Politics & Policy

Last Round in The Garden

New York City goes all out...for the Democrats.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in the September 5, 1980, issue of National Review.


There have been more joyous occasions than the Democrats’ Convention ‘80. Their candidates, after all, have a record to run on, and some of the Convention’s orators couldn’t resist reminding them of it.

New York City went all out for its fourth Democratic National Convention. A radio and stereo store on West 57th Street stocked up on cassettes of Ronald Reagan movies; the Reverend Howard Moody of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village rented a van, furnished with carpets, paintings, and refreshments, to offer bawds a “sanctuary” from police harassment; cabbies received stern warnings to abide by the prices on their meters (one intrepid driver was caught charging $132 for an $8 ride from Central Park to Brooklyn; rumors have it he has since been recruited by the Department of Health and Human Services); and Seventh Avenue was the scene of a peaceful pre-Convention parade of ten thousand leftists, including Citizens’ Party candidate Barry Commoner, the PLO observer at the United Nations, and several animal liberationists. It could have been worse–eight years ago, they would have been delegates. If it did nothing else, McGovernism has at least taught the Democrats the importance of social graces.

Some months ago, one of NR’s political writers turned up his nose at the architecture of Queens. Yet even Queens can have few structures as ugly as Madison Square Garden; and Queens, to its vast credit, never destroyed buildings as beautiful as the old Pennsylvania Station in order to erect them. The present Garden (it is ten blocks away from Madison Square) squats on its block like an oversized gun turret. The facades of the surrounding buildings echo the pillars of the vanishing train station. A quonset hut on the Acropolis would fit in equally well.

Fortunately for them, the Democrats did not have to see much of the ugliness, for they were conducting their business inside, in that tract of America known as Conventionland. The local deities of this region (at least, they enjoyed the trappings of divinity) were the members of the press. The upper tiers of the Garden, and several of the outbuildings, were reserved for them. Their long white trailers hugged the Garden walls; the Felt Forum, a smaller auditorium clinging to the main hall like a barnacle, was subdivided into command posts and work rooms. Bewildered godlings could consult maps directing them to their particular shrines. On the floor, the television newsmen roamed about wearing earphones and insect antennae, trailed by bearers lugging cameras. Larger cameras took aim from the balconies, or from a four-story pile of scaffolding smack in the center of the hall. The print reporters congregated a notch higher, wedged between plywood counters where they could rest typewriters, telephones, binoculars, and small rented televisions in case they wanted to see what was really going on.

Highest of all, higher it seemed even than the crepuscular white smoke that drifted up from the floor, the tiny backs of the network anchormen showed from their huge glass booths. You could not avoid seeing them; often you saw them twice. Whenever John Chancellor stepped onto his booth’s balcony to interview some smiling pol, you could peer at him in the flesh, or examine him, simultaneously and much more clearly, on the screen. CBS and ABC had no balconies, but their anchormen in compensation were attended by little gnomes handing up papers from beneath the tables (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”).

Meanwhile, on the floor, the delegates did what delegates are supposed to do–blow horns, wave signs, and wear funny hats. (The definitive pro-funny-hat argument was enounced four years ago when The Economist remarked that, however vulgarly Americans carried on, their political spectacles were probably a better social symptom “than the more mature demonstrations of the recent European past.”) It’s a good thing the delegates to this Convention had these innocent diversions, for there was less drama than everyone was expecting. Though Kennedy did not pull out until late Monday night, it was clear during the crucial rules debate that his side was only going through the motions. The Kennedy supporters cheered Joan Kennedy’s arrival, and punctuated the speeches of their enemies with boos that sounded like the booming of loons across a lake at night; they seemed ready, had the signal been given, to erupt in an orgy of partisanship to match those of the Republican factions in Kansas City four years ago. But no signal came. The debate, planned to last one hour, ran according to schedule.

At stake was a proposed rule requiring delegates to be bound by the results of the primaries and caucuses that chose them. It was of course the final consummation of the campaign reforms so zealously sought by the party’s liberals, and the Carterites insisted righteously on enjoying the spoils of success at the polling booth. In the heat of the moment, Senator Ribicoff even declared “we can’t take from a man what he has rightfully won”–an outburst that challenged fifty years of Democratic social policy, but never mind. Supporters of the “open” (that is, brokered) conventions were forced into equally contorted postures. By binding the delegates, warned Governor Carey, the Democrats would be forsaking a “tradition of 150 years,” and somewhere in Heaven Burke smiled on his newest disciple. Senator McGovern challenged the rule on the grounds that it wasn’t democratic enough–delegates committed to a previous decision could not carry out the “present convictions of the people.” He did not say whether, moved by his own present conviction, he would now retract his vote against allowing the states the same privilege with regard to the ERA.

Defensiveness and incoherence dominated the proceedings generally. Congressman Udall, attacking the Kemp-Roth tax cut in the keynote address, referred approvingly to the “great old GOP speeches” of the past: “you can’t spend yourself rich, money doesn’t grow on trees. . . . And now,” the scandalized Arizonan exclaimed, “they meet in Detroit and tell us there’s such thing as a free lunch.” Senator Moynihan, who should (and indeed does) know better, warned that “the Soviet Empire has entered a new period of expansion,” yet assured the Convention that all was well because the Administration had increased defense spending over the last four years, despite the 1976 platform. In fact, the platform had been more honored than Moynihan let on; though the military budget has risen slightly in real terms, it has remained almost constant as a percentage of the total budget and of the GNP. These were the accents of panic, and they well became an Administration which, only two years before the Anschluss of Afghanistan, was announcing its redemption from an inordinate fear of Communism, and a congressional machine which, after two and a half decades of plowing the economy under and sowing it with salt, now chatters about a balanced budget that is not balanced and describes a proposal to allow Americans to keep more of their paychecks as a “free lunch.”

