Luther Spoehr: Review of Steve Neal, Happy Days Are Here Again. (Morrow, 2004).
Reprinted from the Providence Sunday Journal, September 5, 2004.
Now that we've downed our quadrennial dose of political conventions -- programmed, packaged, televised infomercials, neither spontaneous nor suspenseful -- Steve Neal's book on the 1932 Democratic National Convention in Chicago takes us back to something different.
Neal, a veteran political reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times who died just before this book was published, shines a narrow but intense spotlight on the convention that chose New York's Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt to run against President Herbert Hoover, vividly depicting the politicking before and during the convention itself while leaving larger campaign issues, such as the three-year-old Great Depression, in shadow.
The main question: could FDR quickly turn his bare majority of delegates into the two-thirds he needed for nomination, or would there be stalemate? Just eight years earlier, the Democrats had argued themselves into exhaustion as William Gibbs McAdoo and Al Smith deadlocked for 103 ballots. The party had staggered out of New York with no chance to win.
Neal is at his best when narrating the wheeling and dealing that helped the Democrats avoid a repeat performance. In the process he shows the relevance of long-forgotten technicalities and devices (the"unit rule,""favorite son" candidates) and the irrelevance of some current ones, including presidential primaries. (Only 17 states had them in 1932.)
Neal also brings long-forgotten political figures out of the shadows. Who now remembers Gov. Albert Ritchie of Maryland? But he was a player, as were publisher William Randolph Hearst, House Speaker John Nance Garner (eventually the vice presidential nominee), Al Smith, and Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who (foreshadowing Mayor Richard J. Daley) packed the galleries with raucous locals, who hooted against Roosevelt.
After McAdoo led the California delegation over to FDR on the fourth ballot, FDR broke with tradition and flew to Chicago to accept the nomination in person. There he pledged"a New Deal" for the American people. Much of his New Deal is still with us. But the political system that brought him to that point seems, for better and worse, long ago and far away.
Luther Spoehr teaches courses on 20th-century America at Brown University.
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