What the Candidates (and Journalists) Can Learn From the 1948 Democratic Convention

The first time television was beamed into millions of homes meant that presidential politics would have to change

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The last time the Democratic National Convention was in Philadelphia, a nominee had to rally a divided party.

Around 1:40 a.m. on July 15, 1948, an auditorium packed with thousands of uncomfortably hot supporters greeted President Harry Truman.  Philadelphia’s Convention Hall was not air-conditioned, and the crowd had waited for hours to see the president’s acceptance speech.  For the first time in DNC history, Americans waited to watch at home as well. Along the East Coast, four networks gave an estimated ten million voters access to live television coverage. 

Three weeks earlier, the networks had telecast the Republican National Convention from the same location. Americans were not impressed.  Governor Thomas Dewey had taken the nomination on the third ballot, despite the objection of the hard-right wing of the party, but viewers were shocked to see what radio hadn’t before captured: bored delegates, lengthy oratories, impatient bickering. Days after the RNC closed, one New York Times reporter wrote, “widespread criticism arose from the new audience against the revelation that the major party nominees for President and Vice President of the United States, the four men of whom two will surely fill these high offices, are chosen in a mixed setting of country circus, street carnival, medicine show and Fourth of July picnic.” Looking toward July’s DNC, one wry reporter wrote, “The electric eye will record it all for the distant spectators and diffuse heat that will produce new records in human perspiration.”

The Republicans were the favorites to take the 1948 election. Labor strikes threatened a destabilized postwar economy. Americans feared unemployment and rising food prices, and in the South especially, racial tensions driven by a segregated military demanded attention. The G.O.P. sought to leverage this sentiment, pushing a more radical upheaval of the status quo maintained by the Democrats, who had held the presidency for 15 years.

Pundits, however didn’t think President Truman would even win his party’s nomination.  He hardly won a spot as Vice President on Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 ticket: according to one poll at the time, 65 percent of Democrats preferred Henry Wallace. Truman entered office upon Roosevelt’s death in 1945.  Almost immediately, his leadership faltered. The Democrats lost control of Congress in 1946 and then watched a faction of liberals split into a third party. Four times in presidential history, a sitting president had lost his party’s nomination.  Each – John Tyler (1844), Millard Fillmore (1852), Andrew Johnson (1868) and Chester Arthur (1884) – had become president only when his predecessor had died.

Conservatives, led by Dewey, were eager to repeal New Deal progressivism; liberals warned that this thinking would take the country into another depression and sought a strong candidate to prevent the undoing of Roosevelt’s domestic legacy.

Pollsters in the summer of 1948 pooled names they thought could defeat Truman.  Senator Richard Russell of Georgia appeared to have growing support when the convention began on July 12. Truman’s Civil Rights platform was particularly divisive, as writer Alonzo Hamby detailed for Smithsonian in 2008:

Previous party platforms had never gotten beyond bland generalizations about equal rights for all. Truman was prepared to accept another such document, but liberals, led by [progressives], wanted to commit the party to four specific points in the president's own civil rights program: abolition of state poll taxes in federal elections, an anti-lynching law, a permanent fair employment practices committee and desegregation of the armed forces.

Southern delegations would lose their fight against the mighty Civil Rights plank.  As the Mississippi delegation and half of Alabama’s walked out of Convention Hall, boos followed them. The clamor inside would match the brewing thunderstorm outside.  Delegates on the floor and spectators in the balcony could see and hear a growing tempest through the glass ceiling of the stuffy auditorium.  

President Truman beat Russell soundly on the first ballot.  The dissatisfied Southern delegations seceded from the party to form “The States’ Rights Democratic Party,” otherwise known as the “Dixiecrats.” Their candidate, Strom Thurmond, would carry four states and win 39 electoral votes.

David Eisenhower, grandson of President Dwight Eisenhower, is an expert on American political conventions and the director of the Institute for Public Service at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.  He sees similarities between this month’s conventions and those in the summer of 1948.

“Democrats were the status quo party, Republicans the radicals, and that’s the parallel now,” says Eisenhower. Although Truman’s civil rights policies were controversial in their own right, Dewey’s plan to upend the New Deal agenda felt like the more disruptive trajectory for America’s future.

Eisenhower refers to conventions as “communications events” – “a gathering of the faithful” – that communicate optimism or pessimism in ways that cameras can’t capture.  He studies this dynamic in a course that he offers every four years. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of UPenn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, credits radio, more than television, as being the medium that affected conventions the most.  “That was when people started worrying about projected voice, modulation in rhetoric, that they shouldn’t be shouting in an overcrowded auditorium.” 