A few of the Democrats kept their heads. One was the Convention’s host, Mayor Edward Koch. Koch looks like the koala in the Qantas ads, and he speaks with an accent thick enough to spread on a bagel. But his greeting to the delegates was a little gem. If the Democrats had an ounce of imagination, they would have run him for President, though this might have proved awkward since Koch achieved his rhetorical success by thumbing his nose at his party’s ethos and record. He warmed up with an anecdote about a campaign speech he had given to two hundred senior citizens in the Bronx three years ago. A judge he had helped elect had just been mugged, Koch said then, but had promised not to let the mugging affect him again. “Then mug him again!” one of the senior citizens cried. “We’ve got to stand up to those who are mugging our cities,” Koch went on, drawing an acceptable sentiment out of law and order even as theologians tease orthodoxy out of the Song of Songs. Yet the illustration overpowered the moral. Then, as if that wasn’t enough of an affront to the prevailing pieties: “We cannot allow our nation to be held hostage to the mad ambitions of the Ayatollah Khomeini. We cannot allow Iranians who call themselves students to trample on our hospitality and violate our laws. Enough is enough. I say ship them back to Iran.” And if the President who has done nothing for a year and a half to frustrate Khomeini’s mad ambitions didn’t like it, too bad. The usual relations between the White House and Gracie Mansion have been canceled by Carter’s political impotence. The President needs New York; the Mayor doesn’t need the President. In such conditions, a feisty temperament has liberty to exercise itself. “Enjoy New York, and have a great convention,” Koch concluded.

Another well-spoken Democrat was Edward Kennedy, wrapping up the debate on the minority reports on the economic planks of the platform. He had come to New York over the weekend, greeted at the Waldorf-Astoria with Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” (What do middle-class senators get–a reading from The Beggar’s Opera?) He had pulled out late the night before, but the Carter team had agreed to give him this chance to please his supporters and push his planks on prime time.

It wasn’t a particularly accurate speech. He identified purebred economic liberalism as “the cause that brought me into the campaign,” which was true only if his Georgetown speech, delivered three months after announcing, was the start of his candidacy. He also laughed at Ronald Reagan: for claiming that Karl Marx fathered the progressive income tax, and for saying that “Fascism was really the basis of the New Deal.” (“In the most advanced countries the following will be pretty generally applicable: . . . a heavy progressive or graduated income tax”–K. Marx and F. Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party. “In 1934 the newly established National Planning Board devoted a good deal of attention to the example of planning provided by these four countries: Germany, Italy, Russia, and Japan”–F. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom.) But it was close to a perfect speech. If a good speech is a stemwinder, then Kennedy’s was a quartz crystal digital. It was a seamless blend of gracious personal farewells, eloquent word pictures of the plight of the poor and unemployed, and–Mo Udall must have been out getting a hot dog–recipes for free lunches. “Let us pledge that there will be security for all who are now at work. And let us pledge that there will be jobs for all who are out of work. These are not simplistic pledges.” Most important, Kennedy attacked Reagan confidently, not as an economic radical, but as a fool. (A little knowledge of Marx, we have seen, would have helped on that one; but then, if the Democrats had had a little knowledge of Marx, they might never have signed the Yalta agreement.) The delegates went berserk. A few speeches like that in Iowa, and Kennedy might have spoken on Thursday rather than Tuesday. Carter, who had without any shame already promised so much, then promised almost everything else. The man who had been calling for an open convention of free delegates agreed with the President that all the minority reports, except the one requiring wage-price controls, should be passed; and Tip O’Neill heard all the right answers on the voice votes. So Senator Kennedy fell in behind the President in return for a platform which Carter does not support and has no intention of following.

The Republicans still seem favorites to win. This does not mean they will necessarily win in anything like a landslide. Carter has Kennedy behind him; he seems to have Billy behind him in another sense. His personal nullity is an asset: it gives him the ability to shuck off problems almost as fast as he gets into them. “Don’t blame me for what goes on in the White House–I just live there.” He is also, on top of everything, a ruthless campaigner. Ham and Jody probably think the Marquis of Queensberry is a sign on Christopher Street. The Democratic leadership will rally, however glumly, and the media will do its bit, if only to make things exciting. Given a few well-publicized gaffes by Reagan, and some engineered breakthroughs–in the Middle East or the economy or both–I predict Carter should carry about 19 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Add the District of Columbia for 251 votes. Reagan will win everything else for 286 votes. If it is, after all, the replay of 1932 that some are now predicting, move Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, New York, and Tennessee into Reagan’s column. If the worst befalls–if Reagan’s staff manages the campaign like they managed the Ford negotiations and if Reagan makes not only trivial slips but gross blunders and if he fails to focus attention on the grosser bankruptcy and exhaustion of the Democratic Party–give Carter Connecticut, Illinois, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Wisconsin (and give the Soviet Union Guatemala and Morocco). In no case do I expect John Anderson to come close in any state except Massachusetts.

And if these predictions are as wrong as they are likely to be, next time I’ll keep my mouth shut.


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