The conventions are coming up soon of course and while I love a good convention as well as the next political junkie I sometimes really crave a bit of the spontaneity that characterized the good old days, even if it did mean that nominees would make their acceptance speeches at 7pm--Guam time, that is.
In the next few weeks I'll be sharing my store of information about fabled conventions of the past. I thought I'd start with 1948, the year Harry Truman would run against (and upset badly) Thomas E. Dewey.
By 1948, technology had made televisions both better and cheaper, and 148,000 people nationwide had shelled out for the big black boxes. The 1948 political conventions of both parties were televised only the East Coast. In order to facilitate this, Republicans and Democrats agreed to hold their conventions in Convention Hall in Philadelphia—the Republicans in June, the Democrats a month later. For the first time in history, television cables ran all over the convention floor and batteries of hot lights arched over the stage (in the un-airconditioned Hall, the temperature at the podium was 93 degrees). Speakers wandered around wearing thick pancake makeup (women were told that brown lipstick showed up better on black and white television sets of the day, so most female orators looked like they’d just bitten into a big piece of chocolate).
But people, especially at the Democratic Convention, seemed to get it—TV was theater, TV was spectacle. When India Edwards, executive director of the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee, reached the podium to speak, she waved a steak in the air to demonstrate the high price of meat. The best spectacle of all, however, did not quite come off the way it was intended. At two o’clock in the morning, when President Truman reached the stage to accept his party’s nomination, a flock of pigeons was released from a huge Liberty Bell. The birds, who had been trapped all night in the hot and humid bell, went crazy and in a scene straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds,” began dive-bombing delegates, smashing into the rafters of the Hall, and flying straight into the television lights.
Truman and everyone in the Hall, after a moment of stunned silence, broke into uproarious laughter. The few people awake and still watching were privileged to see one of the most wonderful moments of live television ever recorded.