The Elephant(s) in the Room
In 1924, politicians from around the country gathered in a hot auditorium that reeked of elephants to select a leader.
The event was the Democratic National Convention, the place Madison Square Garden. Delegates were meeting in a space that Barnum and Bailey Circus had just left to select the party’s candidate for the upcoming presidential election. It was a year when it looked like the underdog Democrats just might be able to take on the Republican powerhouse. But the smell of elephants wasn’t the only problem the convention had to overcome.
First among these problems was the factionalism within the party, which was split between two very different groups. The first was the Northern liberals: big city types, including immigrants and Catholics, who generally wanted to end prohibition.
The second group making up the Democratic Party was the Southern and Western conservative faction. They were predominantly white, protestant, and “dry”, or in favor of prohibition.
In the words of our guest Kevin Murphy, a scholar and speechwriter on Capitol Hill:
“ These two sort of have an alliance of convenience against their Republican party. But they don’t see eye to eye on any issue whatsoever really.”
Both factions had their own preferred candidate. William McAdoo (pronounced mack-uh-doo) was favored by the South and West, while the north pulled for Al Smith. But even before the convention began debating who to nominate for the presidency, the two factions butted heads over something else: whether or not to officially denounce the Ku Klux Klan. It hardly seemed like something that even needed to be discussed for Smith’s supporters. But many delegates supported the KKK, and most of them were McAdoo supporters. As Murphy put it:
“Obviously, the Ku Klux Klan is not a favorite organization of northern immigrants. So the first three or four days are just fighting that out. And that hardens hearts. And it’s a bad way to start the process.”
But after dealing with the KKK (the denunciation didn’t make it into the platform), the elephant in the room was the presidential nomination. Six days into the convention, party leaders finally called for the first vote to select the party’s candidate.
As was the tradition, Alabama was the first state to vote. So, it was the state’s governor who started off the process by casting Alabama’s 24 votes for not McAdoo, not Smith, but a senator from Alabama named Oscar W. Underwood. It was a move that didn’t bode well for the rest of the process.
On the first ballot, 19 different men received votes to be nominated. McAdoo and Smith split most of the votes, but nobody came close to the 2/3 required to win the party’s nomination. So, the convention had to have a second ballot. And a third. And a fourth. You see where this is going.
Each time, Alabama started things off the same way: 24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood.
Humorist Will Rogers was covering the convention for the New York Times:
“I’m sitting at my typewriter sound asleep. But I can still write Alabama 24 for Oscar W. Underwood. That is better known right now in this building than the Lord’s Prayer.”
And every time, almost all the other delegations followed Alabama’s lead, sticking with their original candidate through ballot after ballot after ballot. After two weeks and 87 ballots, the gridlock, heat, and elephant smell finally got to be too much for some delegates. The delegations shrunk as people deserted the convention, but the ballots kept on coming.
By the 103rd ballot and three weeks of gridlock, the situation had become so hopeless and the press so negative that both of the leading contenders, McAdoo and Smith, decided to drop out. The convention settled on a third candidate, someone most Americans had never heard of: John W. Davis of West Virginia. Even Davis realized that after this embarrassment he had no chance at the presidency. Murphy again:
“I think H.L Mencken says at the time it’s as if France and Germany, who have been fighting over Alsace-Lorraine for centuries, just decided to hand it to England. They’re tired. It’s been three weeks in the hot, elephant smelling auditorium. Nobody got what they wanted. They just want to go home.”