Trump and the Two Underwoods: A Tale of Contested Conventions



In A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign, explains why the first presidential race between incumbent John Adams and his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, in 1800 set a standard for civility so low that none since has descended to it, much less beneath it. However, of course, 2016 remains a work-in-progress so let’s await developments.

In the 1924 fight for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Oscar Underwood (above), an Alabama senator, pushed his party to confront the rising power of the Ku Klux Klan.

Here is a brief excerpt from an article by Amy Davidson for The New Yorker. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Photo Credit: Harris & Ewing/Library of Commerce

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“Alabama—twenty-four votes for Underwood!” That declaration, despite the Underwood name, is not from “House of Cards” but from the wildly contested 1924 Democratic Convention, at Madison Square Garden. The Underwood in question was not Francis (or Claire) but Oscar. He was one of many, many candidates whose name was put to a vote, and, though he was well behind the front-runners—Governor Al Smith, of New York, and the Californian William McAdoo—he was one of the few to stay in until the end. Each roll call began with Alabama, and the delegation’s spokesman, Governor W. W. Brandon, gained notoriety for his booming drawl. At first, it seemed like a charming regionalism. But, as ballot after ballot ended in deadlock, the cry (“Al-aaa-ba-maaa!”) became a signal that an august party ritual had devolved into political self-parody. There were a hundred and three ballots before a nominee was chosen.

I wrote about the 1924 Convention for this week’s issue of the magazine, and its parallels to Republicans’ situation today seem even more pertinent, given the results on Super Tuesday II. Donald Trump lost Ohio to John Kasich, making Trump’s path to winning an outright majority of delegates slightly more difficult and keeping Kasich (as well as Ted Cruz) as a conceivable alternative in a contested Convention. Mitt Romney, the 2012 nominee, said today that he will vote for Cruz in Utah, next week, “so that we can have an open convention and nominate a Republican,” by which he means someone who isn’t Trump. (If there is no majority on the first ballot when the Republicans gather in Cleveland, many delegates would no longer be bound to a candidate.) On Wednesday, on CNN, Trump was asked about such a scenario. His answer: “I think you’d have riots.” The next day, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, who will chair the Convention, said that “to even address or hint to violence is unacceptable.” But he acknowledged “the perception that this is more likely to become an open Convention than we thought before,” adding, “so we’re getting our minds around the idea that this could very well become a reality.” Ryan dismissed the idea, much discussed lately, that he might emerge as a compromise candidate. Someone who had actually campaigned for President should be the one chosen, he said, “on whatever ballot we’re talking about.”

Senator Oscar Underwood was most certainly a candidate for President. Perhaps more than that, Underwood had come from Alabama with the goal of forcing the Democratic Party to confront the rising power of the Ku Klux Klan, by pushing a plank in the Party’s platform that would condemn the group by name. McAdoo, the establishment candidate, not only countenanced the Klan but ran, in certain Southern states, with the organization’s open support, and his delegates blocked the plank. Calvin Coolidge, the Republican candidate, had not condemned the Klan either, and a “Southerner and Klansman” who was attending the Democratic Convention told the Times that “if the Democrats don’t look out he will get the Klan votes in November, and that will mean the election.”

Oscar Underwood seems to have given his name to Francis Underwood—both are Southern Democratic House whips, though Francis is from South Carolina. And yet Oscar, the anti-Klan Alabaman, is a reminder that American history produces characters and scenes more interesting and paradoxical than anything a scriptwriter could come up with. A scene in a screen version of the 1924 Convention might be the arrival of Underwood and the rest of the Alabama delegation at the Waldorf Hotel. The Times described the “rousing welcome” as several hundred people who “jammed the Old Colony rooms on the Lobby floor.” (One of them was, as the paper put it, “an old Southern negro, Prince Robinson, a veteran of the Senate barber-shop in Washington,” who was Underwood’s “chief whooper-up.” Robinson is a person one would like to know more about.)

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Amy Davidson became a staff writer in 2014. She has been at The New Yorker since 1995, and as a senior editor for many years focused on national security, international reporting, and features. Davidson helped to reconceive, where she served as the site’s executive editor and now edits Daily Comment. She is a regular Comment contributor for the magazine and writes a Web column, in which she covers war, sports, and everything in between.

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