Q. People say the presidential conventions have
become a media circus. Is this really something new?
A. It's always been a circus. It's been a circus since the
first conventions. The 1860 Republican convention, which was held
in the Wigwam, a temporary meeting hall in Chicagothey build
a hall which held all the delegates and then a couple hundred spectators.
So there were hundreds of people outside trying to get word of whats
going on. And they had people called "shouters" [who]
would shout the message out the door and tell the people whats
happening: if Lincoln got two votes from Pennsylvania or whatever
it was, or theyd repeat the platform.
Q. When did you start watching the conventions?
A. My parents got our first TV set in 1952 in order to watch
the Democratic and Republican conventions, which were both in Chicago
that yearwe lived up in Milwaukee. So I watched them, and that
was my first impression. I remember the stage and the pageantry
of the whole thing. How magnificent it was. I didnt know what
it meant; I was only five.
Q: Have there been any conventions where the media
had a big impact?
A: [There's] the Chicago Stadium Democratic convention in
1932, when [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt was nominated in early morning.
The role of the radio there is somewhat amusing. The most important
debate besides Roosevelt at that convention was the debate over
Prohibition: Would they again support Prohibition or would they
break with Prohibition and denounce it?
On the platform, there was a pretty reasonable but somewhat heated
debate over the issue. But the microphones in the convention hall
were placed in such a way that if the audience got involved, they
were picked up more than the people on the stage. So what happens
is that the Chicago stadium is packed with Chicago city workers,
who chant Beer! Beer! Beer! Beer! Beer! throughout the
whole debate. And so the whole nation naturally concludes that,
well, we know where the Democrats stand.
Of course, the most direct influence on a convention by the press
was in 1872, when the editor and publisher of the New York Tribune,
Horace Greeley, was nominated for president by the Liberal Republicans
in Cincinnati. Greeleys nomination was ratified by the Democrats
in Baltimore in a bizarre six-hour convention, as the fusion candidate
to run against President Grant. The Liberal Republican Convention
was controlled by what we might call an editorial plot by Murat
Halstead of the Cincinnati Commercial, Colonel Henry Watterson of
the Louisville Courier Journal and Horace White, publisher of the
Chicago Tribune to put over Greeley against Grant.
Q: Were there other conventions where the media
had an impact?
A. The 1964 Republican convention, in which there was a
fight between the Goldwater and the Rockefeller peopleI think
the meanness of that conflict left an impression on people. You
could read about it in the newspaper, and it would probably have
one tenor, but to see it left a bad impressionit was the time
when the Liberal Republicans were being chased out of the party.
Q. Was that when Rockefeller was booed as he was
trying to give a speech?
A. Right, right.
Q. But what impact did the media have on that?
A. People don't have to read about it; they see it, they
hear it, they feel it. You could write about the bitterness of the
Rockefeller-Goldwater conflict but it would be different [because]
TV was there at that moment.
The Democrats, that same yearthe Mississippi Freedom Democratic
Party had a fierce fight in the credentials committee [about] whether
or not they or an all-white regular Mississippi delegation would
be admitted. That fightand the aftermathwas on TV. So if
you're on the cutting edge of civil rights, all of a sudden you're
wondering, well, are the Democrats really with us or what?
Clearly the 1968 convention [when demonstrators rioted in the streets
of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention]I was in
the fray there; I was on the corner of Balbo and Michigan Avenue,
which was one of my motivations for writing the book "Inside
the Wigwam." When the police charged at the corner of Balbo
and Michigan Avenue, I followed some reporters up to the ABC TV
truck right there, so I didn't get my head bashed in, but I saw
the view like the guys who were filming it, the chaoswhich helped
me to write that chapter.
Just one last one: I wonder if the McGovern campaign would have
put on George McGovern after midnight if TV hadn't been there. I'm
certain if it was in the 19th century, they would have said 'Let's
take a time-out here, and we'll present our candidate tomorrow afternoon'
or something like that. At a certain point, TV began to drive the
events of the convention.
Q. When do you think that happened?
A. I think it happened around 1976. I think it was the aftermath
of the '72 conventionthe fact that McGovern was forced to go
on after midnight, that the speeches and debates went on and so
the schedule just got pushed back farther and farther.
As I think about it, that's not the first time that happened. Harry
Truman [in] 1948 gave his acceptance speech well after midnight.
It was on radio and people who listenedand that wasn't that
many peoplehad they been attentive, could have seen that Truman
was going to win the election because the kind of speech he gave
was just incredible. That's what he gave on the back of those railroad
cars throughout the [campaign].
Q: What year was that?
A. 1948, the year that he makes the big comebackand
the Chicago Tribune is forever branded with the headline ["Dewey
Nation TM © 2004 University of Massachusetts Boston and
Nieman Foundation at Harvard University.