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.
I was much interested at both conventions in watching the operators of the sound system, the real masters of the show. The operator at Cleveland was particularly impressive. He seemed to be about sixteen years of age, with turned-up nose and hair apparently uncombed during the whole convention. He never moved from his chair, situated on the platform immediately behind the speaker. He never showed any nervousness even when the whole system misbehaved. He was relaxed and efficient, obviously untroubled by the fact that upon his youthful shoulders rested the responsibility of enabling the leaders of the G. O. P. to tell the American people the whole Republican truth about the Democrats. When, through no fault of their own, Mr. Steiwer and Mr. Hoover found themselves abruptly confronted by a dead microphone and a roaring crowd, it was to him they turned with deference and anguish. What had happened? What were they to do? Could he, would he help them out? They were helpless. Each time the young man with the earphones reassured them. He telephoned to the far-away engine room. The wires came to life. The speakers went on with their speech.
I presume that this young man was chosen because he knows his job, but think of his power. Think of the temptation of playing with his switchboard, just for the fun of it. In his place and at his age, I do not think I could have resisted.
I believe that the invention of the 'roar meter,' as one of my confrèrés sitting behind me at Cleveland called it, has great possibilities. It is a simple device by which bedlam is accurately recorded on a luminous scale which looks like a big thermometer. Both conventions adopted this contraption, but unfortunately it was considered more like an amusement-park feature than what it really is: the most practical and honest measuring rod of popularity and disfavor.
Naturally the 'roar meter' makes no distinction between the applause and the booing, but neither did the chairman of either convention when trying to pass various recommendations by Ayes and Noes, and deciding that the Ayes had it when the 'roar meter' plainly showed that the Noes had won.
If, as I believe, the system of the American convention such as I saw it is best fitted to the regimented expression of mass emotion and the dictatorship of whoever stands on the platform, then the 'roar meter' should become the official regulator of modern democracies.
Why vote when you can yell and count your decibels?
Another important factor in the shaping of the destinies of a nation is the band.
The Republicans, in that respect, had a crushing advantage over the Democrats. The orchestra conductor at Philadelphia did his best, but be had no political genius, no instinct; and the organ, practising unfair competition, killed his best effects.
It seems that the lady who played the organ was somewhere in the basement and listened through earphones to what was going on above her. The orchestra was way up under the roof. The result was that synchronization, whenever attempted, never went beyond the 'stagger' effect. During the last days of the convention, the orchestra and the organ each went their own way, playing different tunes, or it may be that the lady organist lost her earphones.
The Democratic band conductor and Mr. Farley were also at cross purposes, and I saw the Postmaster General on the verge of losing his equanimity more than once when the overzealous band tried to stretch the enthusiasm of the delegates longer than was deemed necessary by the careful manager of our emotions.
But nothing of the kind happened at Cleveland. The inventiveness of the Republican conductor, his sense of discipline, his tactful choice of tunes to fit the changing moods of the audience, his inspired rendering of the true spirit of Americanism as conceived by the Republican Party, created the impression that he was not doing a job but holding an office and fulfilling a mission.
This Cleveland conductor—whom I could never see because he stood a long way off, separated from me by a permanent smoke screen—made the Republican Convention, which, without him and his timely selection of patriotic, religious, and jazz tunes, could not have compared with the Philadelphia Durbar.
Plato would like this transfiguration of politics into music.
The sincerity and spontaneity of the extravagant demonstrations of enthusiasm which took place at both conventions have been questioned, and rightly so, I think.
In spite of the delirious and prolonged ovations which greeted certain speakers and references to the candidates, in spite of the pandemonium of patriotic feeling which was let loose on every possible occasion, none of it was very convincing, somehow. One could not escape the suspicion that all this tumult was staged and carried on for the sake of making a lot of noise.
There seemed, however, to be a single exception, and that was at Cleveland, in favor of Mr. Hoover. I do not pretend that it was not prearranged—quite the contrary. But everyone, bored by three days of ineffectual proceedings, waited eagerly for the climactic appearance of the Great Victim. It is my impression that the demonstration which greeted him went a good deal beyond the programme. It was, in fact, so boisterous and so insistent that I thought I could detect a worried look on the faces of the gentlemen on the platform who were managing the show.
Of course my lack of experience of conventions does not permit me to judge whether Mr. Hoover could have started a stampede right there and then and thus upset completely all calculations, or whether this emotional outburst was so violent and so genuine only because everybody knew that it could not lead anywhere. But I thought then, and I still believe, that this was one of these rare moments when one man can change the course of history.
What would have happened if Mr. Hoover, discarding his carefully prepared speech, had just spoken out and said, for instance, regardless of the copyright, 'My friends ...'
But Mr. Hoover—who, like the late Poincaré, seems to have been wrapped at birth in a cobweb of awkwardness—did no such thing. He carefully placed his manuscript on the stand, and read it. And when he had finished reading it he left the auditorium, but the always-inspired orchestra leader improvised a four-note theme pounding a 'We-Want-Hoo-ver' which shook the air.
It was too late. After an hour of effort to appease the audience, the Chairman said that Mr. Hoover had taken the nine-thirty for New York, and although I was told that he did not leave Cleveland before midnight, the result was the same: the curtain was dropped on the only moment of candor of the two conventions.
I had heard a good deal about what went on in hotel rooms behind padded doors during a convention, and as it became obvious to me that nothing of any importance at all happened in public I was interested in finding out the truth about these rumors.
Needless to state, I was not admitted to any secret meeting, but after spending countless hours in hotel lobbies and corridors, both in Cleveland and in Philadelphia, I became increasingly suspicious that I had to deal with a legend.
It is true, of course, that those whose responsibility it is to conciliate conflicting factions do meet and discuss their affairs. They meet in hotels, but this is because they have no other place to go. In France these same gentlemen would meet in the back room of a cafe and debate probably in the same fashion. The difference is that, the caf6 being usually open on the street, these meetings seem less mysterious to the outsider.
As a matter of fact, one of the very strange things about these conventions was that I could never quite discover by whom or where momentous decisions were taken. Not on the floor of the auditoriums, to be sure; not in the lobbies of the hotels where idle delegates and onlookers milled around the whole long day in the hope of seeing or hearing something; not in secret places out of town.
Well, perhaps, after all, the hotel rooms...
I have heard it said many times that the conventions have so degenerated that something should be done to restore their past dignity and revive their original purpose, which was to offer to the delegates of the states an occasion to debate.
Not having attended any convention before, I am not able to make comparisons, but it seems to me that, such as they are, they correspond adequately to the universal trend, which is the increase of the power of mass emotion and a corresponding regression of the influence of individual intelligence. The critics who attended the conventions showed no indulgence toward the whole performance. Some were indignant, some were bitter, some were scornful; many were merely bored. Their reaction was interesting because those among them who have acquired sufficient authority to write whatever they please enjoy a remarkable prestige. The fact that they are the only group of human beings who are free to say publicly what they, as individuals, think, sets them apart.
At both conventions they attracted a great deal of attention and it was clear that the public was as interested in those celebrities whom it knew by name and by photograph as it was in the familiar political figures.
In fact, a curious conflict exists between the practical politicians and the independent critics. The critics are intellectuals; therefore they believe individuals are responsive to reason and to arguments. The practical politicians know that their job is to make men act and vote, not to make them think.
The outcome of that conflict will be more interesting in the long run than the one which opposes the two major parties. But it will not be solved in a convention.