Columns » Bob McCord

The last smoke-filled room


Because there was a chance that Congressman Wilbur Mills of Arkansas might have been nominated for president or vice president, the newspaper I was working for in 1972, the Arkansas Democrat, sent me to the Democratic Convention in Miami. Let me tell you that it was very different from the Boston Democratic convention that we watched on TV last week. Presidential candidates used to be named in smoke-filled rooms at political conventions, and the delegates voted two, three even four times until a candidate was chosen. But in the 1950s, states began holding primary elections, and people rather than politicians slowly began selecting the candidates. Now the delegates do it with a single ballot just as we saw last week. Conventions today are simply scripted exhibitions - four days of watching and listening on TV to politicians, wives, relatives, friends, movie stars and singers trying to persuade Americans to vote for their nominee come November. But it had not reached that point when the Democrats gathered in Miami in 1972. There were still a lot of smoke-filled rooms. The delegates were the youngest and most liberal in the history of the Democratic Party - a consequence of the 1968 convention in Chicago, which was the stormiest in history. Young white and black men and women protested the Vietnam war and the old-guard delegates' refusal to seat a group of black delegates from Mississippi who came to Chicago to replace the all-white delegates sent by the state's segregationists. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley sent his police against the protesters, and during the riots 1,381 people were injured, 680 arrested. By contrast, last week in Boston there were also young, liberal protestors, but only four were injured and one arrested. In Chicago in 1968, only 5.5 percent of the delegates were black. Last week in Boston, 18 percent were black and 12 percent were Hispanics. Thirteen percent of the delegates in Chicago were women, 37.6 percent in Boston. Delegates under 30? 4 percent in Chicago, 31 percent in Boston. The major TV networks used to broadcast every hour of the conventions, but last week they broadcast only one hour a night. That meant that some best speakers - Barack Obama, for example - weren't seen, which tells us how chintzy TV's major networks have become about covering public affairs and why fewer Americans are not really interested in politics. The 1972 convention, while not successful, was more lively and interesting, especially with Wilbur Mills' involvement. He represented Central Arkansas in the House of Representatives for 38 years and was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee for 17 years, which meant that he was one of the most powerful men in the United States. For example, he was responsible for making a nervous Congress pass Medicare. Liberal delegates wanted to nominate George McGovern to oppose Republican President Richard Nixon's attempt for a second term. With McGovern's World War II record and his ideas of isolationism, free medical care for everyone and raising the federal income tax, they thought he might defeat Nixon. Young people wanted Sen. Edward Kennedy, and a few even wanted Hubert Humphrey again. McGovern won at 2:50 a.m. Many believed that a liberal wouldn't have a chance unless he had a Southern Democrat for vice president. Several delegates told me that they had never heard of McGovern until six months ago. By this time, Mills had given up, but, despite what he said, it was obvious that he wanted to be vice president. Naturally, Arkansans like Dale Bumpers, Hardy Croxton and Diane Kincaid were for him but also people like Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut and Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona. Bumpers and others, including Bill Clinton, a McGovern supporter, urged McGovern to choose Mills, but McGovern wouldn't do it. For vice president, he picked Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri. Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter said he had never heard of him. Nine days later McGovern made Eagleton resign after he admitted he had been hospitalized three times for treatment of emotional exhaustion and depression. McGovern then chose Sargent Shriver, former director of the Peace Corps. In November, the McGovern-Shriver team lost every state except Massachusetts. In December 1974, Mills jumped in the Tidal Basin while in the company of a striptease dancer and later admitted that he was an alcoholic under treatment by doctors and a spiritualist. He resigned as chairman of Ways and Means, retired from Congress in 1976 and died in 1992. I've always thought that what happened to him in Miami led to his downfall. Sadly, I've also decided that the experts are right when they say that incumbent presidents usually are re-elected, and if there is no incumbent running, then the candidate of the majority party in Congress will win. This has happened in all but six of the last 28 presidential elections.

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