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A Helluva Town

July 2024
6min read

Why do they usually avoid holding conventions in New York?

This summer marks a sea change in the traditions of American party politics. For the first time the Democratic National Convention will be held in Boston, and the Republican National Convention will be held in that great Babylon, that hole of sin and abomination, New York City.

Actually, the Republicans have never held a convention in Boston either, which is rather surprising when one considers that right up to the Great Depression, Massachusetts was a rock-ribbed Republican stronghold. The reasons were probably as much logistical as well as political. The city that has hosted far and away the most major-party conventions is Chicago, with Philadelphia a distant second. This is not surprising, since both cities were important rail hubs and pretty much the only two large metropolises to burden their citizens with competitive political machines in both parties.

Boston’s popularity no doubt has also suffered from the fact that for most of American history it was the city most readily associated with censorship, priggishness, and puritanism. Not quite the best reputation for attracting a horde of red-blooded, cigar-chomping, bourbonswilling delegates, hell-bent on spontaneous demonstrations, credentials fights, hurling their straw hats in the air, and other, less delicate amusements.

The Republicans’ reluctance to brave the Great White Way is also understandable. New York, even now on its second consecutive Republican mayor, is seen as a Democratic town and always has been. Only 5 of the city’s 17 daily newspapers endorsed Abraham Lincoln, and Gotham gave his Democratic opponents large majorities. This is the town where Walter Mondale beat Ronald Reagan by almost half a million votes, where Dukakis crushed Bush, Adlai Stevenson stomped Ike (twice), and McGovern beat Nixon. The last time New York City voted for a Republican presidential candidate was for Calvin Coolidge, and even then it gave Silent Cal only a plurality.

Yet Democrats, too, have historically been reluctant to come to New York. Up until 1976 there were only two Democratic conventions in the city and none since 1924. The reason for this trepidation was that New York was not merely a Democratic town; it was Tammany’s town.

Few Americans alive today can have any good idea of the level of bile that the very name of Tammany Hall could raise once upon a time in America. The old Tammany Tiger was first tamed by Fiorello La Guardia in the 1930s and was finished off by a coalition of Democratic reformers that included Eleanor Roosevelt and Ed Koch in the early 1960s, but it was long considered the very avatar of corrupt, boss-dominated machine politics. Loathing for Tammany went beyond the merely political; the machine seemed to epitomize all that Americans have traditionally feared and reviled in cities. It was ethnic, dirty, and cunning, the very embodiment of the big-city shakedown artist taking in the country bumpkin, and denunciations of it frequently bordered on the racist and bigoted.

The machine was supposedly a vital part of the Democratic party, valued for its organizing and moneyraising abilities. Yet whenever the national party set foot on its turf, Democrats seemed to find themselves in a political house of mirrors where they had trouble even recognizing themselves.

The first effort to beard the Tiger in its den came in 1868, when the Democratic convention was actually held in the old Tammany Wigwam on Fourteenth Street, in Manhattan. (Tammany was named for a quasi-mythical Indian chief, Tamanend, so everything about it was Indian-related: its clubhouse the “wigwam,” its ward heelers “braves,” its leaders “sachems,” ad nauseam.) William M. Tweed himself, the legendary ur-boss of machine politics, was on hand, along with Horatio Seymour, the convention chairman.

Seymour was the Tammany pick to be the nominee, but he was having none of it. A two-time governor of New York, he was a savvy enough politician to know he would have virtually no chance. The party had been shattered by the Civil War, and many of its Southern constituents were still unable to vote. Meanwhile, the head of the Republican ticket was the popular hero of the war Ulysses S. Grant.

But events soon spun out of Seymour’s hands. The 1868 convention went through 22 ballots, while delegates (described by one observer as “a rough lot —hirsute, porky creatures”) paraded through the streets with brass bands and banners.

The year 1924 provided the best political theater in the whole bloated history of conventions.

In the end Governor Seymour’s friends physically wrestled him off the platform and hustled him away in a carriage, lest he turn the convention down. He was led away in tears, moaning to a friend, “Pity me, Harvey, pity me!"—a reaction that is unlikely to be emulated by either George W. Bush or John Kerry this summer. His one stump speech was characterized as “more insipid with each repetition,” and he carried only eight states.

