Friday, August 17, 2007

History rewritten

Danny Finkelstein, Comment editor, columnist, Tory inside-man and general odd-jobber for the Times, is always worth the reading time.

For a week Malcolm has patiently waited for clarification of last Thursday's effort, Good for Brown, the master of spin and stunts. After all, there was a time when this was a newspaper of record, employing assiduous fact-checkers.

The piece was in large part a nod of a review of The Defining Moment by Newsweek's Jonathan Alter. On the Alter peg, Finkelstein hangs his hat of "contemporary relevance". This is that the political stunt is significant, because the medium (how it is done) becomes the message (the political "narrative", as this fortnight's favourite phrase has it).

Finkelstein had the anecdote:
It is 1932, 75 years ago last month, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt has just emerged, on the fourth ballot, as the Democratic nominee for the presidency. He is a contentious choice. When the California delegation switched to FDR, giving him the nomination, the response was a thunderous demonstration. Against the new candidate.

But within hours the mood changed completely. Roosevelt was about to deliver one of the most famous speeches in American history — the one in which he launched his New Deal, using those words for the first time.

Finkelstein, following Alter, goes on to describe Roosevelt's implementation of the "strong man" rĂ´le, by flying to Chicago to address the Convention (a first in itself), and improvising the acceptance speech, coining the "New Deal" speech as he drove from aiport to hotel to stadium.

Got all that? Well, it wasn't quite so.

The 1932 shenanigans

770 Convention votes were needed to take the Democratic nomination under the two-thirds rule that Andy Jackson had installed back in 1832. This effectively guaranteed repeated roll-calls, and tended to mean that an early leader failed to win the final nomination. FDR was about a hundred short of that 770. A simple majority would have been 578 votes. When the FDR supporters pushed (and lost) a back-room attempt to change the rules to a simple majority, that cost FDR some support, especially in the South.

The other credible contenders were Alfred E Smith of New York ("the man with a program") and John Nance Garner of Texas ("a vital American"). Behind them were a clutch of "favorite sons" who included Harry F. Byrd ("the farmer, the governor, the American").

Stage-managing the Convention was the Mayor of Chicago, Anton "Tony" Cermak, who used the Chicago Police (shades of 1968) and populated the galleries, but also had personal control of the 58 Illinois and 30 Indiana votes. Cermak was he was machinating for Al Smith of New York or Albert C Ritchie, four-term Governor of Maryland, or any "conservative" able to stop FDR. Cermak created the stalemate in the first three ballots at Chicago to derail the FDR train.

In the event, Cermak was out-manoevred by former Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, leader of the Californian delegation. This was a classic piece of political pay-back for what had happened in 1928. McAdoo was hand-in-glove with Sam Rayburn of Texas. When the Texas and California votes switched from John Nance Garner to FDR, this settled the fourth ballot. Announcing this, McAdoo was indeed shouted down by the Cermak claque. The demonstration was against McAdoo, not (as Finkelstein says) against Roosevelt. And that restores the historical authenticity.

Cermak was quick to appreciate the inevitable, and silenced the galleries: McAdoo was heard out. Cermak, a political realist, promptly grasped the nettle, the hope of some future leverage, and the microphone to switch his 88 votes to FDR.

The final call of the ballot was 945 for FDR and 190.5 for Smith. By then FDR was preparing for his flight to Chicago, itself something of a spectacular.

If there were further demonstrations, it was when Smith faced Cermak, and "shouted and swore and ranted about Cermak's disloyalty."

Getting it right

All this is clear from a casual reading of Steve Neal's Happy Days are Here Again, a detailed account to the 1932 nomination process. Neal, who was the Chicago Sun-Times political correspondent for time out of mind, until his suicide in 2004, stood a bit closer to the events than Finkelstein.

Neal was a campaigning journalist, committed to the truth as he saw it. A fortnight before he opted out permanently, Neal's available last column was a reasoned demand for a full enquiry into the $40M hired-truck racket in Chicago, one of the stains on the cleaned-up reputation of the City under Mayor Daley (the younger). That column, in Malcolm's view, was an object lesson in good journalism: one that Finkelstein does, usually, emulate. But not this time.
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