A Look Back at Democratic Conventions 1900-2020
By Carl Fisher, PCP, HDL – HD35
With the Democratic National Convention starting shortly I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at past conventions in years that ended in zero. While we are not all that removed from events that took place twenty years ago, events that took place 40, 60, or 100 years ago might look radically different from our perceptions of politics and our party today. Maybe even cause us today to shake our heads and wonder ‘what were they thinking?’ Step into the wayback machine!
2020 is the 120th anniversary of the 1900 Democratic National Convention. The country in 1900 was a very different place. There were under 100 million people according to census records. Compared to over 320 million people today (by the way have you filled out your Census this year?). Our political parties were very different. Bimetallism (yeah, you better click the link). Essentially, our country and political parties were divided over adopting the Gold Standard (Eastern urban Republican interests were in favor) and the Democrats, populists, and Silver Republicans against).
The Democratic National Convention was held in Kansas City, Missouri from July 4 to 6 1900. Williams Jennings Bryan was nominated for a second time to be the Democratic nominee. Oregon sent only 8 delegates in 1900 to the convention. There were some historic firsts at this convention. The first woman to serve as a delegate of a major political party was Elizabeth Cohen. She served as a delegate from Utah. She seconded the nomination of Bryan. The first foreign royal to attend a national convention was David Laʻamea Kahalepouli Kinoiki Kawānanakoa of the Kingdom of Hawaii. He came as one of the founders of the Democratic Party of Hawaii and to have it officially recognized by the party.
100 years ago Democrats gathered for the very first American political convention on the west coast. San Francisco was party central for Democrats that year and did they need to party. Modern conventions are very choreographed events. The 1920 Democratic National Convention was anything but choreographed. Democrats ended up taking 44 ballots for a candidate to be selected the nominee for president. . There were over 14 names placed in nomination. Ohio Governor James M. Cox ended up securing the nomination. Democrats adopted a League of Nations and women’s suffrage planks in their platform.
This was the first major party convention where women were placed in nomination and received votes at the convention. Future president Franklin Roosevelt was nominated for vice president. The bulwark of the Democratic Party was still controlled by southern forces and the party platform did not have any civil rights planks in it. In fact it contained language that would be considered the opposite of embracing civil rights. The 1920s were a time of growing intolerance towards immigrants and the rise of hate groups like the KKK. While the modern day Democratic Party is nothing like the party of 1920, some of the themes of that election seem to be alive and well with another political party in our country right now.
80 years ago this summer Democrats met for a historic convention in Chicago. President Franklin Roosevelt was finishing up his second term as president and traditionally presidents served only two terms. Roosevelt would break that tradition in grand fashion and be the first president to be nominated for a third consecutive term. Roosevelt also broke other traditions. He selected his own running mate. Prior conventions it was a mixed bag on how much influence the nominee had on the selection of the vice presidential candidate. Today, no one but the nominee has the final say on the selection of a running mate. Roosevelt ended up selecting Henry Wallace of Iowa in hopes that he could appeal to midwestern farmers.
The 1940 convention was the last convention prior to the start of WWII. The party had made tremendous progress on a number of fronts in the twenty years since 1920. The New Deal had considerably liberalized the party platform. By 1940 the party supported ‘to uphold due process and the equal protection of the laws for every citizen, regardless of race, creed or color’. Much work continued on this front. While Southern Democrats’ days of preventing a strong Civil Rights plank and discussion were numbered, it would take another eight years before the explosive 1948 convention where many southern Democrats would ‘Strom’ off and run as the Dixiecrats.
Most people alive today have a parent or grandparent that remembers John F. Kennedy. I know very few people that grew up in that generation that did not have a memory or two about Kennedy. They all have a JFK story, especially here in Oregon where Kennedy campaign viggah-rously for the Oregon Primary in 1960. The Democratic National Convention met in Los Angeles 60 years ago this summer to nominate him and Lyndon Johnson for Vice President. Again, we see the advancement of the nominee selecting the veep nominee. We also see the story of new voices coming into the Democratic Party to be heard at this convention. Women and people of color were thrust into the national spotlight like never before.