The 1924 convention was an even greater debacle, a record 16-day, 103-ballot exercise in racism, division, and utter futility that effectively destroyed the old pre-New Deal Democratic party. The balloting for President did not even get under way until the seventh day of the convention, delayed by a bitter floor fight over a platform plank that would have explicitly condemned the Ku Klux Klan, then a major political force in the South and Midwest. The plank to condemn the Klan finally failed, in the closest vote ever recorded at a convention, 543 3/20 to 542 7/20, an outcome that was not surprising considering that the New York World estimated that more than 300 delegates were active Klansmen. (Just which delegates were able to divide themselves into twentieths remains unclear.)

The convention thereupon drifted into an endless battle between the Tammany darling Gov. Al Smith, the quintessential New Yorker, and Georgia-born William McAdoo, who had served as Secretary of the Treasury under Wilson and would later be a senator from California. There was actually little difference between the politics of the two men. Both were steadfast progressives. Although Smith was a loyal Tammany man, he ran a clean, reformist administration in Albany and had begun to build the social welfare state that would ultimately undermine his own organization. McAdoo was an urbane polymath, a lawyer and railroad executive who had lived in New York for decades.

But this fight was more emotional than intellectual, as politics often is. Smith represented everything that was urban and ethnie. He was a Catholic who spoke with a heavy New York accent, denounced Prohibition, and despised the Klan. McAdoo represented the other half of the Northern - urban - Southernrural alliance that had made up the uneasy Democratic coalition for so long. He never publicly backed the Klan, but he felt he couldn’t shun it and still have a hope of winning. Their fight was over nothing less than which half would lead the party in the future—over what America itself would be: urban and multicultural or pastoral and Anglo-Saxon.

With so much at stake, the party was deadlocked. One observer wrote: “Time disappears and eternity steals in as this interminable convention keeps on balloting.” It went on for so long that delegations began to run out of money. The Massachusetts chairman supposedly told his troops, “Gentlemen, we are faced with a choice—either we have to move to a more modest hotel or to a more liberal candidate.”

Perhaps it was the curse of Stanford White’s old Madison Square Garden, then actually on Madison Square. White had been shot to death on the roof garden of his own creation, in one of the most famous murders in New York history, and the odor of the foul deed still seemed to linger over the hall. Actually, the odor was left over from the annual visit of the circus, and it didn’t help matters that despite the summer heat, some gay soul had covered over the Garden’s air vents with bunting.

Nevertheless, the 1924 convention provided probably the best political theater in the whole bloated history of our convention pageants. History seemed to hang visibly in the balance. It was the first convention to be broadcast in its entirety nationwide over radio, and listeners could hear the thousands of loyal Tammany braves in the galleries scream invective down at McAdoo’s delegates. They screamed back—and flooded the Garden and convention hotels with antiCatholic literature. William Jennings Bryan made his last convention appearance to plead, ineffectually, for unity and McAdoo. Most dramatically of all, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, three years removed from his polio attack, made his way painstakingly across the platform on crutches to dub Smith “the Happy Warrior.” The past and the future of the party, and of America, moved duly across the stage, as if in some fantastic secular passion play.

By the time it was over almost nobody cared that the Democrats had compromised on a sure loser, the brilliant Wall Street lawyer John W. Davis, who would gain his greatest fame arguing the losing side in Brown v. Board of Education , and whose politics were probably more conservative than those of nearly anyone on either McAdoo’s or Smith’s side. To compensate for this, and for the fact that Davis might be seen as too urban, the Democrats nominated for Vice President Bryan’s brother Charles, then the obscure governor of Nebraska.

“A ticket that not even a brother could support. No not even William Jennings Bryan can make it progressive,” mused the New York congressman Fiorello La Guardia. In November, Davis took less than 29 percent of the popular vote in a three-way race, the worst Democratic result since the Civil War, and lost the city to Coolidge.

As if to symbolize the fall of the Democratic House of Usher, White’s Garden was torn down the following year. It proved to be a necessary leveling, though, for Al Smith was finally nominated in 1928, and Roosevelt went on to lead the party to a decades-long ascendancy. Nonetheless, the Democrats never came back to New York, at least not until Tammany was long dead and buried and a calmer, more controllable era of convention politics prevailed.

Maybe this is the real reason why it has taken the GOP so long to hold a convention of its own in New York. If that’s what the city did to Democrats, imagine what it can do to Republicans.

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