Segment from Stuck

Circus comes to Town

The hosts talk to Kevin Murphy about the 1924 Democratic convention, which was a bit of a circus for reasons other than the fact that the place smelled of elephants. Read more.

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**Note: this transcript come from the original broadcast of the show. There may be small differences from the stories you hear.**

BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re talking this week about political gridlock, how we get into it and how we got out of it.

ED: One of the most insane instances of political gridlock came in 1924 at the Democratic National Convention. Now, today the convention only lasts about four days thought it can seem a lot longer. The delegates fly into town. They vote on their platform. They nominate their candidate. Maybe they go to a theme park. Botta bing, botta boom, convention over.

BRIAN: But in 1924, a year when it looked like the underdog Democrats just might be able to take on the Republican powerhouse, the dems ran into some trouble. Their convention was gridlocked for three weeks. To set the scene, the Democratic Party at this point is split.

It’s basically split into two factions. The first, Northern liberals. They are your big city types, lots of immigrants, lots of Catholics. And they generally want to end prohibition.

PETER: The second group making up the Democratic Party is the southern and western conservative faction. They’re predominantly white, protestant, and dry, meaning they support prohibition.

KEVIN MURPHY: So these two sort of have an alliance of convenience against their Republican party. But they don’t see eye to eye on any issue whatsoever really.

PETER: This is Kevin Murphy, an historian. And, currently, he’s a speechwriter on Capitol Hill.

KEVIN MURPHY: So William McAdoo is sort of the candidate of the South and the West. And Al Smith is the candidate of the northern cities.

BRIAN: The parties seem to be pretty evenly divided between these two candidates, McAdoo and Smith. Luckily for Smith, the convention was held on his home turf in New York City at the old Madison Square Garden. Needless to say, in the 1920s the cosmopolitan hard drinking irreverent New York was not a particularly welcoming place for McAdoo and its more rural supporters.

KEVIN MURPHY: New Yorkers called them turd kickers and apple polishers. And before the convention even starts, a lot of journalists, like an H. L. Mencken and The New Republic and The Nation, they see this sort of train wreck about to happen.

BRIAN: Right from the start, the convention has problems. A big item on the platform agenda was deciding whether or not officially to denounce the Ku Klux Klan. It seems like a no brainer, except the KKK, well, they were McAdoo supporters.

KEVIN MURPHY: And, obviously, the Ku Klux Klan is not a favorite organization of northern immigrants. So the first three or four days are just fighting that out. And that hardens hearts. And it’s a bad way to start the process.

BRIAN: The Klan was able to rally enough support to stop the Democrats from denouncing them. Six days into the convention, party leaders finally call for the first vote to nominate the presidential candidate. Who’s it going to be? McAdoo or Smith?

KEVIN MURPHY: And Alabama always goes first. And so the governor of Alabama is this man named William Brandon with a distinctive Alabama drawl. He sort of always kicks it off by saying, Alabama casts its 24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood.

BRIAN: Uh oh. Oscar W. Underwood, a senator from Alabama, not even one of the two major candidates. On the first ballot, 19 different men receive votes to be nominated. McAdoo and Smith split most of the votes. But nobody came close to the 2/3 requirement.

PETER: So they have to have a second ballot.

KEVIN MURPHY: Alabama casts its 24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood.

PETER: Then a third.

KEVIN MURPHY: Alabama casts its 24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood.

PETER: Then a fourth.

KEVIN MURPHY: Alabama casts its 24 votes–

PETER: And a fifth.

KEVIN MURPHY: Alabama casts its 24 votes–

PETER: And a sixth.

KEVIN MURPHY: Alabama casts its 24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood. This sort of keeps going on and on and there’s just not much change happening. And delegates are starting to leave. John Nance Garner, who’s later vice president under FDR, he leaves but says this is going to take 100 ballots.

BRIAN: Humorous Will Rogers wrote about the convention for the New York Times.

WILL ROGERS: I’m sitting at my typewriter sound asleep. But I can still write Alabama 24 for Oscar W. Underwood. That is better known right now in this building than the Lord’s Prayer.

KEVIN MURPHY: By the 87th ballot, they’d been there for two weeks, I believe. And the Barnum and Bailey Circus had been there just before the convention, which sort of played out fine. But there’s a heat wave in the New York. And so the smell of the circus elephants are everywhere. I think Arthur Crock called it homicidal, suicidal, rough house. It’s an ugly scene.

BRIAN: By the 103 ballot, things had gotten so bad, the press so negative, that both the leading contenders, McAdoo and Smith, decided to drop out. The convention settled on a third candidate, a guy most Americans had never heard of, John W. Davis of West Virginia. Even he realized that after this embarrassment he had no chance at the presidency.

KEVIN MURPHY: They gave it to him. And when he did, he said, thanks, but you know how much this is worth. He was sort of the last man standing.

I think H.L Mencken says at the time it’s as if France and Germany, who have been fighting over Alsace-Lorraine for centuries, just decided to hand it to England. They’re tired. It’s been three weeks in the hot elephant smelling auditorium. Nobody got what they wanted. They just want to go home. It’s not compromise as you normally think of it in the history books.

BRIAN: Put your speechwriter hat on. Are there any lessons that you would want to offer to your fellow staffers or principals on the Hill? Will the partisan rancor that consumes us today be settled in the same way as the ’24 convention? Will it be settled by attrition, the last person standing?

KEVIN MURPHY: That seems to be the way it’s going now. But I’m in the trenches every day. So I’m probably not the one to speak on that because it can be demoralizing working on the Hill and seeing the way it’s not working at the moment.

PETER: Kevin Murphy is an historian and speechwriter in Washington DC. Well, we like to think that compromise leads to some outcome. There’s a winner, there’s a looser.

But here we got a classic loser, loser situation. And a loser then lost. And there’s a lesson here for the Democratic Party and maybe for the Republican Party today that if you can’t work things out, you might be giving the whole game away.