The other day's description of my little dream conversation with Obama and George Bush brought other dream sequences out of the woodwork. One friend claimed that John McCain approached him on the street and insisted he touch his skin cancer surgery scars. My friend declined. Another emailed me a startling dream he had, in which he was watching the Democratic National Convention, Hillary and Bill both on the stage together, and Hillary pulls out a gun and shoots Bill for sucking up all the attention. My friend said the networks replayed the shooting in all kinds of slow motion and different angles, as if it was an Olympic event, but nobody seemed really shocked, just fascinated.
Here is yet another rockin' convention, from 1880.
After he was elected in the contentious contest of 1876, Rutherford Hayes led America into the very heart of what Mark Twain dubbed “the Gilded Age.” A huge economic expansion was led by a few robber barons (er, industrialists) like Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, John Jacob Astor, Jay Gould, and Cyrus W. Field, but while the rich were getting very rich indeed, the poor got poorer, the disenfranchised more disenfranchised. As America surged towards the twentieth century, the country faced pressing issues—the need for child labor laws, the lack of an eight-hour work day, the plight of blacks, the rights of women, the idea of a graduated federal income tax, just to name a few. Yet the two major parties were still fighting the Civil War, a decade and a half after it ended. Like punch-drunk fighters who do not know the bell has rung, the two parties “waved the bloody shirt” and ran two heroic generals against each other for the Presidency.
Although contemporary historian Henry Adams called him “a third-rate nonentity,” Hayes had not been a bad president. He was personally honest and had attempted, although with little success, to reform the highly corrupt, patronage-ridden Civil Service. But he was hamstrung by the promises he had had to make to Democrats in order to win in 1876. Hayes’s fellow Republicans saw their President withdrawing troops from the South (troops which supported corrupt Republican carpetbag state governments), giving important positions to Southern Democrats and approving money for Southern pork barrels, all as a result of 1876. And they didn’t like it.
Hayes wisely decided not to run for a second term, which set the stage for an internal Republican Party battle which has seldom been equaled in American political history. The party was divided into two wings. One was called the Stalwarts, meaning those loyal to the old-line party of General Ulysses S. Grant, who was fishing for a third term as President. The other was dubbed the Half-Breeds—moderates who wanted reform within the party and abhorred the thought of another four years of “Grantism”—i.e., the General’s corrupt cronies dipping into the public trough at will.
As the Republican Convention met in the brand-new glass and iron Exposition Building on June 2, 1880 in Chicago, Roscoe Conkling, the powerful and vain U.S. Senator from New York, thought he had votes locked up for General Grant, who had been out of the country on a two and a half year long world tour, long enough for people to forget the scandals of his administration and look upon the gruff General with nostalgic fondness. The Half-Breeds were led by Maine Senator James G. Blaine, Conkling’s sworn enemy (who had unforgettably once called Conkling “a majestic, supereminent, overpowering, turkey-gobbler strut.”).
It was personal between these two, but the fate of the party was at stake—as well as that of the nation, since most assumed the Republicans would win the White House, as they had done since 1856. (One reason why Thomas Nast had just caricaturized the Republican Party as a stolid, dependable elephant—an image which stuck.) Thousands crammed the convention halls as ballot after ballot between the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds was cast. Spontaneous demonstrations arose during the alphabetized roll calls, either for Grant or for Blaine himself for President. One woman spectator climbed a “Goddess of Liberty Statue” on the convention stage and began ripping off her clothes; she had to be pulled down and restrained.
Conkling put Grant in nomination with a fiery speech culminating in a sappy poem:
When asked what state he hails from
Out sole reply shall be:
He hails from Appomattox
And its famous apple tree.
But a new Senator from Ohio, James G. Garfield arose and nominated fellow Ohioan Treasury Secretary John Sherman, brother of William Tecumseh Sherman, a favorite of the Half-Breeds although not of the public at large, for reasons that are evident in his nickname: The Ohio Icicle. But as ballot after ballot was taken, an extraordinary thing began to happen: more and more delegates began to vote for Garfield himself, swayed by the idea of Garfield as a moderating force between the two sharply-divided factions. After 36 ballots—the most ever cast at a Republican convention, before or since—the 48-year-old Garfield became the dark horse Republican candidate for President. As a sop to the Roscoe Conkling , Chester Arthur, Stalwart machine politician from New York was chosen as vice-presidential candidate.After this uproar, the Democratic convention seemed like a puny afterthought