This is the month of the national presidential nominating conventions.
Until 1956, the Republicans went first with their conventions. No one knows why, it was just usually that way (well, there was 1888, but that’s why usually). In ’56 there began an informal practice of whichever party holds the White House going last. It’s been that way ever since.
This year, the GOP will meet July 18–21 in Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, with 30 Nevada delegate seats. The Democrats will gather July 25–28 in the Wells Fargo Center and Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, with 43 Nevada delegate seats.
It was around the time the White House party started going last that the conventions started changing and becoming less newsworthy. By the 1970s they were so settled in advance that they were scripted—literally, not figuratively. In 1972, a copy of the Republican National Convention script was accidentally delivered to a reporter. When the mistake was discovered, he refused to give it back and a game of keep-away ensued in a convention press trailer.
There is a school of thought in the rank and file of the political parties that elected officials get touted and pampered and spotlighted their entire lives and that the national conventions are for the rank and file. Occasionally, they have even enforced that view on the big shots. In 1976, when Nevada Democrats sent a delegation supporting presidential candidate Jerry Brown to the national convention that would nominate Jimmy Carter, Nevada Democratic leaders slated U.S. Rep. James Santini to chair the Nevada delegation. But when it came time for the delegation to elect Santini, it instead chose feminist leader Maya Miller.
Nevada’s delegations suffer from small state syndrome, but occasionally they have broken into the news. Sometimes this derives from the fact that small state congressmembers become leading figures in Congress, as with Nevadans Paul Laxalt and Harry Reid. During Laxalt’s days in the sun as a close ally of President Ronald Reagan, Nevadans (1) Frank Fahrenkopf chaired the Republican National Committee, (2) Cheryl Lau chaired the Republican National Convention, and (3) Laxalt himself made the nominating speeches for Reagan at the conventions.
But it is the unexpected that makes the conventions more interesting, like the time in 1968 that Richard Nixon set off a near revolt by choosing Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew as his vice presidential running mate. With a barnburning speech, Nevada GOP chair George Abbott nominated Michigan Gov. George Romney against Agnew. It made for great television but Agnew still won, and when Abbott arrived back in Nevada he faced efforts to fire him as party chair. (He survived it.)
In 1920, Nevadan Hugh Henry Brown made a seconding speech for Republican Herbert Hoover in Chicago. The crowd apparently thought the Hoover demonstration had already started. The New York Times reported, “The galleries were cheering and shouting Hoover’s name when Mr. Brown of Nevada appeared on the platform. Senator Reed Smoot of Utah, temporary presiding officer, rapped loudly for order. The harder he rapped the louder cheered the crowd. Mr. Smoot registered indignation. There was Mr. Brown wanting to say something nice about Mr. Hoover, and Mr. Hoover’s friends wouldn’t let him be heard. Finally Senator Smoot retired to the background, leaving Brown of Nevada standing there alone and unsupported, dashed hither and thither on a sea of cheers. … He stood there, like the Golden Gate, calm, imperturbable to fate. The cheers kept on. Brown of Nevada stood it as long as he could. Then he drew a deep breath and went to it. … What he said nobody knew, perhaps few cared.”
In 1924, there was a Democratic convention that would never be forgotten. Its lessons are still followed to this day by both parties. On June 4 that year, U.S. Sen. Key Pittman of Nevada withdrew his name from consideration as chair of the convention in favor of Sen. Thomas Walsh of Montana. Pittman may have foreseen what was coming and spared himself the ordeal of presiding over the disastrous convention that was ripped apart by the influence of the Ku Klux Klan and took 16 days and 103 ballots to nominate unknown candidate John Davis. All of the party’s divisions were broadcast on radio to the nation. Pittman, speaking to the delegates on the League of Nations, was booed and jeered. By the time the convention ended, the Democrats were doomed. This year, the New York Times ran a piece comparing the approaching 2016 GOP convention with the Democrats’ 1924 “Klanbake.”
U.S. Rep. Walter Baring, a right wing Democrat, once passed up his party’s convention, and this year Gov. Brian Sandoval is skipping the Trump convention. Sometimes absence is the better part of politics.
At the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where the Vietnam war and a police riot in the streets tore the party up, Hubert Humphrey supporter Grant Sawyer of Nevada broke with his candidate to support a platform plank backed by antiwar forces.
In 1976, with Ronald Reagan making a serious run against an incumbent Republican president but falling short in delegate votes, he decided to try an unconventional tactic—choosing his running mate in advance. Nevada’s Paul Laxalt recommended his seat mate in the Senate, liberal Pennsylvanian Richard Schweiker. The move backfired and President Gerald Ford won the nomination.
Nevada has played lesser roles from time to time. It put Richard Nixon over the top in the GOP balloting in Chicago in 1960. The state’s delegate Cliff McCorkle won approval of a plank in the 1980 Republican national platform calling for an end to the national 55 mile-an-hour speed limit.
The delegates who are not elected officials get very little attention, and must pay their own way, though there are reports of various ways they are subsidized. Some of them hold fundraisers for their travel and hotel costs.
The hours when the conventions do not meet spawn stories the public rarely hears. At the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, a group of Nevada delegates kept getting terrific service at restaurants and clubs. It turned out that the striking features of delegate Juliann Wright led various maitre d’s to the conclusion that she was a Kennedy.
On the second day of the 1984 Democratic convention in San Francisco, so many people partied late the first night that of 200 people who had signed up for an early morning bus tour of the Napa wine country, only nine showed up—all of them Nevadans.
In spite of the off-hours partying, the conventions are serious business. In fact, in 1956, Judge Joseph Butler dismissed charges of scalping tickets to the Democratic National Convention against Ben Mitchell of St. Louis because, he ruled, the convention was not a place or event of amusement.