"Let's get this over with quickly, before they all find out how
little they want me," John F. Kennedy said to his companions as he
alighted from the plane that had brought him to Los Angeles for the 1960
Democratic National Convention.
A joke? Not really. He was ahead. The votes had been canvassed. Yet
the margin was slim, and if he was not nominated on the first ballot,
there was a real danger that defections would deny him the nomination.
And there were some among his supporters who did not want him, who
feared that he was too young, or too Catholic, or too inexperienced to
take on the wily and despised Richard M. Nixon. In the end, out of 1,500
votes, Kennedy would receive only 45 more than he needed, many of them
It was a watershed convention, both the last of the old conventions
and the beginning of the new. As had been true in the past, party
bosses--the chieftains of state and city parties--would be decisive. But
in 1960, for the first time, victories in the primaries were also
decisive, demonstrating to the party powers, or so it was thought, that
despite his religion and his age, Kennedy could win votes.
Today, as the Democrats reassemble in Los Angeles, the bosses are
gone, an extinct species. This convention is merely a ritual of
ratification, a formal confirmation of the primary elections. It is no
longer the bosses who decide, but the people--at least that handful who
vote in the primaries, along with the wealthy who make it all possible.
Yet before we congratulate ourselves on this extension of democratic
principle, we should pause to acknowledge that it was the bosses who gave
us Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, Adlai E. Stevenson and John
F. Kennedy. The people on the other hand have given us . . . everybody
It was the old Democratic and Republican conventions that were truly
made for television--the clash of egos and ideas; some uncertainty, both
real and contrived; colorful personalities in collision: Chicago Mayor
Richard M. Daley shouting insults at Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of
Connecticut; Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois blaming Tom Dewey of New
York for leading the Republican Party to defeat at the hands of Roosevelt
and then Truman; Hubert H. Humphrey driving Southern delegations from the
convention with his plea that it was time for the Democratic Party "to
get out of the shadow of states' rights" into the "bright sunshine of
human rights." And in the more distant past, William Jennings Bryan
demanding that the moneyed East not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.
In contrast, today's tedious events appear as if designed by some
twisted producer determined to drive his audience away to quiz shows and
Everyone who remembers the conventions of old mourns their passage.
But in politics there is no room for nostalgia. The conventions of today,
like those of the past, are faithful mirrors of the country and the
political process, reflecting the changes of the past four decades.
There is still plenty of drama in the contest for nomination. Except
that now it has been pushed forward into the primaries, as we saw John
McCain's insurgency mount and then recede, Bill Bradley's challenge
beaten back by a reinvigorated Al Gore. There was sharp and serious
debate on issues and personalities, as well as an abundance of hypocrisy,
meaningless rhetoric, imprecations hurled at opponents. Surely the Bush
performance in South Carolina rivals in violent hypocrisy anything done
at any convention.
Since the true contest for power takes place in the primaries, they
are now the theater of political drama. By the time the convention
begins, the battle is ended. An old political adage holds that it is
fine, even necessary, to kick your opponent when he is down, but not when
he is dead. That is a waste of energy in a struggle where there is no
energy to waste.
But even in their current emasculated condition, the conventions can
tell us something of the country they reflect. The 1960 convention was
shadowed by the Cold War. Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev had broken
up a summit meeting and declared the Monroe Doctrine dead, while Cuba was
transformed into a communist outpost. The threat from communism and the
struggle for the turbulent, impoverished continents of the Third World
preoccupied candidates and delegates.
Today, to American concerns, the world has grown larger, its
difficulties more remote, the theater of a struggle for markets, not for
human freedom. The manifold difficulties of a turbulent globe are of only
marginal concern to a self-absorbed American people, and the political
debate--health care, education, etc.--reflects this shrunken concern.
Nor will there be even an echo of the strident civil-rights debates of
the past. For there is an emerging national consensus in opposition to
racial and ethnic prejudice. The Republicans have even dropped the
hostility to immigration reflected in past platforms.
Of course there is still plenty of racism in America. But it is no
longer politically respectable to oppose equality for all groups,
especially in light of the fact that the blurring of old party
distinctions means that all groups are up for grabs. We may have a ways
to go, but the acceptance of diversity, of a multicultural society, has
moved a long ways since 1960.
The struggle of economic interest groups--workers and farmers, unions
and corporations--that provided so much drama in the past will not emerge
to trouble the surface of this Los Angeles convention. No one will, as
Roosevelt did, launch an attack on economic royalists or malefactors of
great wealth (although we still have plenty of such malefactors).
As befits a prosperous and self-absorbed society, conflict has moved
to safer ground--abortion, family values, gay rights--the social issues
whose resolution does not threaten the dominant holders of private
This is partly because the important economic interests are now
national, even global, in scope; partly because those who have not shared
in our current prosperity--the working class, which receives a receding
fraction of the nation's wealth--have no voice in the contest for
political power. The class struggle that fueled past conflicts is over,
at least for the moment, not because we have achieved economic justice
but because the affluent have won.
None of these issues, with their potential for division, will be
debated at the Democratic convention. The party's position has already
been decided, and its elaboration is left to the the candidates who have
already been selected. All that is left for the delegates on display here
is a struggle to appear interested in the proceedings and to have a good
time as they enjoy the hospitality of the wealthy, who pay for the
convention and for the parties that may enliven it.
In this, the Democrats have a real advantage. At least they're in Los
Richard N. Goodwin was an Assistant Special Counsel to President Kennedy and a Special Assistant to President Johnson. He Lives in Concord, Mass.
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times