How they choose the U. S. President

The Republican and Democratic Parties of the U.S.A. held their conventions in Chicago in July. The main purpose of these conventions is to adopt a party platform and to nominate a candidate for the Presidency and Vice-Presidency of the. U.S.A. The conventions then dissolve to be born again four years later.

Time, the weekly news-magazine published a guide to the American conventions. The introduction to the booklet said it contained the history, highlights and highjinks of past conventions, and the customs, procedures and rules governing the current conventions and that what the America citizen would see and hear on radio and television would often be an extension of the backroom bickering and manoeuvring that would take place behind the scenes.

It was estimated that between 50 and 60 million viewers would be able to see the conventions on television.

The convention setting is described as a uniquely American scene. So let’s have a look at it through the courtesy of Time magazine

A party convention, the Paris newspaper Le Matin explained gravely to its readers in 1948, is “a manifestation typically American, where politics, patriotism and the music hall mingle to create an atmosphere which at the same time becomes a country fair, a religious meeting, and a public reunion.”

Its streets hung with bunting, the rugs and the best furniture carefully removed from hotel lobbies, gaudy welcome signs plastered across the honky-tonks on South State Street, Chicago will have readied itself for the avalanche of delegates, bands, elephants, donkeys, straw hats and rumpled seer-suckers. Convention planning committees will be besieged with impossible requests. One delegate in 1948 asked for 20 cases of whisky, another for a room out of range of alcohol fumes.

At Philadelphia, in 1948 (where the previous convention was held), practised scavengers could go from one suite to another, pick up combs, cigarette holders, furniture polish, coffee, doughnuts, beer, cheese, crackers, gum, candy, soft drinks, nail files, noise- makers, bottles of deodorant, tickets for door prizes and enough literature to start a wastepaper business. In relation to the above it should be explained that campaign managers for the candidates usually set up their headquarters in a hotel. Minor candidates might have a single hotel suite, but the bigger, more prosperous headquarters might occupy a rambling network of reception centres, press rooms and strategic hideaways, with corps of press agents, pretty secretaries, and prettier models.

Much of the circus and party-time atmosphere is created by people with nothing better to do. Regarding the delegates, a large number come to the convention pledged to vote for certain candidates, but the pledges are not always as meaningful or as weighty as they sound. Some are firmly committed to their candidate by state primary laws or by party understanding, and will stick to their commitments as long as their man has a chance for the nomination. Some are pledged through the first ballot only; many others have only the thin moral commitment of a “beauty contest” primary. Some state delegations will vote solidly behind their leaders, others have more renegades than regulars.

Supporters of each candidate go after these waverers like a party machine in miniature. They watch opposing candidates carefully, send out trial balloons to test the direction of the convention winds. They plant rumours, send them filtering down through the hotel lobbies and out to the convention hall. Heads of state delegations still in the doubtful columns are courted like queens at a high-school prom. Leading candidates try to give an impression of invincibility: get on the bandwagon before it’s too late. The dark horses play the opposite tune: it’s too early to tell; hold tight and wait for the break.

Timing of individual campaigns is worked out in meticulous detail. The Dewey manager in 1948, for instance, announced the support of a few new states each day to build up the impression of a swelling tide of support, were able to override all opposition on the thifd ballot. A planted gallery at the 1940 Republican Convention, setting up its “We want Wilkie” chant, gave a push to the Wilkie bandwagon.

When the convention opens, the bickering that has been going on in the hotel rooms and lobbies moves to the floor of the convention hall. But first come the time-honoured preliminaries. At the opening of each session, the National Anthem is sung and prayers are offered. With sweeping impartiality the conventions are prayed over by clergymen of every religion and denomination that can be squeezed into the programme. At the 1940 Republican Convention, prayers were led by a Rabbi, a Lutheran pastor, a Christian Scientist, a Roman Catholic cardinal, an African Methodist Episcopal bishop, a Presbyterian minister, the chancellor of a Roman Catholic archdiocese, a Baptist minister, a Protestant Episcopal bishop, a Methodist Episcopal minister, and the chaplain of the Connecticut state senate.

A potential bombshell at the convention is the report of the Platform Committee—the final, polished result of argument and compromise that have been going on since long before the convention opened.

Much of the lobbying at the convention is done at open hearings before this committee. The committee listens tolerantly to most proposals, but is predisposed to a middle-of-the-road position wherever possible.

The platform may actually be written by two or three men in a back room, while the rest of the committee listens patiently to the people grinding their axes. Tactics differ, but the platform is designed to win, not alienate votes.

The end of each nominating speech becomes a signal for a wild demonstration. A parade begins to snake around the convention floor, picking up new delegations as it winds round the aisles. The candidate’s band plays his campaign song and the air is filled with whistling, singing, shouting. The demonstrators try to convince everyone that a bandwagon is on its way. Wiser political heads scan the hall carefully to see which delegations have not joined the parade.

In recent years the tendency has been more towards theatricals than pure noise. During the Stassen demonstration at the last Republican gathering, a bevy of strong, young men carried on their shoulders a rowboat occupied by a shapely blonde in a satin sailor suit. The local florists presented a liberty bell made of flowers to President Truman in 1948. Inside were 48 pigeons. Most of them fluttered out into the hall, rafter-bound, some perching on electric fans and sending down a shower of tail feathers.

Floor demonstrations run on until the wind leaves their sails, and succeeding parades are diplomatically permitted to go on as long as their predecessors did. But nominating speeches are limited to about twenty minutes, seconding speeches to five.

The last-minute business begins in earnest. State leaders haggle for favours—the Vice-Presidency, Cabinet offices, pledges of support in state election contests, key jobs in the party itself. The convention city is abuzz with rumours of significant deals and trades.

The emphasis shifts from the unwieldy convention to the more flexible caucuses where party leaders meet —sometimes in hotel rooms, away from the hubbub and ballyhoo of the main arena. It is in such small meetings that class and sectional interests can be brought to bear effectively.

Then the tired delegates want to finish up and go home. But if they leave the convention wearily, they know they have been through an experience that is the fibre of American politics. The national convention provides a setting where smart men can gamble and manoeuvre . . . Time magazine’s guide also tells us that each year the bleating and bawling International Live Stock Exposition—“ The Supreme Court of live stock shows” is held in the same hall as this year’s convention.

We have of course emphasised the circus-like aspect of the American political conventions and given an idea of the trickery and manoeuvring that takes place. But when Time magazine published the booklet and sent it free to anyone in this country who wrote up for it, they presumably meant it as a general guide to the U.S.A. party conventions.

One can enjoy a good laugh. But are the conferences of the British Labour Party or Tory Party all that different? There may be less ballyhoo, and the circus atmosphere may be considerably reduced. However, one has doubts whether there is less trickery and manoeuvring. It would be difficult to claim that the British worker is any more class conscious or has a greater understanding, of the political parties than his American counterpart.

D. W. L.

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