battlefield.''

Roosevelt had been a rising political star and former vice presidential nominee before polio crippled him in 1921. His role at the convention was the beginning of his own comeback, leading to landslide victory for president in 1932.

Perhaps Bill Clinton can take heart from such history. Four years ago his interminable nominating speech for Michael Dukakis was a disaster -- but it got him his first gig on the "Tonight Show." In such forums may this year's race be won.

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist.

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