Party's Main Event a Spectacle; Rowdy Crowds, Bold Oratory Forge History of Conventions

Article excerpt

Byline: Jennifer Harper, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

There has been a cast of thousands over the years. They laughed. They cried. They hooted and hollered, toasted God and country and hammered on party platforms - not to mention each other. There have been riots, splendid oratory, posturing of the most political sort, and plenty of song and story.

Welcome to the Democratic National Convention.

There have been 45 of them. One has erupted every 1,441 days or so for the past 176 years in one city or another. The Democrats have met in Chicago 11 times, Baltimore eight. St. Louis and New York were graced by the party four times each over the years, Miami and Houston but once each.

There have been highs and lows, bests and worsts, which have reflected the identity of the party and the mood of the people.

There are moments in a convention, which can tell you something about where the country is, where the party is. They also provide some clue about where we're heading in the next four years, said ABC commentator Cokie Roberts, who has covered conventions for decades.

Some conventions have made history, and they have forged the nominating process. They become real place markers for the party. Nominations become official; we don't have to use that word 'presumptive' anymore, she noted.

Such dynamics were in place from the first Democratic convention in 1832, which was staged in Baltimore and starred the likes of incumbent President Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, nominated for his vice president. Such decorum, such high hopes. With considerable ado, the convention marked the first appearance of formal nomination protocols - such as the roll-call vote.

The people could be disposed after seeing the good effects of this convention in conciliating the different and distant sections of the country, noted Frederick A. Sumner, who called the 334 gentlemen from 22 states to order.

Old Hickory - as Jackson was called - received an august nomination, with the delegates joining in a resolution that said, We most cordially concur in the repeated nominations, which he has received in various parts of the union.

Jackson and Van Buren handily won the election that fall, defeating Henry Clay and John Sargeant.

With such auspicious beginnings, the Democrats staged their next seven gatherings in Baltimore.

Still, conventions proved unpredictable; protocols were a little sketchy. During the second convention, Maryland, for example, sent 188 delegates, Tennessee only one. By 1844, the convention included a central committee to keep their organization on an even keel - the forerunner of the Democratic National Committee.

In four years, the party was divided by slavery, with the Barnburners, a more liberal anti-slavery faction, storming out of the convention while conservative-leaning Hunkers remained - but refused to vote. The 1860 convention was so disrupted by arguments over slavery that the party adjourned, to reconvene two months later. …