The first radio program broadcast from a convention took place at the 1924 RNC in Cleveland.  Stations placed glass booths on the convention stage, and broadcasters did their best to orchestrate programming for the 4.7 percent of American households that had radios.  In three days, President Calvin Coolidge –an incumbent for just a year after the death of Warren B. Harding – easily won the nomination.  Two weeks later in New York City, the Democrats took 15 days and over 100 roll calls to compromise on a candidate: John W. Davis, a West Virginia congressman.  Joking about the lengthy airtime, famous sports broadcaster Graham McNamee said he lost 8 pounds while manning his glass booth.

By 1928, 27.5 percent of American households had radios and approximately 40 million people access to them. Candidate Herbert Hoover, at the time the Secretary of Commerce, diligently rehearsed his speaking voice.  Campaigns had fully entered the radio age, where the New York Times said that “the printed word” had been “supplemented by the spoken word,” and that candidates had learned it was “less important to sway crowds than be able to send a voice quietly into a million or ten million homes and speak convincingly to men and women sitting by their own firesides.”  

Telecasts began in 1940, when a single cable transmitted the signal from the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia to a few thousand viewers in New York City. By the time the RNC returned to Philadelphia in 1948, nearly half a million television sets serviced approximately 10 million Americans.

When President Truman took the platform to the tune of “Hail to the Chief” in the early hours of July 15, delegates and spectators – many of who had been listening to speeches in the 100-degree room since noon – greeted him with deafening applause.  Above Truman, a manmade air conditioning system was designed to push air over blocks of ice suspended in tanks some 50 feet from the ground. (It didn’t.) In front of him, cameras, crews and television lights filled scaffolding constructed 50 feet away. A thin outline of notes sat before him on the podium.

Truman wore a white suit and a black tie.  He had won the nomination, but he still had to unite a disheartened, cynical party and defeat Dewey.  The president stepped up to the microphone and smiled.  With a rhythmical, relaxed, “semi-ad lib” delivery, he took charge of the room and surprised his detractors with a confident message that uplifted his electorate.

“Senator [Alben] Barkley and I will win this election and make these Republicans like it – don’t you forget that!”

Blaming the Republican-controlled Congress for failing to act on housing, education, national health and civil rights legislation, Truman said he would call Congress “back into session” by the end of July to act. “If they are honest in what they say they will be able to do the job in 15 days.” (Congress did return, but passed none of Truman’s legislation.)

Starting in 1948, CBS and NBC broadcast conventions from “gavel to gavel,” from the opening moments through to the final speeches. In 1984, the networks chose to cut back coverage, but not their convention budgets: NBC, ABC and CBS sent additional field reporters to offer a more tailored prime-time programming.  “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw told the New York Times at the time that while he preferred extended reporting, a diminished audience required editorial tailoring. 

“The civics lesson of the conventions will still be there,” he said. “The distillation will be new.”

Ted Turner’s nascent Cable News Network (CNN) and C-SPAN seized their moment, announcing they would broadcast every second of the conventions.  An executive producer for Turner said, “This is our opportunity to show that we are competitive and confident.” 

By 2008, as parties tightened their sessions to accommodate dwindling prime-time broadcasts, networks gave just three hours of live coverage to each convention.  In 2012, the Romney campaign reeled at the realization that Ann Romney’s speech would not be televised on the networks if it weren’t scheduled during the one live hour given by each on the final three nights.  But once again, a newer form of technology had started offering a different type of eyewitness account.  David Bauder of the Associated Press wrote, “[Live streaming] reverses a decades-long trend of TV networks compressing coverage on the theory that the conventions have become stage-managed events largely free of news.”

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“Conventions don’t change votes,” says Jamieson.  “There is too much time between them and the election.”  She points to the acceptance speech as the most important part of the convention, an opportunity for the public “to look at the candidate as president for the first time.”  Americans may feel like they know Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but until the final roll call of states at each convention, neither nomination is an absolute given. 

There is something sacred about conventions lost to limited television broadcasting.  According to Eisenhower, many do not realize the power of what resonates through debates and discussion on the campaign floor.  “Everything that happens at a convention forms a chorus, a symphony, a motif, an aria, a definition of what matters in the country right now and how we are going to approach it.” The acceptance speech is meant to articulate this spirit.

Truman’s 1948 acceptance speech in Philadelphia, says Eisenhower, is exactly the type that any presidential candidate must give.  “It must mobilize the faithful, convert the doubtful and depress adversaries.” 

This week in Cleveland, and next week in Philadelphia, it is most likely up to Trump and Clinton to take Eisenhower’s challenge at the convention podium.  The rest of us will follow from home – on a television, laptop, phone or Twitter stream – as an “electric eye” sends us the signals.

About Carrie Hagen

Carrie Hagen is a writer based in Philadelphia. She is the author of We Is Got Him: The Kidnapping that Changed America, and writes about history and culture for Smithsonian.com and other publications.

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