PITTSBURGH — In August 1852, the delegates to the national convention of the Free Soil Party gathered here. One of my predecessors as editor of the local newspaper wrote that the proceedings would be “regarded by future generations somewhat as we now regard that Convention which first proclaimed man’s inalienable right to 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ “
Well here we are, in a future generation, and no one in Pittsburgh or anywhere else knows much if anything about that convention, which drew delegates by carriage, rail, and boat to hear a thundering speech by Frederick Douglass, to rally against the Fugitive Slave Law, and to nominate the largely forgotten John P. Hale for president.
Some 168 years later the spread of the novel coronavirus is forcing the two national political parties to confront the danger of assembling thousands of delegates, news correspondents, and others in crowded convention halls in Milwaukee and Charlotte. President Trump is insisting that the Republican convention will proceed as scheduled in late August. The Democrats already have moved their conclave from July to August in the hope the health risk will have dissipated.
Politicians often live by the maxim that a crisis is too important to waste, and right now it looks as if leaders of both parties are wasting the COVID-19 crisis. Why not use this crisis to put an end to the national political convention once and for all?
For years the national political convention has been a mastodon — a four-day party that is a revel for both delegates and correspondents. I’ve been to 11 of them and admit I had a blast watching party members wear silly hats, ignore almost every speech, and collect pins, commemorative glasses and, from Michael Dukakis’s 1988 convention, a Frisbee made from carpet remnants.
Of course some important business has been conducted at these events. Hubert Humphrey gave a speech at the Democrats’ 1948 convention that began guiding the party out of “the shadow of states’ rights” to “walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” The 1988 Republican Party provided George H.W. Bush with the forum to issue his “read-my-lips” pledge not to raise taxes, a vow he defied in the 1990 budget agreement. The 2004 Democratic Convention provided Barack Obama, the surprise selection as the keynote speaker, with his first national exposure.
And some landmark speeches have been delivered at these events. Franklin Roosevelt spoke of the New Deal at the Democrats’ 1932 convention and John F. Kennedy introduced the New Frontier at the 1960 session. Barry Goldwater set in motion dramatic changes in the GOP with his “extremism in the defense of liberty” speech in 1964. The commentator Patrick J. Buchanan previewed the current divisions in American life when he spoke at the GOP’s 1988 convention of a “cultural war” for the “soul of America.’’
But important speeches don’t require a convention. FDR delivered his Four Freedoms speech in his State of the Union Address. Kennedy’s most enduring speeches occurred at his Inauguration, at his Rice University “go-to-the-moon” speech, and at his American University “peace” speech. Ronald Reagan left a bigger mark with his speech after the Challenger space shuttle disaster and with his plea to “tear down this wall” than in anything he said at conventions.
Party leaders inevitably argue that national political conventions are the principal vehicles to bring their parties together in one place. But hardly anyone other than party leaders care about that, and there’s no example where the mere gathering in an arena has changed the course of history — except of course the Democrats’ 1968 debacle, when there was rioting in the streets of Chicago. Indeed, the few examples of conventions that had an impact are of bruising floor fights, such as the struggle involving the seating of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation in 1964, and instances when delegates bolted from a convention, as partisans of Theodore Roosevelt did in 1912 and Dixiecrat followers of Strom Thurmond did in 1948.
And while every four years commentators write of the possibility of a brokered convention, there hasn’t been a nomination even remotely in doubt in almost a half century (when Reagan challenged Gerald Ford in 1976) and there haven’t been multiple ballots cast in 68 years (when it took three to nominate Adlai Stevenson in 1952). Presidential nominees once often waited until their conventions to announce their running mates, but that custom has faded; both 2016 candidates announced their vice-presidential selections before their conventions.
Conventions were an essential, and indispensable, part of American politics when there were limited means of travel and communication. Parties faced great unknowns: Their ideas didn’t receive the public airing now familiar in our civic life, their candidates were less well-known — and their eventual nominees were often undecided until the delegates met. The conventions resolved those open questions and sent their nominees to their general-election battles with great fanfare.
But the growth of political primaries, especially after the Democrats overhauled their rules just before the 1972 campaign, brought the sort of resolution to nomination fights that would have been less likely before. With the decline of the ‘’smoke-filled room” where nominees sometimes were chosen — the best example is the selection of Warren G. Harding by Republican power brokers in just such a fuggy enclave in the Blackstone Hotel in 1920 — there has been a precipitous decline in the need to rent rooms in convention hotels at all.
H.L. Mencken wrote during the 1924 Democratic Convention that required 103 ballots to select John W. Davis as its nominee that “one sits through long sessions wishing all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell,’’ only to add that “suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour.”
But the gorgeous hour of the convention has passed. Let’s take this moment to bring them to the end they have earned.
David Shribman, former Washington bureau chief for the Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and scholar-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University.