Chaos. Total, unmitigated chaos. The 1924 Democratic convention is the longest in the history of the United States. People were fighting constantly, screaming, so they were really debating what America was. A new deal for the American People Extremism in the defense of liberty There is no substitute for victory The United States of America The Democrats had some serious problems in 1924. The biggest problem was that this was a Republican decade, so they’re probably going to lose anyway. But they had another issue, and that was what to do about the Ku Klux Klan. You had two great camps. Al Smith, governor
of New York, representing the new America, and William Gibbs McAdoo, representing an
older America. The old America, the old Democratic Party
was found in the prairies and in the South. They were, in many cases, former Confederates
or the children of former Confederates. Prohibition was the law of the land and they believed
that drink was evil. They looked to the cities and saw an America they didn’t recognize. They were hysterical that these immigrants, these city folk, the dirty city folk, are going to be taking over. Southern democrats were
an important bloc in the party. And the Klan was riding high, especially in the South. McAdoo is giving silent acquiescence.
He isn’t coming out directly, he’s just saying, “Be my guest.”
He’s willing to ride in a very ugly, ugly way. A plank in the Democratic platform condemning the Klan by name is being pushed by Al Smith, and by the urban machines in Boston,
in Chicago, and other cities. On the convention floor, Klansmen were wearing jackets and ties and straw hats, so that you couldn’t pick one out,
but the plank fails by a single vote. 1924, in the grand scheme of things,
is not that long ago. It’s astonishing in retrospect to think a major party
in American politics, the Democratic Party, the party that many Americans today associate with the Civil Rights revolution in the 60’s, couldn’t pass a simple plank condemning the Ku Klux Klan, and that really set in motion all the tension, and even the violence that would unfold as the nomination balloting began. Tempers were flaring as each ballot went by
and neither side is giving way. There were fistfights. There’s no air conditioning. You’ve got thousands of people with very little ventilation, marching up and down, cheering, sweating,
and, sooner or later, fighting. They have to bring in 1,000 cops.
It’s really a battleground. Radio covered the convention for the first time. And those people who were listening might very well have wondered, “what is this country coming to?” The damn thing just keeps on going.
Nobody wants to switch the votes because the other side is demon incarnate. So they just lock. It is 103 ballots. Finally,
they put up a compromise candidate. John Davis is a distinguished lawyer, he looks good.
They don’t really care. And they say, “To hell with it. We want to go home.
We’ll all vote for him.” For the Democrats as a whole,
the 1924 convention was a disaster. They wore themselves out, they nominated a weak candidate, they went down to defeat. But for one Democrat in particular,
it was a brilliant success. Mr. Chairman, fellow delegates Franklin Roosevelt would have been the favorite to get the nomination in 1924. But then, in 1921, polio paralyzed him from the waist. And so when he comes to the convention in 1924, it’s the first time he’s been seen by many people in public. As Al Smith’s campaign manager, he was going to get a chance to give a big speech to the convention. The whole convention held its breath.
A lot of people openly called him a cripple. “Can the cripple make it to the rostrum?” And when he got there, there was this standing ovation. The future of the Democratic Party rises far above the success of any candidate. He gives the speech of his life, and people listening must have never thought he was grasping onto that podium for dear life.
He had a voice made for radio, and of course,
radio would become his medium of choice. A more fair wage return… Roosevelt comes out of the 1924 convention convinced that he still has the political touch. That he still has political charisma.
It had not occurred to anyone until that point that someone who was physically disabled might
be President of the United States. So out of that chaos, out of the raw hatred on the floor of Madison Square Garden, comes the birth of a new Democratic Party where progressive Protestant patricians like Franklin Roosevelt join forces with ethnic politicians and their Jewish and Catholic voters living in cities, working in factories, and it’s
that combination that proves to be a winning combination for a reunited Democratic Party. Today, we are in the middle of the third great
wave of immigration in American history. There’s people getting jobs,
there’s people buying homes, they’re raising families just like earlier waves of immigrants did, and just like earlier waves of immigrants were condemned as not being American enough,
they’re being condemned. In 2016, we have a candidate who seems to
be benefiting from, and perhaps even encouraging, those groups of white people who see a country
they don’t recognize, who are fearful for their future. Those emotions, those anxieties, those hatreds
were very much part of the conversation in 1924.