Elmer Davis on the Last Old-Time Convention

Elmer Davis, born in Aurora, Indiana, in 1890, became a Rhodes Scholar and then joined the New York Times as a reporter in 1914. By the early 1920s, he had drafted a history of the paper and created a memorable satirical alter ego, Godfrey G. Gloom, an “old-fashioned Jeffersonian Democrat from Amity, Indiana.”

Gloom attended both national political conventions in Chicago during the 1932 presidential campaign, and Davis recorded his comments in interview form in the New York Times.

His dispatches offer a revealing glimpse of one of the Great Depression's pivotal political moments.

At the Republican National Convention, Gloom remarked on President Herbert Hoover’s re-nomination:

“I been in Chicago thirty-six hours and he is the one prominent Republican whose name I haven’t heard mentioned yet, in any connection. I hear a lot said in praise of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, and Mellon and Coolidge, but not a word about Hoover has come to my ears.”

Asked about the Prohibition fight, he complained:

“My friend Walter J. Woof, of the Amity Grapevine-Telegraph, came to me this morning in great dismay. ‘Godfrey,’ he says, ‘the wets have gone too far. I’m told there’s no place where you can get a drink within several blocks of the convention hall.’ . . . Downright unsportsmanlike, I call it, to try and create the impression that it is going to be hard to get a drink unless the amendment is repealed.”

Reviewing the politics of the economic crisis, Gloom said:

“Here they are, the party that has been in power for twelve years, that has promised and guaranteed in writing a chicken in every pot, two cars in every garage, and the abolition of poverty -- and what have they got to say about it? Not a thing. They just stand there, firm and unshaken, and make it clear that nobody at all well-bred would mention the fact that somewhere things have gone a little wrong.”

He later added:

“To give much consideration to economic questions here would have been very unwise indeed, for none of these fellows knew what to say about them any more than I do. Far better to wait for the Democrats to consider economic questions, and then jump on ’em for considering them wrong.”

Next, he covered the Democrat’s convention. His wife asked why he’d return to Chicago to see the Democrats “commit suicide.”

“I says to her, ‘I’ve attended the funeral of the Democratic party several times, but somehow it always manages to wriggle out of the coffin. The blame thing may never be much more than half alive, but it’s pretty hard to kill it entirely.”

Visiting delegates on the floor, he found few surprises.

“All of ’em I heard were talking about the fine parties they were having at the hotels at night and arguin’ whether the Jasper red brought up from home is better than the Canadian rye you get in Chicago.”

With the nomination decided, he offered a final judgment, as told to him by another character, Colonel Sangaree: “Most of these fellows here, they’re for Roosevelt not particularly because they want him, but because they think he’s going to win.”

But Gloom said he found the speed of their decision confusing.

“Old traditions in national conventions are dissolving in the stress of these times.”

Only former New York Governor Al Smith denouncing his successor and rival for the nomination, Franklin D. Roosevelt, represented “respect for tradition,” he said. “By walking off in a sulk he will go down in history as the last of the old-fashioned Democrats.”

Smith’s hostility to Roosevelt remained deep and determined. And the Hoover forces hoped that with Smith’s help they could win New York in November -- showing the aristocratic ingrate who was really the boss.

(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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