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Charlie Sykes
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Morning Shots with Charlie Sykes

The Zombie Conventions

They've been zombies for a long time.
August 17, 2020
Featured Image
Who needs this? (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

“There is something about a national convention,” H. L. Mencken wrote in 1924, “that makes it as fascinating as a revival or a hanging.”

“It is vulgar, it is ugly, it is stupid, it is tedious, it is hard upon both the higher cerebral centers and the gluteus maximus, and yet it is somehow charming. One sits through long sessions wishing all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell—and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour.”

No one will describe the Democratic convention that opens today in Milwaukee that way. Instead, we get a “ghost convention.”

Welcome to the Daily Countdown. We have 78 days to go until the election; and then 78 days after that until Inauguration Day.

It’s odd, really, that the convention will be held in my hometown and that I won’t be going. But then, pretty much no one else will either. And, I have to say, that’s kind of sad. Milwaukee would have put on a pretty good party. Instead, there will be no beer-soaked parties, no funny hats, and I’ll probably spend the week at home, watching snippets on my laptop.

Frankly, I have no idea what it’s going to look like, or if anyone will pay attention to anything but the major speeches.

Of course, it’s been heading this way for years. The conventions have devolved from the gaudy show of Mencken’s experience to made-for-television pep rallies, to tightly scripted infomercials. So, this seems likely the inevitable outcome: a virtual convention that barely exists outside of its live stream.

The non-conventions of 2020 may mark the final dissolution of the anachronistic political burlesque shows, and the conventional wisdom will be that it’s about damn time. Which is too bad, because they used to be something.

The 1924 Democratic convention that Mencken sweated through took 103 ballots and 16 days to pick John W. Davis; the 1940 Republican convention improbably propelled Wendell Willkie to the presidential nomination; and there was the shambolic 1972 Democratic convention that left nominee George McGovern delivering his acceptance speech in the middle of the night. The 1980 Republican convention that nominated Ronald Reagan was convulsed by speculation that he might name former president Gerald Ford as his running mate (he chose George H.W. Bush instead). Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic convention made him a national figure.

And, of course, there was the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, complete with a police riot, which I remember particularly well, because I was there.

My father was a delegate. I was a page. And I stole the Wisconsin delegation’s banner.

My father had been Eugene McCarthy’s Wisconsin campaign director in 1968.  A newspaper reporter once described him as having a “Runyonesque quality,”  a description that obviously delighted him.

Short, dark browed, puckish faced, he looks like the sort who might let you in confidentially through billing cigar smoke, on a sure winner in the fifth race.

The real Jay Sykes is a tough-minded idealist, who took his share of gambles in McCarthy’s Wisconsin Odyssey but knew what the odds were from the beginning. “That’s why I went into it,” he says with his wry grin. “I liked the odds. They were so prohibitive.”

Here’s a picture from the floor of the convention. From left in the foreground are Wisconsin delegation chairman Donald Peterson, Louis Hansen, and  my dad.

Afterward, he described the apocalyptic confrontation in Chicago as “akin to a Rotary club luncheon in the middle of World War I.”

“It wasn’t even disillusioning,” he says, “just disgusting and demeaning.” With the outcome preordained, he said, “it was just a matter of going through a symbolic act, the playing out of a drama.” He’d really had enough of conventions. In his papers, I found this clipping:

“In its Thursday caucus, the delegation tabled a resolution offered by Milwaukeean Jay Sykes to recommend abolition of the national convention as  means of nominating presidential and vice presidential candidates….”

Going through these old pictures and clippings is an odd experience. The convention was 52 years ago, and I was there as a teenager. But as I look at the pictures I find that I can run my finger along the faces of the Wisconsin delegation and name one after another. It’s strange how much in your life you can forget, and what things stick with you. For me, 1968 has always felt the central story in the plot, and everything else has been gloss.