With primaries, early veep picks, convention mystery is gone

By Mary Louise Giblin Henderson

They’ve taken all the fun out of the national political conventions.

With all-but-nominated Republican Mitt Romney’s selection this month of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate, all the excitement and surprise has gone from the conventions.

Time was when even political neutralists were glued to their televisions on Republican and Democratic convention nomination nights. When television began to broadcast conventions every four years, amateur politicos from both parties could hardly wait for the evening’s events to begin. That’s because it was often a horse-race for both the presidential and vice presidential nominations.

Now, with the top candidates already chosen by convention-time, watching television each night as politicians bombast about their party’s qualifications has all the excitement of watching ice melt.

I can remember the 1960 Democratic national convention when it appeared almost every Democratic politician and his dog sought the nomination, while then-Vice President Richard Nixon was the Republican nominee. Seventeen states held primaries that year and, although John F. Kennedy held a substantial lead when the convention commenced, he didn’t have enough tied-down votes to claim victory.

Additionally, both perennial candidate Adlai Stevenson and then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson entered the presidential race a week before the convention. It was something of a nail-biter, and many people were listening as the Kennedy forces managed to swing enough votes to get JFK nominated on the first ballot.

Unlike present-day conventions, the 1960 Democratic vice presidential seat remained up for grabs until the convention was under way.

There had been speculation about a half-dozen contenders, most of whom had been seeking the presidency.

One of my editors — not a favorite of mine — had asked me before the convention who I thought would be the VP nominee. Blessed with no particular insight, I picked the first name that came to my mind and told him Sen. Johnson. Since it was no secret that the Kennedy family didn’t really like Johnson, the editor snorted at my choice and bet me a nickel that I was wrong.

After Kennedy quite surprisingly selected Johnson, the editor never mentioned the bet again. Although, out of sheer spite, I casually brought up a couple of times that he owed me money, I never got the nickel.

According to political history, the 1976 election was the first in which the primary system dominated the process.

It resulted in relatively unknown Gov. Jimmy Carter piling up enough votes to secure his nomination well before the convention took place. The Democratic vice presidential nomination was a different story. Carter’s vice presidential choice had remained a mystery up to his formal nomination at the convention.

I remember I awoke one midweek morning to my clock-radio announcing that the Children’s Express, a kids’ newspaper whose 9-to-13-year old reporters had gotten press credentials for the convention, had broken the news that Sen. Walter Mondale was Carter’s choice.

There were rumors that eight-and-one-half-year-old Amy, Carter’s daughter, had leaked the story to the 12-year-old Texas youth who scooped all the professional news media. The Carters, of course, denied it, and the rumors died a natural death.

On the Republican side, incumbent President Gerald Ford came into the 1976 Republican convention without sufficient committed votes to sew up a first-ballot nomination.

Backers of Ronald Reagan, the second contender, sought a convention rule forcing Ford to name his vice presidential running-mate immediately. But it failed and Ford, in his own time, selected Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas.

Some historians believe that Reagan lost his chance for the nomination when he announced from the convention floor that his vice presidential choice would be Sen. Richard Schwenke of Pennsylvania, who was considered too liberal by some delegates.

In 1984, Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado did well in the early Democratic primaries and was considered a possible contender, but Sen. Walter Mondale of Michigan had the nomination within his grasp by the time of the San Francisco Democratic convention.

Because Hart was from Colorado, I was covering the convention in San Francisco. Although the Colorado delegation members knew in their hearts that Hart’s selection was a dead issue, they met each morning after breakfast to discuss strategy and practice the chant “Ga-ree,  Ga-ree, Ga-ree,” which they used at appropriate moments on the convention floor, hoping for a miracle. It didn’t happen of course, and Mondale lost the election.

Many pundits would argue that the current system in which all 50 states and the U.S. territories hold spring and early summer primaries and caucuses is a much more people-participating way of selecting candidates than the “smoke-filled backroom” politics of earlier days.

That premise is open to conjecture, depending on how many voters actually participate in the primary elections.  It is obvious, however, that in bygone political conventions the excitement built up day by day until the final roll call and tally of delegates’ preferences.

Mary Louise Giblin Henderson is a former political reporter for The Daily Sentinel. She now lives in California.


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