If There’s a Brokered Convention: Who Will Be Our Will Rogers?

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By: Greg Mitchell

Fans of Al Gore — and certain cable TV pundits only interested in a wild news event and ratings — have raised the scenario for months, but the idea has been widely mocked. Now, as the media turn on Barack Obama, after turning on Hillary Clinton, and many lament that the mud will fly and anger rise for many more weeks, is the idea of a brokered convention really so implausible? See Bob Herbert’s column in The New York Times on Saturday for the kind of pox-on-both-their houses that seems to be all the rage.

I’m not saying the brokered convention is now likely, or desirable — please, no hate mail — but if Hillary does very well from now until June, and the fight gets even nastier, try to imagine what the media atmosphere might be like after that. With Clinton already fostering an anti-Obama attitude, and Obama backers ready to resent the nomination being “stolen” by Hillary, it’s likely that the media, and some Democratic pols, will be promoting the idea of a convention showdown.

I’m far from ready to go to deeply into this now, or make any predictions, but as a historian of American campaigns (with a couple of books on the subject to my credit), let me briefly recall the 1924 Democratic convention, when a compromise candidate indeed came out of nowhere and earned the nod — with disastrous results for the Democrats.

This was the gathering that inspired the famous Will Rogers line, “I don’t belong to any organized party, I’m a Democrat.” In fact, Will (the top newspaper columnist and most beloved man in America)– who probably should have been president himself — had a lot of fun with it.

The convention was held in New York City from June 24 to…seemingly forever. Two powerful candidates headed the field – Gov. Al Smith of New York and William G. McAdoo, former Secretary of Treasury. There were some parallels to Obama and Clinton, with Smith deemed unelectable by many because he was a Catholic and McAdoo having a close familial relationship to a former president, as son-in-law of Woodrow Wilson.

They each had strong, very separate constituencies. McAdoo had the backing of Protestants, farmers, the vast majority of delegates from the South, Midwest and West. Smith, of course, was favored by Catholics, ethnics, liberals, those in big cities, especially in the Northeast. McAdoo’s people favored Prohibition and refused to condemn the Ku Klux Klan; Smith’s fans were against both.

Now here’s a key difference: A nominee then had to gain two-thirds of the delegates to win the nod. If that were true today, a brokered convention would probably be inevitable. McAdoo got a majority on the first ballot, 431 votes, not close to the two-thirds needed,. with Smith gaining 241. Will Rogers, who would have been my candidate, got one vote; Franklin D. Roosevelt earned two. With so much anger on both sides, neither candidate backed down, and the balloting went on, and on.

By the 100th ballot, Smith was in first place but Gov. John W. Davis, the obscure former congressman and “compromise” candidate, had now overtaken McAdoo in the number two slot. It was now July 9, more than two weeks into the affair – no wonder today’s cable news gasbags are salivating – and Will Rogers was exclaiming that New York had invited the delegates to visit the city — but not move there permanently.

On the 103rd ballot, the delegates threw up their hands and nominated Davis.

Davis would be trounced by the seemingly weak Republican – a successor to the unpopular, disgraced, Warren G. Harding — “Silent Cal” Coolidge. But Davis did not have nearly the name value or accomplishments of an Al Gore or John Edwards or….you name it. So perhaps a compromise Democrat could still win this year.

Anyway: There’s your history lesson. Now what? Hang on to your hats. But where is Will Rogers when we really need him? As he said, “Everything is changing. People are taking the comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.”
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Greg Mitchell’s new book is “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President – Failed on Iraq. His previous books include volumes on the Nixon/Douglas race in 1950 and Upton Sinclair’s amazing campaign for governor of California in 1934.

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