When world events are dark horses at conventions

by Rick Marschall

Political party conventions, especially those that gather to nominate presumptive presidents, are august events. The future courses of the party itself, the country, and the world, are affected. The organization, composition, deliberations, and votes—from platform minutia to the candidates themselves—are of great import.

Or not. I remember when I was young, David Brinkley, the television anchor and commentator, observing political circus. As a young fan of history and politics, these displays made me slightly ashamed of American democracy. Surely the caustic Mr. Brinkley would decry them.

Instead, Mr. Brinkley praised and even savored such displays. “When makes these quadrennial festivals so much fun, so very American,” he said, was the “silly hats, the plethora of colorful buttons, the embarrassing vests; the crazy dances and horns and speeches.”

Janus-like, conventions sum up one set of campaigns and commence the next. These days, when they are media events, they create their own entertainment if none other exists. It is the birthright of political junkies, no less than is campaign memorabilia.

Many people assume that presidential nominating conventions of the past mostly were bombast and persiflage. Pretentious speeches did abound, and so did other bygone clichés—smoke-filled rooms; literal parades up and down the aisles; dark-horse candidates “running” till the last minutes in order to jokey for publicity or favors.

For all of this year’s apocalyptic talk of a “brokered convention,” these were once common—and not efficient. Deadly factions often fought to the last hour, and the last drop of blood. Horatio Seymour was the 1868 Democratic nominee on the 22nd ballot; four years later James Garfield was the GOP candidate on the 36th ballot. Democrats made a specialty of wrangling and horse-trading: Wilson (46 ballots in 1912); Cox (44 in 1920); and Davis (103 ballots in 1924!) were bloodied victors. Even FDR needed four rounds of balloting.

Otherwise, and before mass media, conventions were short-lived and sometimes boringly businesslike affairs, like an Elks convention with a lot of flags.

1904 was doomed to be such a convention. Theodore Roosevelt, the incumbent, was fabulously popular, and his renomination was in no doubt. His only serious opponent, Sen. Mark Hanna of Ohio, dutifully had died earlier in the year. The enthusiasm for TR would not be concentrated or transferred to the Chicago convention—the campaign itself would give supporters their chances for parades, rallies, and silly hats. A lost opportunity for some convention persiflage, leaders lamented.

Then a bombshell exploded. It was not terrorism on the streets of Chicago, but a crisis half the world away—ironically, perhaps, a kidnapped American citizen at the hands of rival Islamic factions in the desert.

An American industrialist, Ion Perdicaris, was kidnapped in Morocco. The Berber tribal chief Raisuli schemed to embarrass the nation’s Sultan by demanding $70,000 (approximately a million of today’s dollars) in ransom, partly to reveal the national government as powerless. TR cared not a bit about the internal dynamics of North African tribal disputes. But when Secretary of State John Hay forwarded the president’s reaction in a cable—“Perdicaris alive, or Raisuli dead”—Americans were electrified.

And word of this bombast, from the administration itself, sent the convention into red-white-and-blue frenzy. Fewer displays of spontaneous enthusiasm were ever seen at conventions before or since.

History says that the American likely was released before the actual cable reached Morocco, but the results were the same. The world knew where the U.S. president stood. And the Republican convention was energized by a candidate whose vocabulary did not include bluffs or equivocations.

Rick Marschall is the author of “Bully!: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt.”