Our Democratic and Republican national conventions are the grand spectacles of our political tradition. Today they are choreographed by programming professionals. Segments are timed precisely. Media savvy politicians skillfully rally the faithful and stimulate them to action. The unexpected is carefully guarded against. Any “suspense” is planned.
Historically, conventions have not been staged events. They have been spontaneous, acrimonious and intensely competitive. No convention in history compares to the Democratic National Convention in New York in 1924, which was presided over by Montana U.S. Sen. Tom Walsh.
The Democrats felt they had a real chance in 1924, and it was largely because of Walsh. Though only the most junior member of the Senate Committee on Public Lands, Walsh tenaciously probed into the details of what emerged as the Tea Pot Dome scandal. The result was that Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall became the first cabinet member in U.S. history to go to prison, and Walsh was catapulted from backbench obscurity to national fame for ferreting out the corruption in the Republican administration.
Accordingly, Walsh was the public figure his fellow Democrats chose to showcase in this first national political convention to be broadcast, live, on the radio. Their hope was that the presence of Walsh would be a constant reminder to radio listeners of the scandal they hoped would carry them to victory in the autumn election.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, however, the continuing social conflict we now describe as the “cultural war” made its explosive debut on the floor of their convention in 1924. The key to the conflict was the Ku Klux Klan, which had reappeared as a powerful political presence in the early 1920s. The Klan’s nationalistic, anti-black, anti-foreigner, anti-Catholic message resonated with many southern and western Democrats, most of whom were rural, traditional Protestants and supporters of prohibition.
A resolution attacking the Klan by name was supported by a newly emerging faction of Democrats from the urban Northeast and upper Midwest. Many of the new Democrats were Catholic, and many opposed prohibition. Walsh presided over a debate that centered on personal values and as such was beyond the bounds of traditional political compromise. Radio spread the disunity coast-to-coast.
The imposing, silver-haired, classically senatorial Walsh was put to the test, time and again, as angry delegates raged in emotional debate. The final outcome, determined by Walsh amid the convention’s din, was the defeat of the anti-Klan proposal by the bizarrely close and controversial margin of 543-3/20 to 542-7/20.
The candidacy of New York’s Catholic governor, Al Smith, a virulent critic of the Klan, and “wet” on prohibition had become doomed as a result of the convention’s cultural split. But now, as a matter of principal, the “Happy Warrior” defiantly refused to stand aside. A deadly paralysis settled over the convention as numerous candidates were nominated, but none could come close to the two-third majority that party rules then required for a presidential nomination.
The acoustics were dreadful in the old Madison Square Garden facility, and the July temperatures were stifling. Ballot after ballot, his voice growing hoarse, and his patience wearing thin, Walsh called the role. Nineteen candidates received support on the first ballot. Nine days later, on the 101st ballot, with 16 candidates still in the race, Smith and his major opponent finally withdrew, and a feeding frenzy for their delegates ensued. Confusion compounded as delegation after delegation demanded to be polled, not trusting their presiding members to correctly report the changes in their voting.
It was too much for Walsh. Eyes blazing, mustache twitching, the great Montanan’s composure cracked. Hurling his much-used gavel down on the podium he rasped out, “Aw s—t !” His desperate expletive was broadcast to startled and amused radio listeners coast to coast.
Mercifully for the mortified Walsh, who remembered the radio microphones an instant after it was too late, the convention ended just two ballots later with the nomination of obscure compromise candidate John W. Davis.
Hopelessly divided and led by a national standard bearer who was almost totally unknown, instead of turning scandal into victory, the Democrats turned disunity into defeat. Just as mastery of the electronic media is the key to success in modern politics, it was the key to disaster in 1924 for those who hadn’t mastered it.
Fortunately for Tom Walsh, he is remembered for his statecraft, not his stagecraft. But for a brief time in 1924 the name Walsh became a household word, synonymous with the barnyard word he uttered.
Bob Brown, former Montana State Senate President and Secretary of State, is a Senior Fellow at the University of Montana’s Center for the Rocky Mountain West
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