Kansas City 1976: the last great political convention

Tevi Troy, writing in the Washington Post, discusses the ways in which technology has changed, and continues to change, political conventions. Tevi’s piece is based on his fascinating essay in National Affairs about the evolution of such conventions.

It’s sad that the contested convention vanished from the political landscape before modern high technology had taken hold. Imagine an old-style, multi-ballot convention taking place in our era of high technology — instant messaging, tweets, ability to record via cell phone meetings in smoke filled rooms and to transmit the recording instantly.

These days, conventions are dull affairs. However, Tevi points out that they would be duller still without modern technology:

[Until recently] if a candidate could secure a majority of delegates before the convention and “clinch” the nomination, he or she could enter the convention as the presumptive nominee and thus control all aspects of the convention, including the staging, speaker selection and platform committee. This approach has worked for the most part for the past 40 years. . . .

But change is coming, or has already arrived. Cord-cutting, for example, is reducing the number of people watching cable television as young people obtain political news from other sources, including late-night comedy. In response, parties will have to use new technologies to design convention events that target specific viewing demographics.

At the same time, the communications revolution means that it is not only the party and the networks that determine which images will make it into Americans’ living rooms.

But regardless of who supplies them, the images will never be as viewing-worthy as they used to be.

Last night, C-SPAN broadcast a chunk of CBS’s coverage of the last contested convention — the Republican event in 1976 in Kansas City, where Gerald Ford narrowly edged out Ronald Reagan. I had watched this same coverage 40 years ago and was amazed by how much of it I remembered. Mike Wallace using the sons of Bill Moyers and Roger Mudd to spy on a rump meeting of pro-Reagan delegates from Mississippi (who needs high tech); John Connolly’s speech warning of, and more or less predicting, American decline (he didn’t see the Reagan revolution coming); the competing Ford and Reagan demonstrations; the booing of a sweet pro-Ford delegate from Wisconsin; images of Reagan taking it all in from his hotel suite.

All the modern technology in the world can’t make contemporary conventions as riveting as the 1976 GOP affair.

Technology was at the heart of another memorable event at that convention. When a pro-Reagan delegate marched past the New York delegation, Nelson Rockefeller, then the vice president of the United States, snatched the sign this delegate was carrying. When Rockefeller refused to give the sign back, the delegate ripped out the cord of New York delegation’s telephone, thus depriving delegation leaders of the ability to communicate with the Ford team.

CBS interviewed Rockefeller soon after the incident. He seemed amused and proud of himself for taking the pro-Reagan delegates sign (he handed it to me, Rockefeller said with a big smile). Reagan, watching in his hotel room, seemed amused, as well. Imagine the twitter wars this incident would spark today.

In the CBS interview, Rocky reminded me of Donald Trump. Same boisterous New York tone, same reliance on superlatives, same combative spirit, same propensity for showmanship, similar swagger, something of the same look.

There is also, I think, an ideological kinship. I’ve heard Trump described as a Rockefeller Republican. If he isn’t now , it’s very likely that he once was.