The first Black DNC member was elected in 1960. Frank Reeves would end up being a key advisor to Kennedy through his presidency. He was one of several speakers to second the nomination of John F. Kennedy for president before the convention. In his remarks to the convention he said, “What was once considered bold, and even radical in the New Deal, would be but a horse and buggy ride to this impatient generation, seeking justice and equality for all of our citizens”.
The Vice President of the Young Democrats of America was a young Asian woman named Patsy Mink. She served in the state legislature in Hawaii and was called up to defend the civil rights plank. Going toe to toe against Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina and the southern delegates attempting to weaken the language. She was able to convince the delegates to stand strong on their new civil rights plank. A few short years later this trailblazing woman would herself be elected to Congress and even come to Oregon to campaign for president in 1972. She would go on to work with Oregon Congresswoman Edith Green during her tenure on the Title IX legislation. Green, like Reeves above, was selected to second the nomination of John F. Kennedy. She was also the first woman to chair a state delegation at a Democratic National Convention. She had been a loyal Kennedy supporter in the primary.
Some more random fun facts about the 1960 convention include. Jim Weaver and Sylvia Davidson are the only members of the Oregon delegation still alive today. Both are in their 90s as of this writing. Nan Wood Honeyman, the first woman ever elected to Congress from Oregon was a delegate for Kennedy. She was a close personal friend of Franklin and especially Eleanor Roosevelt. The first two women ever elected to Congress from Oregon were there leading the delegation for Kennedy. There was also a delegate from Oregon named Gladys Everett. She was a trailblazing woman lawyer from Oregon. She was the first woman ever to become a municipal judge and the first woman to practice before the Oregon Supreme Court. Oregon Senator Wayne Morse stayed home and watched the convention from Eugene. He had run for President against Kennedy in Oregon and several other places. After he lost he declared he did not want to attend the convention and embarrassed the Oregon delegation with his presence. Which is unfortunate for Oregonians at the end of the day, Morse being the maverick liberal champion that he was would have been given a prime speaking gig of some kind.
Well we are finally getting close to my lifetime. I always remember 1980 because of two events locally and one national. My parents were married in March of 1980 and Mt. Saint Helens erupted in May of 1980. Those are the two local events. The national event was the Democratic National Convention held in New York that summer. Senator Ted Kennedy gave what is remembered as one of the greatest convention speeches ever recorded. In high school I was giving an expository speech about Ted Kennedy’s life and part of my speech involved reciting that convention speech from memory. It caught enough folks attention that I ended up getting a special gift on my 18th birthday. A personally inscribed photo from Senator Kennedy that a former staffer had arranged to be sent. It came on my birthday. Our postal service can do amazing things (Leave it alone Trump!)
For those that have not studied this convention, perhaps it is best to think of it like the 2008 or the 2016 convention where you had two very determined campaigns battling for delegates all the way to the convention. Kennedy’s forces were pulling out all the tricks in the bylaws rule book to try and break President Carter’s hold on delegates that they believed were swayable in an open convention. In the end, the Kennedy campaign failed to open the convention and delegates were bound to the candidate they had been pledged to the primary. While Carter won the nomination that week, hardly anyone remembers his speech that is not a diehard political junkie and when they do remember his speech, they remember it for the small gaffe surrounding ‘Hubert Horaitio Hornblower Humphrey’. 1980 was one of those years where the person that lost the race gave the far more memorable speech at the convention than the winner.
