WASHINGTON — With the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination charging each other with racial bigotry, I think it is safe to observe that 2008 will not be a progressive year in the Democratic Party. Increasingly the Clinton campaign puts me in mind of presidential campaigns waged by the late segregationist George Wallace. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton even has Wallace’s surly style. Yet Wallace was rarely accused of lying. Hillary is caught lying every few days, and the lies are not even as clever as those of her mendacious husband, the sex maniac. Of course, when the fur ceases to fly over these racial charges, I think it will be clear that Hillary is not nearly the bigot Wallace was, but neither is she as nice a person. I cannot think of one of Governor Wallace’s household pets disappearing under mysterious circumstances.
Moving over to the Republican race, none of the candidates has yet to charge another with racial bigotry. None has done oppositional research on an opponent’s kindergarten records. And none has been caught raising campaign funds through a Chop Suey Connection. Yet, we have repeatedly heard the ugly charge of flip-floppery flung about wantonly, and it is not a reference to casual footwear but to casual dissembling on issues. In fact, every candidate still in the Republican race has been accused of flip-floppery, occasionally using multiple feet.
Thus far the 2008 campaign in both parties is very unsatisfactory. Something is missing, and, as I see it, that something is dignity. At this stage Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama come closest to displaying dignity; but even they fall short, owing to the environment in which they must operate, an environment shaped by a prima donna electorate and a press that encourages soap opera. Both are the consequence of idiotic state caucuses or state primaries, inflated into circuses by enormous sums of money, and all lacking in party discipline. It is time to return to nominating presidential candidates in national political conventions, the same kind of conventions that gave us Roosevelts and Eisenhower and the 1960 race between Kennedy and Nixon — a very classy affair compared to today’s infantile confrontations.
Today national conventions are a thing of the past because mid-20th century reformers accused them of being undemocratic. Actually, they were as democratic as today’s caucuses and primaries. Moreover, they reduced the need for the vast fundraising operations that are our contemporary reformers’ nightmare. Most of the delegates at national conventions were chosen democratically at their state conventions, where party platforms were pounded out and presidential nominees chosen. The enormous expense of media advertising and get-out-the-vote drives was unnecessary, as most of the participants were volunteers, loyal party members, or public-spirited citizens prevailed upon by neighbors to get involved as Democrats or Republicans.
What is more, seasoned politicians were influential every step of the way, right up to the convention. In the time of competitive national political conventions, presidential candidates still had to campaign throughout the nation but at far less expense. Then once the national convention was convened, they had to present themselves to each state delegation. Reformers inveighed against the spectacle of floor demonstrations, with delegates wearing silly hats and parading up the aisles, but such high jinks were harmless, far less expensive than today’s vast media buys, and turned up presidential nominees far more impressive than today’s poseurs.
Reading Arthur Schlesinger’s Journals, I came across the now-deceased historian’s observations of JFK at the 1960 Democratic national convention. Kennedy was in a pretty good position to win the nomination, but he had to present himself to state delegations nonetheless. He particularly disrelished visiting the segregationist Southerners, but he did so. He already had a sense of what they were like but now had an opportunity to review his estimates of them. They, in turn, got a sense of him. This was not an costly blitz through a primary state, accompanied by expensive and misleading media barrages and transient opportunities to embarrass his rivals. It was a serious meeting among Democrats who were deeply involved in governing their states. It was adult politics.
If our reformers really want to end the nightmare of $100 million primary campaigns and the trashiness of this primary season, they will bring us back to the good old days of national political conventions that really matter. I long to see candidates in silly hats rather than in silly situations.
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