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Party’s main event a spectacle

- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2008

There has been a cast of thousands over the years. They laughed. They cried. They hooted and hollered, toasted God and country and hammered on party platforms - not to mention each other. There have been riots, splendid oratory, posturing of the most political sort, and plenty of song and story.

Welcome to the Democratic National Convention.

There have been 45 of them. One has erupted every 1,441 days or so for the past 176 years in one city or another. The Democrats have met in Chicago 11 times, Baltimore eight. St. Louis and New York were graced by the party four times each over the years, Miami and Houston but once each.

There have been highs and lows, bests and worsts, which have reflected the identity of the party and the mood of the people.

"There are moments in a convention, which can tell you something about where the country is, where the party is. They also provide some clue about where we're heading in the next four years," said ABC commentator Cokie Roberts, who has covered conventions for decades.

"Some conventions have made history, and they have forged the nominating process. They become real place markers for the party. Nominations become official; we don't have to use that word 'presumptive' anymore," she noted.

Such dynamics were in place from the first Democratic convention in 1832, which was staged in Baltimore and starred the likes of incumbent President Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, nominated for his vice president. Such decorum, such high hopes. With considerable ado, the convention marked the first appearance of formal nomination protocols - such as the roll-call vote.

"The people could be disposed after seeing the good effects of this convention in conciliating the different and distant sections of the country," noted Frederick A. Sumner, who called the 334 gentlemen from 22 states to order.

"Old Hickory" - as Jackson was called - received an august nomination, with the delegates joining in a resolution that said, "We most cordially concur in the repeated nominations, which he has received in various parts of the union."

Jackson and Van Buren handily won the election that fall, defeating Henry Clay and John Sargeant.

With such auspicious beginnings, the Democrats staged their next seven gatherings in Baltimore.

Still, conventions proved unpredictable; protocols were a little sketchy. During the second convention, Maryland, for example, sent 188 delegates, Tennessee only one. By 1844, the convention included a central committee to keep their organization on an even keel - the forerunner of the Democratic National Committee.

In four years, the party was divided by slavery, with the "Barnburners," a more liberal anti-slavery faction, storming out of the convention while conservative-leaning "Hunkers" remained - but refused to vote. The 1860 convention was so disrupted by arguments over slavery that the party adjourned, to reconvene two months later.

The sobering influence of the Civil War put an end to much of the acrimony, though in 1864, the convention was held without a single Southern state delegate.

And as the nation went, so went the conventions.

Over the decades, delegates wrangled with the issues of the day - postwar reconstruction, civil service, the federal government, taxes and tariffs, foreign entanglements - though the convention of 1876 boasted a forerunner of things to come. A fireworks display was staged from the top of the courthouse in St. Louis, where delegates had gathered in their first meeting west of the Mississippi River.

Competition between host cities also become a factor. In 1900, Democrats were lured to Kansas City by virtue of the community's grand new convention hall - which burned to the ground three months before the festivities were to start. The city marshalled its forces and rebuilt the structure just in time.

Conventions that followed had distinctive moments. In 1920, the delegates dramatically supported the right of women to vote. Four years later, debates over the Ku Klux Klan forced the proceedings to drag on for 17 days, the longest on record. Franklin D. Roosevelt dominated four conventions in the Depression and World War II years, as delegates tapped their toes to a news campaign tune "Happy Days Are Here Again" and listened to Roosevelt's advice.

"This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny," he told them.

Yet when historians get to mulling over the darker side of things, they invariably cite the 1968 convention in Chicago, which was upstaged by antiwar protesters clubbed into submission by a force of 28,000 police, troops and Secret Service agents as live TV cameras chronicled the debacle.

The nation, however, appears to have a short memory. Most Americans are poised to watch at least some of the gavel-to-gavel coverage on myriad cable and broadcast networks - hoping to understand a complicated campaign and perhaps divine what the future holds.

"Political party conventions remain interesting to the millions of Americans who follow national politics. Convention speeches become previews for future generations of national leaders. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were all keynote convention speakers prior to their national runs," said Susan Swain, president of C-SPAN.