The actual number of Oregon delegation members to a national convention had been rising steadily over the 20th century. While we had only 8 delegates sent to the convention in 1900 by 1980 we had over 60 members of our delegation. Oregon delegates were also just as feisty as they are today. The photo above was provided by Grant Schott and features future Governor Barbara Roberts as a member of the Oregon Kennedy delegation. The Carter and Kennedy camps took their differences of personality and found tiny things to fight over as a delegation. Seating for instance was political as it always is at a convention. Certain people want to have seats in front of the delegation so that when the roll call is happening their signs and faces are being seen. To prevent seating wars, at the last convention delegates got randomly assigned seats. Oregon delegates also had fun with the Veep nomination. At least 10 delegates wrote in future Governor Ted Kulongoski, a candidate for US Senate that year to gain him some notable publicity. At one point the delegation hung a banner for Kulongoski that got at least one delegate detained by convention security and NY police. By 1980 we were no longer having the same old Democratic platform battles that had consumed the party in the 20s-60s. More and more liberal democrats were being sent to draft the party platform and they wanted to highlight the comparison with the more conservative GOP platforms by embracing the Equal Rights Amendment and Civil Rights. The Oregon delegates from 1980 I have spoken with all believe that regardless of which candidate they supportered they all believed their platform was the most liberal platform they had ever worked on at that point.
What a gift or luxury it must be to not have much memory of the 2000 campaign. Al Gore and George W. Bush battled it out in the courts for a month about the results in Florida. We all know what a hanging chad is thanks to the election. Finally having the Supreme Court decide the election. Everything that happened between Election Night and the court ruling completely overshadowed every other political event that year. The Democratic Convention celebrated the 40th anniversary of the nomination of John F. Kennedy by holding the convention back in Los Angeles. While the outcome brought Democrats a lot of unease about the future, the convention and campaign year in general was memorable. Rage Against the Machine held a concert across the street from the convention center.
Gore and his wife shared a memorable kiss on the stage of the convention. The first Jewish American was selected as a Vice Presidential running mate. Gore was the first sitting Democratic Vice President to win a presidential nomination since Hubert Humphrey at the 1968 national convention. How could we also not forget Saturday Night Live lampooning Bush and Gore on a weekly basis.
By the time the primary had reached Oregon, there was no race. Gore had secured all of Oregon’s delegates. Future Democratic leaders from Oregon attended this convention like Kate Brown, and Jeff Merkley. Washington County Democrats Mike Bohan, Ramen Velji, and Naomi Ballard attended the 2000 convention. I had written in an earlier post about David Wu and Earl Blumenauer getting to address the convention. It was a fairly united event. President Bill Clinton addressed the convention the first night to help transition attention away from his administration to a party run by Al Gore and friends.
And here we are at this convention, in a country bitterly divided over things that previous generations just simply took at face value. When did science, facts, and news become fake? We live in an era when if the facts don’t fit your preconceived narrative you simply just call into question the source and say ‘oh well that’s biased’ or ‘this network is Fake News’. Our current president would rather spend the weekend golfing than trying to figure out a way to plan a response to COVID-19. Every former President would have been chastised by even the most conservative individuals for taking golf weekends during a national crisis like the pandemic we find ourselves in right now.
In the next week Joe Biden will announce his selection of a running mate. We can only hope that the Biden campaign and millions of Americans are ready to do the hard work of setting our country back on course after the disastrous detour we have been on for the last four years. The 2020 convention is our chance to unify the various coalitions that need to come together to defeat Donald Trump and yes, some of those coalitions are not liberal or traditional Democrats but the many dissatisfied former Republicans and citizens that have no party ties. We know that Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Governor John Kasich (R-OH) will speak on the same night of the convention. This is sure to ruffle all sorts of feathers on all sorts of people but if these two respected leaders of very different groups of voters can come together for a night to support Joe Biden I am hopeful that folks that are watching will be able to do the same and vote for Joe Biden when they get their ballots. Here is the full schedule of events as of right now. I can’t wait to tune into the convention next week!
Carl Fisher is a Joe Biden Delegate to the 2020 DNC from CD-1 Washington County & State Central Committee Delegate.