The Brawls of Yesteryear

Murray Kempton wrote the following in July 1992, just before he left New York to cover the Democratic National Convention.

My next national convention will be the twenty-first of those occasions when I have intruded my fleshly and decreasingly spirited presence upon the company of Democrats, Republicans—and once even Progressives—at their quadrennial abandonments of reason.

Sixty years ago the miracle of bringing the conventions alive for untraveled Americans was work for the radio alone, and it did that office more than handsomely, by reducing commentary to a minimum and leaving the tale to be told by the delegates in a jumble of regional accents and regional prejudices conjuring up the image of a vast continent of exotic provinces, each with its own language.

It was the radio that bound me in a thralldom to the convention process that has only lately commenced to slacken. I was listening to the first bal-lot of the 1932 Democratic convention that nominated Franklin D. Roosevelt. Tammany Hall, which hated Roosevelt, had demanded a poll of the New York delegation. The convention chairman complied, and when the roll of name after name arrived at James J. Walker, the answer came back bold as brass: “Alfred E. Smith.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt was governor of New York State and Jimmy Walker was mayor of New York City. The powers of the governor included removing any mayor who had too far disgraced his office; and the Walker administration’s scandals had already provided excuses more than sufficient. But with his head in Roosevelt’s hands, Jimmy Walker had coolly bared his neck and given the knife license to do as it pleased. Roosevelt was more than pleased to expel Walker from City Hall within the month.

I was, of course, too young to know the what and why of this moment; but somehow I could sense its gallantry from the silence of the hall and the chairman’s respectful pause before returning to his call of the roll. He and I and all who listened had heard the defiant voice of one more of those lost causes that have ever since been my incurable addiction.

The first stages of love are unfortunately too often the sweetest. For they’re the ones when we feel the drama without quite understanding it. That may be why my own romance with political conventions has lost so much of its bloom: the better I learned to understand their dramas, the less intensely I felt them. But then they’ve pretty well withdrawn permission for dramas anyway.

My earliest steps on a convention floor were with the Democrats in 1936. Luck had blessed me with a job carrying telegraph copy for Western Union.

I would stand in the press rows where Henry Mencken sat weaving gold from the straw of podium discourse while journalists at leisure craned over his shoulder to watch his next marvel clatter forth. No graven image could be more serenely unconscious of its devotees than Mencken was …

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