The Greatest Show on Earth


  Harding or Cox?Harding or Cox?You tell us, populi -You’ve got the vox.

This piece of lumbering wit was a typical embellishment of the 1920 American presidential election, when Warren Gamiel Harding for the Republicans gave James M. Cox for the Democrats the drubbing of a lifetime. Harding won every state outside the South—and in those days southern votes would have gone for a chimpanzee, provided it was a Democratic chimpanzee.

Harding’s nomination had been a chancy affair. He went to the Republican National convention that year, Senator from Ohio and his state’s ‘‘favourite son’’ candidate—a dodge used then, and now, not as a serious bid for the nomination but to keep control of a state delegation.

But the Republicans were deadlocked and after four ballots they retired for some intensive nocturnal bargaining (it was said to have gone on in the legendary “smoke filled rooms”). The result of this was that the party pros settled on Harding as a compromise and the next day, on the tenth ballot, he emerged as the candidate. Harding was a keen poker man and his dazed comment was that he felt “ . . . like a man who goes in with a pair of eights and comes out with aces full.”

Anxious not to upset his concentration on the cards by too complicated a campaign, Harding appealed for “normalcy’’. The voters were probably no clearer on the meaning of this new word than was Harding but they liked the sound of it enough to sweep him triumphantly into the White House, where, as his campaign manager had hoped, he made a “great looking President.”

The nomination is not always so uncertain. More often the successful man has it all tied up—like Johnson in 1964 (because he was already President); like Goldwater in 1964 and Humphrey in 1968 (by patiently and determinedly building up support at every level of their parties); like Kennedy in I960 (because of a series of compelling primary victories).

Kennedy’s primary campaigns were classics. He entered them to prove that a young Roman Catholic could win votes and to erase the memory of the Democrats’ disastrous experiment with Al Smith in 1928, since when no Catholic had got within smelling distance of the nomination. Kennedy fought the primaries with all the ruthless efficiency for which his clan are famous, destroying Hubert Humphrey on the way (Humphrey went out on a flood of his own, easily produced tears) and sweeping to the nomination on the first ballot.

Kennedy, in other words, fought the primaries because he had to. In theory the primaries are ultra-democratic, giving the electors a say in the people who stand for office. The fact is that no American politician ever enters them willingly — there are other ways to the nomination and, while victory in the primaries is usually inconclusive, defeat in them is disastrous.

In I960, Humphrey wailed to the pressmen assembled in an unheated coach bumping across snow covered roads that ” . . . any man who goes into a primary isn’t fit to be President. You have to be crazy to go into a primary”—which might have had more point if Humphrey had not at that very moment been fighting a primary himself. Politicians after power do not shrink from putting votes before democratic theories; the primaries are an accepted field of political manoeuvre.

Of course an awful lot of nonsense is talked about them. Theodore Roosevelt’s attempt at the Republican nomination in 1912 was one important influence in increasing the number of states selecting their Convention delegates by primaries and in the course of his campaign Roosevelt seemed to be under the impression that he was God. That year the Republican pros were determined that, however many delegates Roosevelt won in primaries, the nomination would go to Taft. Roosevelt became an abrupt, fervent convert to the sanctity of primaries, although he had not had the same high regard for the voice of the people when he controlled the Republican machine.

After the primaries (and these are usually held in only about sixteen states) and after the painstaking work of collecting delegates all the way up from precinct caucuses, district committees and state conventions, come the National Conventions. The convention, we learn from certain novels and films, is a part of the American way of life, when overwrought business men and suburban fathers can show that there is still some life left in them. Here, amid the ballyhoo of processions and banners and mock-nomination of the favourite sons, comes the serious business of selecting the party’s candidate. Here, no matter what the primaries may have said, the delegations’ votes are traded or are thrown onto a bandwagon in the hope of political and other favours in the future. (In 1960 Kennedy’s men freely used the threat that, if Adlai Stevenson’s supporters were too much of an obstacle to the nomination, their man would not even be considered for Secretary of State when Kennedy became President).

The nomination is usually an unexciting affair — only rarely is there the uncertainty which meant forty-six ballots before Wilson won the Democratic nomination in 1912, or the Democrats’ 103 to select J. W. Davis in 1924. Then follows the election campaign itself, when the candidates justify all the months and years of work, manoeuvring, threats and intrigue by a cynical attempt to deceive as many people as possible into voting for them.

Sometimes this deceit is quite blatant. In 1916, Wilson won on a promise to keep America neutral but six months after his election he took the country into the War. In 1932 F. D. Roosevelt attacked government interference in industry and deficit financing. He promised a balanced Budget and, among other things, a 25 per cent cut in federal spending. None of this prevented Roosevelt following different policies when in office, nor his becoming famous as the man who “cured the slump” with a combination of federal spending and Budget deficits. In all the admiration of Roosevelt’s magic genius no one noticed that the slump was lessening all over the world and that the politicians who happened to be in power at the time—for example Adolf Hitler—were getting the credit for it.

Some of the candidates’ deceits are a little more subtle. Every election brings its slogan, like Wilson’s “New Freedom”, F. D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, Kennedy’s “New Frontier”, Johnson’s “Great Society”. These all have the same advantage; they mean exactly what everyone wants them to—but they also have the same implied admission that the existing situation is bad enough to need altering. The voters are usually so bemused by these slogans that they vote for them without asking what happened to the old catch phrases —why, for example, did they need Johnson’s Great Society in 1964 when Kennedy’s New Frontier should have solved everything?

This kind of question is much too awkward to be faced. The workers dumbly vote for one of the candidates and then after Inauguration Day the way is clear for the process of disillusionment to begin. In 1964 LBJ was everyone’s favourite; he won an unprecedented victory, taking every state except Arizona and the Deep South. He had once voted a straight racist line but now, he said, he was a “liberal”. Even more—he had a “liberal” Vice-President, a “liberal” Congress, even a ‘‘liberal” Supreme Court. Nothing, apparently, could stop the Great Society.

We all know what happened. The Democrats’ failures and frustrations, after their years of overwhelming power, were vented in the splits and the brutalities of their Chicago Convention. Many of the voters, too, showed their frustrations and the vicious depth of their despair—they came out as supporters of George Wallace.

The American Presidential Election, with all its flags and bands and drum majorettes and campaign boaters and massive crowds, is one of the greatest shows on earth. It is certainly among the most expensive—according to Look magazine, the candidates will spend nearly $50 million on their campaigns. That may sound a lot of money but think what is at stake — no less than the hoodwinking of tens of millions of people, and power over the greatest state in world capitalism.