1912, one convention to savor

May 26, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

UNTIL THURSDAY, Baltimore was among five cities listed as possibilities for the Democratic Party's National Convention in 2004.

It is a measure of the low place the city has fallen to since the last convention here 90 years ago that Baltimore was the first of the five to be discarded.

Baltimore does not have enough hotel rooms, or a big enough convention center for the quadrennial political excess. But Mayor Martin O'Malley was pushing for it with some imagination. He proposed, for example, that while the Baltimore Convention Center is not large enough, the city might offer to erect a canopy over Oriole Park at Camden Yards to accommodate the throng.

O'Malley had precedent on his side. Baltimore was the host for the first major party nominating convention in 1831 and one of the greatest Democratic Party conventions of the last century when Woodrow Wilson won the party nomination from a sweating crowd in the 5th Regiment Armory in 1912.

Conventions in those days were not the carefully orchestrated affairs they are today, devoid of suspense over who will win the nomination. Wilson did not win the required two-thirds vote until the 46th ballot. And but for a loose-lipped editor talking over drinks at the Maryland Club, Henry L. Mencken, the famed Sunpapers writer, author and critic, might have been nominated to run as vice president.

Mencken's "dip into statecraft," as he titled a description of the caper, had less to do with presidential politics than it did with deep hatred that existed between Charles H. Grasty, editor of The Sunpapers, and J. Harry Preston, mayor of Baltimore. In the "statecraft" chapter of Mencken's book, Heathen Days, he described the relationship thus:

"If Preston, as mayor, proposed to enlarge the town dog-pound, Grasty denounced it in both morning and evening Sunpapers as an assault on the solvency of Baltimore, the comity of nations, and the Ten Commandments, and if Grasty argued in the Sunpapers that the town alleys ought to be cleaned oftener Preston went about the ward clubs warning his heelers that the proposal was only the opening wedge for anarchy, atheism and cannibalism."

The Democratic Party Convention of 1912 offered Grasty an opportunity to play a dreadful and mean trick on Preston.

Preston was a supporter of Champ Clark, an influential politico from Missouri who seemed to be the early favorite to win the presidential nomination. Preston hoped, with fairly good reason, that if Clark did end up controlling the convention, Preston would be a shoo-in for the vice presidential nomination.

In those days, aspirants for the presidency and even the vice presidency were required to register their names in Annapolis and post a bond of $270 no later than the first Monday in May preceding the convention, which was to take place in June. If no one posted for vice president, the convention could vote for anybody to take the No. 2 spot on the ballot, but if two or more posted, the convention had to choose from among the registered candidates.

"Preston, of course, knew the law, but he was a thrifty fellow and saw no reason why he should waste $270, for he figured with perfect plausibility that he would be the only aspirant for second place before the convention," Mencken wrote. "Grasty's sinister mind grasped this point."

Mencken was headed off for a voyage to Europe, but before he left, Grasty hatched a plot to file Mencken's name and the required $270 fee at the last minute on the first Monday of May, thus ruining any hope for Preston.

Telling Mencken to write his acceptance statement - to be delivered when he reached Europe, Grasty was reeling with glee. "The joke will wreck Preston, and the shock may even kill him," Mencken recorded his editor as saying. "If he actually shoots himself I'll tone down your statement a bit."

Off Mencken sailed to Europe, expecting a cable from Grasty once the evil joke was played. And it might have worked if Grasty's weakness for drink hadn't ruined it all.

Uncontrollably pleased with himself, Grasty bellied up to the bar at the Maryland Club and after a few of his favorite Manhattan cocktails, he began to boast of his scheme against Preston. He should hardly have been surprised that Preston would have a friend or two at the same bar - possibly more friends than Grasty had. Word of the Grasty scheme reached Preston in time for him to file his name along with the required $270. Grasty was foiled.

Grasty sent a cable to Mencken who was on a ship in the Atlantic: "Everything is off. Say nothing to anyone."

These days, the editors of The Sun get along better with the mayor. And there may be little that Martin O'Malley and J. Harry Preston have in common. Except, possibly, for this, revealed in Mencken's description of Preston's ambition:

"He began to wonder if the job of mayor of Baltimore was really large enough for his talents. ... What if the people of Maryland should decide to draft the man who had saved the people of Baltimore, and make him their governor and Captain-General? What if the people of the whole United -- "

Mencken left it at that, but you know what he meant.

Preston never went on to higher office. As for his attempt at the vice presidency, his name came up, but his nominator was drunk as a skunk. The convention drowned him out "and poor Preston went down to the tune of hoots and hollers," according to The Sunpapers of Baltimore, a history of the papers' first 100 years. Preston got 58 votes, including 16 from the Maryland delegation.

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