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July 27, 2004

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Q & A: R. Craig Sautter

Political historian R. Craig Sautter is the author of three books on presidential convention history: "New York Presidential Conventions: The Pre-TV Era"; "Inside the Wigwam: Chicago Presidential Conventions 1860-1996" (with Edward Burke) and "Philadelphia Presidential Conventions." He provides some perspective in this edited transcript of an interview with Media Nation's Jessica LeClair and Melinda Grenier.

Q. People say the presidential conventions have become a media circus. Is this really something new?

A. It's always been a circus. It's been a circus since the first conventions. The 1860 Republican convention, which was held in the Wigwam, a temporary meeting hall in Chicago -- they build a hall which held all the delegates and then a couple hundred spectators. So there were hundreds of people outside trying to get word of what’s going on. And they had people called "shouters" [who] would shout the message out the door and tell the people what’s happening: if Lincoln got two votes from Pennsylvania or whatever it was, or they’d repeat the platform.

Q. When did you start watching the conventions?

A. My parents got our first TV set in 1952 in order to watch the Democratic and Republican conventions, which were both in Chicago that year -- we lived up in Milwaukee. So I watched them, and that was my first impression. I remember the stage and the pageantry of the whole thing. How magnificent it was. I didn’t know what it meant; I was only five.

Q: Have there been any conventions where the media had a big impact?

A: [There's] the Chicago Stadium Democratic convention in 1932, when [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt was nominated in early morning. The role of the radio there is somewhat amusing. The most important debate besides Roosevelt at that convention was the debate over Prohibition: Would they again support Prohibition or would they break with Prohibition and denounce it?

On the platform, there was a pretty reasonable but somewhat heated debate over the issue. But the microphones in the convention hall were placed in such a way that if the audience got involved, they were picked up more than the people on the stage. So what happens is that the Chicago stadium is packed with Chicago city workers, who chant “Beer! Beer! Beer! Beer! Beer!” throughout the whole debate. And so the whole nation naturally concludes that, well, we know where the Democrats stand.

Of course, the most direct influence on a convention by the press was in 1872, when the editor and publisher of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, was nominated for president by the Liberal Republicans in Cincinnati. Greeley’s nomination was ratified by the Democrats in Baltimore in a bizarre six-hour convention, as the fusion candidate to run against President Grant. The Liberal Republican Convention was controlled by what we might call an editorial plot by Murat Halstead of the Cincinnati Commercial, Colonel Henry Watterson of the Louisville Courier Journal and Horace White, publisher of the Chicago Tribune to put over Greeley against Grant.

Q: Were there other conventions where the media had an impact?

A. The 1964 Republican convention, in which there was a fight between the Goldwater and the Rockefeller people -- I think the meanness of that conflict left an impression on people. You could read about it in the newspaper, and it would probably have one tenor, but to see it left a bad impression -- it was the time when the Liberal Republicans were being chased out of the party.

Q. Was that when Rockefeller was booed as he was trying to give a speech?

A. Right, right.

Q. But what impact did the media have on that?

A. People don't have to read about it; they see it, they hear it, they feel it. You could write about the bitterness of the Rockefeller-Goldwater conflict but it would be different [because] TV was there at that moment.

The Democrats, that same year -- the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party had a fierce fight in the credentials committee [about] whether or not they or an all-white regular Mississippi delegation would be admitted. That fight -- and the aftermath -- was on TV. So if you're on the cutting edge of civil rights, all of a sudden you're wondering, well, are the Democrats really with us or what?

Clearly the 1968 convention [when demonstrators rioted in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention] -- I was in the fray there; I was on the corner of Balbo and Michigan Avenue, which was one of my motivations for writing the book "Inside the Wigwam." When the police charged at the corner of Balbo and Michigan Avenue, I followed some reporters up to the ABC TV truck right there, so I didn't get my head bashed in, but I saw the view like the guys who were filming it, the chaos -- which helped me to write that chapter.

Just one last one: I wonder if the McGovern campaign would have put on George McGovern after midnight if TV hadn't been there. I'm certain if it was in the 19th century, they would have said 'Let's take a time-out here, and we'll present our candidate tomorrow afternoon' or something like that. At a certain point, TV began to drive the events of the convention.

Q. When do you think that happened?

A. I think it happened around 1976. I think it was the aftermath of the '72 convention -- the fact that McGovern was forced to go on after midnight, that the speeches and debates went on and so the schedule just got pushed back farther and farther.

As I think about it, that's not the first time that happened. Harry Truman [in] 1948 gave his acceptance speech well after midnight. It was on radio and people who listened -- and that wasn't that many people -- had they been attentive, could have seen that Truman was going to win the election because the kind of speech he gave was just incredible. That's what he gave on the back of those railroad cars throughout the [campaign].

Q: What year was that?

A. 1948, the year that he makes the big comeback -- and the Chicago Tribune is forever branded with the headline ["Dewey wins"].


Q & A: Al Franken
Al Franken has developed a successful career as a comedian and comic writer for Saturday Night Live and in Hollywood. Earlier this year he took to the radio airwaves as an openly liberal alternative to conservative talk shows. Hereís an edited version of an interview with Media Nationís Seth Effron.



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