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The Evolving Role of National Party Conventions

Ray Suarez discusses the evolving role of national party conventions in the presidential election process with Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian; Richard Norton Smith, executive director of the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; and Ellen Fitzpatrick, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire.

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  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And I'm joined by NewsHour regulars and presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith. Also with us tonight: Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of history at the University of New Hampshire.

    Well, panel, tonight we'll hear from the party's 2000 nominee, two previous Democratic presidents, Clinton and Carter, but we won't hear from, interestingly, Michael Dukakis who after all is a favorite son, former governor of Massachusetts. Have parties always been selective about what parts of their past they want to embrace and what parts they want to remember, Michael?

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    They have been. I mean, the people who are here tonight are here for a reason. Al Gore reminds Democrats of an election that a lot of them think was stolen from them – 2000. Jimmy Carter, although defeated in 1980, a very popular ex-president and since the last convention a Nobel Laureate, and of course, Bill Clinton who won two terms, the first Democratic president to do so in decades.

    So these are people who can bring people behind John Kerry. They can do something for him. Others like Michael Dukakis does not have very many lingering followers. That's why someone like Dukakis is absent tonight.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And when we look at the past, do we see patterns like this in both parties?

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    Sure we do. You know, the theme of this evening is America remembers. And apparently the first thing America is going to remember is the Florida recount but America's memory is going to be somewhat selective at the same time. That's bipartisan. It's a tradition.

    Tom Dewey is a symbol of political futility for Republicans. He lost the '48 election, famously snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Four years later he was back leading the Eisenhower forces. There was a very dramatic moment of confrontation when Ev Dirksen, the leader of the anti-Dewey, the Taft forces, stood at the podium, pointed his finger melodramatically and said we followed you twice and you took us down the path of defeat. The place went wild, booing, hissing, cheering. Dewey was imperturbable because he knew he had the votes and Eisenhower wins the nomination. Dewey every four years later showed up to give an increasingly nostalgic sentimental appearance before the convention.

    In some ways I'd say the Democrats are more ruthless than the republicans. Dewey got to come back every four years which is more than you can say for George McGovern, Walter Mondale, or Michael Dukakis.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And President Carter, Ellen Fitzpatrick, he is someone who might not have been invited to previous get-togethers but he's playing a big role at this one.

  • ELLEN FITZPATRICK:

    He is. The timing of all of this is very interesting. These are the ghosts of conventions past. Having these ex-presidents on the — or candidates on the first night of the convention is deliberate, I think. It's meant to put some distance between them and John Kerry. This way they will neither overshadow nor burden the new candidate.

    In 1968, LBJ, who was a sitting president, was asked not to attend the convention. He had great interest in the convention even though he had already decided that he had withdrawn from the race. But there were suggestions that he was harboring ideas that he might come on a flying carpet into the convention and be drafted at the final moment despite the enormous division in the party. So attempts are made to honor and to represent these candidates and ex-presidents but to do so from a safe distance, I think.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    But there are people who grow in stature over time and get a second look, Michael?

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    Carter is an example. Because in 1984 Carter spoke to the Democrats in San Francisco but they didn't give him a great time slot. They had Mo Udall, the congressman from Arizona who had been defeated by him in 1976 almost get up in his introductory speech before Carter and plead with the delegates to give Carter a warm welcome saying, please, join me in honoring this good man, almost as if he was coaxing them not just to look at Carter as a loser. Nowadays Carter is a huge asset for John Kerry.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Professor Fitzpatrick, as we look back at a century-and-a-half of these things since they they've become an institutionalized part of our politics, apart from the jumbo tron screens and the nationwide satellite audience, how have they changed?

  • ELLEN FITZPATRICK:

    They've changed enormously in that the conventions are no longer a place where we can expect to see the unexpected. They've become highly scripted, highly ritualized affairs. It's a kind of theater that we watch tonight. And Americans will tune in to their television and this will be the show of the evening.

    In the old days before the primary system assumed the role that it has assumed today, there were possibilities for surprises to occur — in both candidates, for president and for vice president. The primary system which was intended to open up the process has in many ways drained the conventions of their drama and significance.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And when were those changes made in the formula?

  • ELLEN FITZPATRICK:

    Really after 1968, and the challenges to the rules. But really as early as the early 20th century in 1903 when Wisconsin instituted a presidential primary, this was an attempt to take the process out of the smoke-filled rooms and give it to the people and allow them to pick the candidates. And as soon as that process began, over the course of the last 100 years, we've seen gradually the shift occur.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    So now Richard we know who the nominee is going to be long before the convention. But if we look at that party purpose, have there been examples where a fractured and somewhat confused parties have come together to meet and marched out the door at the other end of the event ready to run a national campaign?

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    It's much more likely the other way around. I mean, the reason why these are, quote, scripted infomercials to use a popular phrase and I think a trivializing phrase really is because of the power of television.

    Forty years ago in 1964 the Republicans tore themselves apart on national TV between the Goldwater and Rockefeller wings in San Francisco. In 1968, it was the Democrats' turn in Chicago with riots inside and outside the hall. In 1972, the McGovern convention was so chaotic that the nominee didn't get on the air to make his acceptance speech until 3:00 in the morning.

    Americans were watching at home and they said if you can't run a convention, how can you run a country? Parties exist to win elections. It's not surprising given the power of television and the pictures to affect the electoral equation that they would decide to change the rules. And that's why these are increasingly televised, made for television productions.

    The other thing is you know what? There's a lot of misplaced nostalgia about the old conventions. Remember the two-thirds rule in the Democratic Party in 1936? There were very few women delegates, very few African-American delegates. There were smoke-filled rooms. There were bosses. H. L. Mencken had a great time; he said they combined the better features of a camp revival and a hanging but that was then. Now is now. This is important.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Well, there's that misplaced nostalgia and also along with that you see the obituary written for the major party convention every four years or so. How do you explain their persistent necessity and their persistent strength?

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    It just has a different role. Nowadays campaigns are run largely on television. One way that Americans find out about candidates are obviously the presidential debates in the fall, the other is the party conventions so what you're watching is not conflict like 1968; Democrats in Chicago. What you're watching is the party as it wishes to be seen. We'll see that tonight.

    You begin to ask the question, why is it that they want to put out Clinton and Gore and Jimmy Carter? What does that tell you about the way the Democrats would like to be seen in 2004? One thing that's an obvious cue to the mystery, they want to seem this week a center party. They don't want people to think of this as the party of George McGovern and other of these nominees that will not be there tonight.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Thanks all and let's have a great convention.

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    Look forward to it.

  • ELLEN FITZPATRICK:

    Thank you.

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