At Convention, Republicans Ignore Depression, Brawl Over Booze

There was never a doubt that President Herbert Hoover would be renominated as the Republican Party’s standard-bearer in June 1932.

Still, a critique in the Economist was biting:

“What are we to say of an American party half a century behind the times? The spectacle of this Republican Convention at Chicago going through its conventional motions in the thick of ‘the economic blizzard’ reminds one of the last days of the Holy Roman Empire in the 1790s. It is hard indeed to understand why Mr. Hoover should wish to be again nominated by this body to the Presidential office.”

Ignoring the Great Depression, and a demand for lower tariffs from the industrial Midwest, delegates spent most of their time squabbling about the legalization of alcohol. “Viewed from a distance, the processes of securing government ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ are not inspiring,” the Economist wrote.

Perhaps not, but more people than ever would have the chance to listen in on the process. Since 1924, when just 15 stations carried the delegates’ voices nominating Calvin Coolidge and John Davis, radio had taken off. In 1932, some 200 stations would transmit the speeches and cheering from the conventions across the U.S., with notable commentators such as Lowell Thomas and H.V. Kaltenborn offering analysis between the live sections.

But there was a problem -- no one believed the posted schedule would be followed, and news could burst forth at any time. Thus the networks planned to break into regular programs.

“The dance bands and songsters may be interrupted suddenly to clear the track for the political oratory from the Windy City,” the New York Times said. “In some cases the entertainers will be unaware that their audience has been clipped from the microphone. The show will not be stopped. Nevertheless the studio microphone will be ‘dead.’”

An NBC spokesman observed that although the cost of coverage could reach $200,000, “not a dime is paid to us for broadcasting a political convention. It is goodwill on our part. It is a service to the radio audience.”

As expected, Prohibition dominated the headlines and the committee skirmishes.

Time magazine wrote that the Republican Party had won three national elections “by sidestepping Prohibition as an issue,” but this year silence wouldn’t work.

“So wide and deep has been the popular revulsion that the convention promptly settled down into a contest between Repeal and Revision, with never a thought of Retention.”

The result was a platform advocating a new constitutional amendment to allow states to permit alcohol, regardless of the 18th Amendment.

Drys were apoplectic. Idaho Republican William Borah, a fiery speaker, soon launched an hourlong denunciation on the Senate floor.

“The great majority of this convention were for naked Repeal,” he said. “If they have their way, there will be absolutely nothing left of the 18th Amendment. The affirmative principle of it is gone. This plan is nothing but legalized secession. It is a constitutional monstrosity.”

Despite Borah’s fulminations, the great temperance crusade was grinding to a halt.

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the History of Industry and Technology at the University of Rutgers at Camden and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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