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Records show a hearty tradition

- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2008

The Grand Old Party can stage a grand old party.

Really.

Contrary to popular belief, Republicans are not a bunch of dullards whose idea of a hot time is several Arctic martinis, one tepid keynote speech and a lukewarm dinner of sirloin steak, creamed spinach and a baked potato.

The historical record indicates that Republicans have been hard-wired to party with spunk and ceremony for the past 152 years, starting with their very first convention in 1856, just two years after the party was founded by anti-slavery activists.

The city was Philadelphia, the setting an ornate music hall. Six hundred determined delegates and 100 reporters were in attendance. The newly minted Republicans settled on John C. Fremont - a decorated Army hero and rugged Rocky Mountain explorer - as the man of the hour.

His slogan: "Free soil, free labor, free speech, free men, Fremont."

But Fremont's nomination sparked a near-riot.

"When the vote was announced, a scene of the wildest disorder, the most enthusiastic excitement and the most decided approbation followed," noted a newspaper account at the time.

The jubilant Republicans proved pretty good at wild disorder and decided approbation. The account also added that three cheers were not good enough for the young party. There were nine hip-hip-hurrahs each for Fremont, the union and the states of California and Kansas.

That gathering included a virtually unknown also-ran - and future president. Abraham Lincoln was in the hall during that first convention, nominated for vice president, deemed "a good fellow, and a firm friend of freedom" by a gentleman from Illinois who vouched for him. Lincoln lost.

Four years later, however, he won the presidential nomination during the 1860 convention in Chicago, though his main opponent, Sen. William Seward of New York, grew suspicious. "Honest Abe" Lincoln was accused of packing the convention hall with his supporters - who had gained entry with counterfeit tickets.

In the years following the Civil War, the conventions would showcase a number of momentous firsts.

In 1868, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant emerged as the sole presidential nominee ever to win 100 percent of the votes. In 1884, Rep. John Roy Lynch of Mississippi became the first black to be elected chairman of the nominating commission. Four years later, former slave Frederick Douglass became the first African-American to win a vote in the presidential roll-call vote.

As the new century got under way, the nation was feisty - and so was the party. In 1904, about 9,000 delegates and spectators descended on the Chicago Coliseum to witness the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt. The atmosphere was so charged that even a mention of Roosevelt's name brought thunderous applause.

"When have we rested more secure in friendship with all mankind?" asked former Secretary of War Elihu Root, who offered the main oratory that day.

Things were less harmonious by 1912, when Roosevelt, running on a progressive platform, vied with Republican incumbent William Howard Taft for a third term in the White House. Old friendships forgotten, the convention turned contentious.

"Fearless of the future, unheeding of our individual fates, with unflinching hearts and undimmed eyes, we stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord," Roosevelt hollered in a speech on the eve of the Chicago gathering.

Taft won the nomination, Roosevelt launched a third-party bid, and both lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

In decades to follow, Republican conventions continued to generate singular moments.

Party leaders who determined the presidential nomination within the dim recesses of Chicago's Blackstone Hotel gave rise to the phrase "smoke-filled room" during the 1920 event. The Republican convention was broadcast on radio for the first time four years later. That convention also saw women on the national committee for the first time. Although World War II loomed, one hopeful nominee managed to arrive at the 1940 convention in Philadelphia with not one, but three live elephants in tow.

Big names dominated the ensuing conventions. World War II hero Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the star in 1952, and Richard M. Nixon, Ike's vice president, dominated in 1960 - although it was during this convention that Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater stepped up to the dais and barked, "Let's grow up, conservatives. ... Let's get to work" before throwing his support behind Mr. Nixon.

Do conservatives wax nostalgic over any convention in particular? Could be. The 1980 convention provided a forum for former California Gov. Ronald Reagan to deliver a heartfelt acceptance speech which resonated with the nation and helped fuel his landslide win over President Jimmy Carter that November.

"I'm very proud of our party tonight," Mr. Reagan said in accepting the nomination. "This convention has shown to all America a party united, with positive programs for solving the nation's problems, a party ready to build a new consensus with all those across the land who share a community of values embodied in these words: family, work, neighborhood, peace and freedom."

He added, "The time is now, my fellow Americans, to recapture our destiny, to take it into our own hands. But to do this will take many of us, working together. I ask you tonight to volunteer your help in this cause so we can carry our message throughout the land."