• Marc Johnson

When Conventions Mattered


By 1932 McAdoo had assembled a remarkable political resume. He married well – Woodrow Wilson’s daughter – and served as his father-in-law’s Treasury Secretary. He was also chairman of the then brand new Federal Reserve Board, managed the national rail system during World War I and was twice a serious candidate for president. In 1924 McAdoo came within an eyelash of winning the Democratic nomination before losing out when the convention turned to a compromise candidate after struggling through 103 – you read it right – 103 contentious ballots. That still qualifies as the longest convention in American political history. One wag quipped that New York had invited the Democratic delegates to visit The Big Apple, not to move there permanently. The convention lasted 17 long, long days.

McAdoo was mounting a political return in 1932 just in time to put him in position to be a kingmaker.  McAdoo was both a candidate for the U.S. Senate from California and the political leader of the large California delegation to that year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In a word – McAdoo had influence and he used it.

The convention that eventually nominated Franklin D. Roosevelt was the last Democratic convention that required a two-thirds vote to nominate a standard bearer. That 103 ballot marathon in 1924 became a disaster for the party, but southern Democrats insisted on retaining the super majority requirement in order to maintain an out-sized role in the national party. As a general rule, if southern Democrats stayed together on a candidate they could usually name the man who would lead the ticket, or at least influence the shape of the national campaign.

William McAdoo knew all this in detail. He was born in Georgia and enjoyed substantial support among southern politicians, in part, because of two issues – booze and race. McAdoo was a dry – he favored prohibition – and his not so skillful navigation of the explosive issue of the Ku Klux Klan – he refused to condemn the Klan out of fear of losing southern support – was a major factor in his losing the 1924 nomination.

FDR, then the governor of New York, entered his party’s 1932 convention as the favorite for the nomination, but he hardly had the necessary votes locked up. His advisers actually contemplated an attempt to change the convention rules to require only a simple majority to nominate a candidate, but when word leaked out of what was being considered and howls of protest ensued, Roosevelt ordered his managers to back off. He would have to find the votes of two-thirds of the delegates to win.

Consider for a moment what the political drama must have been like in Chicago in late June 1932 and contrast that drama – and all its consequences – with the tepid, heavily stage managed GOP convention that groans on in Tampa this week and the similar Democratic event that will take place in Charlotte all too soon. The nation was gripped by a Great Depression in 1932, President Herbert Hoover was growing more unpopular by the day and the Democratic nomination seemed to virtually ensure the election of the man who would be lucky enough to claim it.

On the first ballot in Chicago nine different candidates received votes. Roosevelt led the pack and tallied 666 votes, a number far short of what he needed to secure the nomination. Facing a toough fight, FDR was able to add only 11 more votes on the second ballot, while a variety of favorite sons and two more serious candidates – Speaker of the House John Nance Garner of Texas and former Democratic presidential candidate and New York Gov. Al Smith – divided up more than 400 other votes.

On the third ballot Roosevelt polled just five additional votes and his managers were profoundly concerned that his momentum toward the nomination had stalled. If his vote totals began to actually decline on additional ballots, they worried, the convention might be stampeded to another candidate. Smith, for example, once FDR’s mentor, was determined not to give up the fight believing that he was entitled to one more run at the White House. Smith’s vote totals – he got 201 votes on the first ballot – remained rock solid through the third ballot and he must have felt that if he could hang on long enough the convention would turn to him again as it had done in 1928.

However it was Garner, a conservative southerner, who became the key to FDR’s nomination. Garner had the support, not surprisingly, of his own Texas delegation, but also enjoyed the support of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst and William Gibbs McAdoo. It’s not clear that a smoke-filled room or bourbon was involved – Garner was a habitual cigar smoker and enjoyed a drink – but a deal was done and McAdoo helped broker the agreement. On the fourth ballot, it was agreed, the California and Texas delegations would switch support to Roosevelt and the stampede would be on for other delegates to join the bandwagon. Garner didn’t exactly hanker after the number two spot on the ticket, but as a loyal party man he agreed to accept the vice presidential nomination. Does anyone ever really turn down the vice presidency?

FDR secured the Democratic nomination on the fourth ballot – Al Smith still polled nearly 200 votes – and for the first time in history the nominee traveled by airplane to Chicago to accept the prize in person. The rest is history. Roosevelt went on to win a smashing election victory in November against Hoover.

William Gibbs McAdoo won his own election victory in November and served a single term in the U.S. Senate. His real legacy might be that he knew just when to cut a political deal; a deal that helped change history at a time when party conventions really mattered. McAdoo died in 1941 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetary. His tombstone notes his service as Treasury Secretary and in the Senate. It could honestly also call him a presidential kingmaker.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson