You Say Open, I Say Contested . . .

You say brokered, let’s call the whole thing off

On second thought, let’s not call the whole thing off, but let’s at least be clear what we are talking about.

Is it a brokered convention, an open convention or a contested Republican convention looming at the Mistake by the Lake? A lot of the cleavage commentators and empty suits who go on cable television to offer small pearls of wisdom are throwing around all three, as if they are interchangeable, which they are not.

Sorry, the Cuyahoga River, which is connected to Lake Erie, once caught fire as a result of years of pollution. And looming over the city is “Terminal Tower.”

The metaphors for the troubled Republican Party are too heavy and easy, especially should it come out of a city broken and bleeding, which is a very distinct possibility. A river runs through it? Maybe.

In short, a brokered convention is a contested convention, but a contested convention is not necessarily a brokered convention. An open convention may be a contested convention but a contested convention is not necessarily an open convention. And nether need be brokered conventions.


By definition, Cleveland is already a contested convention by virtue of the fact there are three candidates and none right now has enough delegates for a first ballot nomination, opening the way for a brokered convention. If the delegates go to a second or more ballot, and doff their loyalties to any or all of the candidates, it may then become an open convention.

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Republicans will likely gather in Cleveland without knowing who their nominee will be for the first time since 1976, when former California Ronald Reagan and the unelected incumbent Gerald Ford, battled down to the wire, with Ford finally prevailing narrowly, 1,187 to 1,070. Two delegates did not vote that evening in Kansas City, with one from Illinois abstaining and one missing. Reagan lost the nomination by less than 2 percent, despite that Ford had the support of the entire party structure, from the Republican National Committee, nearly all the elected Republicans at the federal, state and local level, the state and local GOP committees. Reagan? He’d gotten this far because of his message, his standing as America’s leading conservative, the support of a few conservative elected officials like Paul Laxalt and Jesse Helms, and a seemingly rag tag campaign operation which was actually a superb boarding party of conservative operatives and activists.

A lot of mythology has sprung up over the past forty years about Ronald Reagan. He was not an amiable opportunist, floating from break to moment. In fact, he fought fiercely for everything he wanted and believed in. His old and close aide, Mike Deaver, once told me that Reagan was “the most competitive son of a bitch who ever lived.” And he fought hard for the 1976 nomination and, along the way, picked up an intense dislike for Gerald Ford. So, too, did Nancy Reagan, for both Fords, especially Betty. Old Ford hand Bob Hartmann confirmed this. The 1976 GOP convention was a contested convention and may have been a brokered convention but it wasn’t an open convention. An open convention is more akin to the Democrats in 1956, when nominee Adlai Stephenson threw the vice presidential nomination to the convention to decide.

They eventually chose Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, beating the young senator from Massachusetts, John Kennedy, who had furiously competed to join the ticket. JFK lost, but it cleared the way for his own run in 1960, unburdened with having lost badly to Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon in 1956. However, the convention produced a more durable marriage, the “Huntley-Brinkley Report” on NBC, which lasted years, even though Chet Huntley and David Brinkley reportedly despised each other — partially, it was said, over politics. Huntley was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative and Brinkley was a passionate liberal.

Because of Baker’s assiduous and successful romancing of the uncommitted delegates, Kansas City could probably qualify as a brokered convention.

Ford won over Reagan by the narrowest of margins, with the help of 150 uncommitted delegates, who had been wooed and feted and romanced by Jim Baker, Ford’s head delegate honcho, and his capable staff. Baker played them and the majesty of the presidency like a Stradivarius, inviting them to state dinners with Queen Elizabeth, private meetings in the Oval Office with the president (including one famous meeting where an uncommitted delegate from Long Island met privately with Ford and came out with a federal sewer contract).

Just one year before, in 1975, Ford had notoriously snubbed Alexandr Solzhenitsyn because he didn’t want to offend the Kremlin. The Nobel-winning author quickly became a cause célèbre for American conservatives. In 1976, Ford had invited the entire New York delegation for lunch in the White House. And later, he met in private with state senator Fred Eckert, a conservative who was quietly supporting Reagan and had little use for Ford. When Ford, in the Oval Office, asked Eckert if he had any questions, Eckert replied in the affirmative. “Mr. President, if Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was an uncommitted delegate from New York, would he have been invited here today?” The meeting ended quickly.

Nonetheless, because of Baker’s assiduous and successful romancing of the uncommitted delegates, Kansas City could probably qualify as a brokered convention.

One thing was for sure. The Ford operation was terrified of Reagan addressing Kemper Arena before the nomination. The thought of a runaway convention and the delegates furiously switching over from Ford to Reagan kept them awake at night. So they did everything the could to prevent a Reagan speech, until the last night of the gathering, when Reagan wowed the delegates and the world, proving the Ford’s forces fears were justified. The 1976 convention was the last contested convention and may have been the last brokered convention, but it was not an open convention.

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When someone says open convention, people should think of Woodstock — free and open and messy and disorganized. When they think of contested, they should think of Goodfellas or the Hatfield and McKoys, fierce and sometimes bloody fighting among two or more warring factions. And when they say brokered, they should think of the 1924 Democratic convention, which went to 102 ballots before nominating John Davis of West Virginia — and everything was open to negotiations, including the “Drys” and the “Wets” over Prohibition. Also debated was the Democratic Party’s long and warm relationship with the Ku Klux Klan — which is why this Democratic convention became known as the “Klanbake.” When you hear the word “brokered,” think political bosses and smoke-filled rooms. Ah, the good old days.

One thing is for sure. The God of cynical writing, H.L. Mencken, may have been right about national political conventions when he wrote about the 1924 Democratic confab, “There is something about a national convention that makes it as fascinating as a revival or a hanging. It is vulgar, it is ugly, it is stupid, it is tedious, it’s hard on both the higher cerebral centers and the gluteus maximus and yet somehow charming. One sits through long sessions wishing heartily that all the delegates were dead and in hell — and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginatively exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour.”

I suspect both conventions are going to put a smile on Mencken’s face, as he looks up from his hellish eternity.

Craig Shirley is the author of several books about Ronald Reagan, including “Reagan’s Revolution, the Untold Story of the Campaign that Started it All,” the definitive account of the 1976 campaign.

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