Friday, January 4, 2008

Well, obviously a good night was not had by all, but Iowa can finally retreat once more into the shadows of the cornfield. All that’s left is the usual chorus demanding something better than a slog through snow, ice and apathy.

Iowa, so the chorus goes, is not “representative” of the nation, and of course it isn’t. But neither is New Hampshire, next stop on the vaudeville circuit.

There aren’t many Hispanics, legal or otherwise, in Iowa or New Hampshire, nor enough blacks to suit the pundits. Nor enough gays, but too many evangelical Christians, and more than enough old wives to tell tales on Rudy Giuliani. There aren’t enough Mormons to please Mitt Romney or enough Baptists to satisfy Mike Huckabee. Only a semi-vast population of white folks stretches across the fallow cornfields like an endless blanket of snow. But white folks are not in fashion this season.

This frustrates the political scientists, ever ready with a pithy quote to state the obvious. It’s good news for reporters, consultants, pollsters, advertising salesmen and others ever ready to poke a stick in the fire, just to stretch out the process. The public, concerned with more important things — Britney Spears, her naughty sister, the NFL playoffs and the latest dispatches from the Hollywood divorce courts — appears to be bored as usual, waiting for October. Fixing all this would be easy, but it’s never going to happen.

We could dump the caucuses and primaries, which have given us candidates like George McGovern, Michael Dukakis, John-Francois Kerry and Bob Dole, and even a president like Jimmy Carter. The old system, of hard-eyed pols, some of them hacks, taking their cigars and bourbon and retiring to hotel suites to settle on the candidates, actually worked pretty well. The conventions produced respectable candidates and entertained everyone, even those who stayed home and listened to the radio. The smoke-filled room, much derided in civics textbooks, nevertheless produced, for starters, the likes of Lincoln, the two Roosevelts and Harry S. Truman.

We were a more robust country then, and there was never a more riotous convention, or one with a more lasting result, than the Republican convention in Chicago in 1860. Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer for the Illinois Central Railroad, prevailed on his client to dispatch trains to collect delegates, and as the trains rumbled through the Midwest, the Lincoln men lived up to the letter of the word “party,” consuming thousands of cigars and gallons of booze. Passionate if not always politic, they threw competing delegates off the train. Nobody was offended. Many were angry and spoiling for a fight, but nobody thought to engage a lawyer to exact revenge. Lincoln, prevailing in the fog of smoke and abundant spirits, thus showed his mettle. We couldn’t have had the Civil War without what the delegates wrought in Chicago.

Almost as portentous was the Democratic convention in 1944 in Chicago, the only sensible place to hold a convention in the days when conventions actually meant something. FDR was on his way to the coronation of a fourth term, and threw open the choice of a candidate for vice president because he wanted Henry Wallace dumped but didn’t want to do it himself. Wallace would have been a likely choice of the Democratic left of our own times. The Democratic “center,” as defined at the party’s high tide, wanted Jimmy Byrnes of South Carolina. The grubby left insisted on Wallace, or William O. Douglas, the leftmost justice of the Supreme Court. The smoke-filled room at the Blackstone Hotel at length produced Harry Truman, the grandson of a Confederate soldier from Missouri. He was Southern enough and liberal enough, and his uncommon common sense would eventually make him an icon for nearly everyone. He wouldn’t have a chance in a Democratic primary today. Of course that’s only conventional wisdom.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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