I had never attended a political convention in America. Those held at Cleveland and Philadelphia this year were a totally new experience for me and one that modified many of the preconceived ideas I had formed about such events by reading about them and looking at photographs. As a foreign correspondent it was my duty to try to achieve a dual purpose: I had to describe what I saw and heard in such a way that my distant readers might have a picture of the scenes I witnessed and of the atmosphere in which I found myself, and I had to explain the relation between all that and American politics in the making.
Convention Sketchbook (July 30, 2004)
Seen and heard at the Democratic National Convention. By Sage Stossel.
The result was not entirely successful. In reading over my cables now, I find that whoever read them on the other side of the Atlantic must have gathered the impression that I had somehow managed to attend simultaneously such varied types of gatherings as a music-hall show, a revival meeting, a six-day bicycle race, a picnic, and a world fair, but that, from time to time and for no reasonable motive, I had found it necessary to introduce in my story irrelevant remarks about the condition of agriculture in America, the unemployment problem, the rebirth of the Republican Party, and the variations of the Democratic doctrine.
America being a democracy and France being another helped not at all. In fact, the apparent similitude of principles and the identity of the political terminology used in both countries hindered more than it served my efforts of interpretation.
Maybe we need a Culbertson to give us a system by which men of different nationalities will understand what they are doing when they play at the disorderly game of politics. A code showing the standard value of such words as Liberalism, Democracy, Dictatorship, Communism, Socialism, the Rich and the Oppressed, would be useful. But even that would not make it easier to explain why the greatest democracy in the world has chosen the peculiar form of the political convention to reshape every four years its destinies and nominate its leader.
The strongest impression I gathered at Cleveland and at Philadelphia should be a comforting one for the Americans. I convinced myself that this country is the only one in the world which can still afford to play the great game of politics without dangerously hurting itself, for the simple reason that politics in America have not as yet become sufficently vital to affect the life of the people in any immediate way. I know that many Americans deplore this. They would like the mass to be more aware of the importance of politics. Quite often during these conventions some of my American friends apologized to me for what was going on before our eyes. They thought that I should form an unfavorable opinion of the irresponsible levity and the uncontrolled exuberance of these thousands of people supposedly assembled for a serious purpose. But I think that if those who attend conventions are so light-hearted and so obviously cheerful it is because they know by instinct that whatever is done or said does not matter very much. They do not consider politics a tragic business because they do not have to—not yet.
The Republicans wrote in their platform that America was in danger—meaning, of course, that they do not want Mr. Roosevelt to be reelected—but the fact that such an alarming statement could be made without disturbing in any way the atmosphere of optimism and merriment which prevailed at Cleveland merely shows that nobody believes that politicians can lead America to ruin. European countries are in danger, yes—so much so that each political decision, each step in one direction or another, can at any time lead to immediate disaster. That is why nobody smiles when one of the French political parties takes as a slogan 'Politique d'abord.' It is only too true. Politics come first, for France, whether one likes it or not. That makes it impossible to have any parallel to an American political convention.
The difference between the two conventions was very marked. I thought that the volume of sound produced in the Auditorium at Cleveland could not be surpassed by any human or artificial means. I was wrong, and found it out in Philadelphia.
The physical discomfort experienced in the convention halls cannot be adequately described to those who were not there. The sheer volume of sound was painful whether produced by that remarkable band of the Republicans or the monstrous pipe organ of the Democrats, or by the bedlam which existed most of the time. The human voice heard through the amplifiers lost all quality. Radio listeners may be able to enjoy the talent of a good speaker, but not those in a convention hall. There the effort necessary to follow a speech was so strenuous that it could not be sustained for more than a few minutes at a time. This, however, did not prevent any of the star orators from speaking an hour or more.
The technique of addressing twenty thousand visible listeners and unseen millions through the microphone has not yet been perfected. Both in Cleveland and in Philadelphia the speakers clung clumsily to the oratorical methods of pre-broadcast days, but one could see that they were network-conscious and afraid to let themselves go. They seemed moored to the microphone like the Hindenburg to its mast. The general effect was unfortunate. The fact is, performers and listeners are being slowly but surely integrated as part of the elaborate mechanical system which tends to change any manifestation of public interest into food for what is called, in radio language, a sustaining programme. A convention hall is, in effect, a broadcasting studio not yet completely under control.
The consequences of this evolution are unpredictable, but the day may come when it will be difficult to assemble more than a few hundred people. The rest will stay at home and listen to their radios. This tendency was already noticeable in both conventions, where, in spite of the descriptions given by the reporters and radio announcers, I had the impression that to fill these huge halls had not been an easy task.
The trouble with many scientific devices is that they often do not work perfectly and it is only because most of us are still imbued with a sense of childish wonder that we tolerate the torture inflicted on us by our engineers. The klieg lights which cast a dazzling glare from the roofs of the auditoriums were unbearable to those who happened to be in front of them. Luckily each of them flickered and went out every five minutes, and it took some time to turn them on again. When Mr. Hoover spoke at Cleveland they all went out at once for a considerable time, giving great relief. More disturbing was the capriciousness of the sound-amplifying system. Accidents occurred several times at Cleveland, and if the American public was not so good-natured the absurdity of seeing an orator on a distant platform suddenly struck dumb would have been overpowering.