July 26, 2004,
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article appeared in the September 8, 1964, issue of National Review.
Atlantic City, Sunday: The action hasn't started, and probably won't. There is suspense on the question who will be Vice President, but unless President Johnson selects Bull Connor, the Convention is not likely to come to life. So what if it is Senator McCarthy? So what if it is Mike Mansfield (they are talking about him in the corridors). Goodness knows, although we all try, it is not possible to tell what kind of a President a man will actually be, based only on his past record. Only four years ago Lyndon Johnson, hero of the forthcoming event, was being roundly denounced by many of the people who are here acclaiming him, because he was ideologically underdeveloped. In January of 1960 Senator Gore tried to wrest the leadership away from him in Congress. A few months later the labor leaders said they would not have him. Today they love him. Tomorrow they may or may not love Humphrey, McCarthy, Mansfield: it does not make very much difference, and it is generally thought that with Bobby Kennedy out of the way, there is no chance at all that any Vice Presidential candidate will wag the dog at the Convention. It is LBJ's show, and his will will be done here in anticipation, it is thought, of his will's being done in the rest of the country.
Atlantic City is not well suited for the coronation of Uncle Cornpone. It is a resort without flavor, but with a well developed flair for celebrating its mediocrity. The Convention Hall is so large, it might have been grown in Texas. The organ is the largest. So will be the oratory. And needless to say the Platform will, as ever, be the usual cornucopia, serving the needs of every appetite of man, and where appetites are caught lacking, they will be stimulated. A lengthy preamble to the platform lists the infinite series of accomplishments of the Democratic Party, and the infinite list of things yet to be done. My favorite is "Expand the Peace Corps." And why not? One must bear in mind that the expansion of federal activity is a form of eating for our politicians. And in an affluent society, one does not tighten one's belt, although it is something else again to tighten the other man's. No one will suggest at the Convention that the other man, in our incestuous society, is you.
It will be a routine affair, then, by and large. But we shall have high jinks wherever we go. It does, after all, generate a little electricity to put Bull Connor (he is national committeeman from Alabama, would you believe it), and Hubert Humphrey together in the same room, ostensibly to make common cause. A representative is here from the Republican underworld, determined to make a demonstration in behalf of Bobby Baker for Vice President. Unlike others, who are disposed to careening about in an aphorism, simply to hit and run, this fellow, plans to make his point about Bobby Baker irrepressibly, day in day out, and is likely to go beyond the point where the joke is stale, back to where it becomes a true source of amusement, because it engages one of the really phony undercurrents of LBJ's copy-book incorruptibility. Then too, the Kennedy crowd, though they are for Johnson, miss greatly their fallen hero, who gave them a sense of style, which Uncle Cornpone simply cannot duplicate. The pages of the official Democratic Platform are full of advertisements (a clear violation of the law, which the Attorney General conveniently waived, on one pretext or another), and containing the one millionth elegiac on Mr. Kennedy, including an article by that old nonpartisan historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., no longer very important in Democratic parts, but with a dream to cherish, for all the rest of his life, that was a dream which others shared with him four years ago, many of whom went for Kennedy thinking that here was a man who would transubstantiate politics. A week or so after being elected, the transcendentalist staged an impressive testimonial dinner for the old mountebank Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
That is hardly the way to feed idealists' dreams about men who are above politics, but myths die hard, and Oswald saw to it that this one would never die. LBJ is said to be disturbed about this myth which moves always ahead of him, and hopes to catch up with it by giving Senator Goldwater the soundest drubbing any Presidential candidate ever got. The Democratic Convention is merely a staging area for November 3, and General Johnson will find it convenient to rally his troops here. They are in a docile mood and, no doubt, will permit themselves to be thoroughly impressed.
What did Senator Pastore say? He said that thanks to the Democratic Party this is the greatest, most peaceful, happiest, strongest, richest country in the world. Those who favor greatness, peace, happiness, strength, and richness will vote for LBJ FOR THE USA. That last phrase, by the way, which you will be hearing again in the weeks to come, reputedly cost the Democratic Party one million dollars, paid to a great public relations phrasemaker. Senator Pastore's own phrase committing God to the Democratic Party was free, at least in the currency of this world. Who knows what it may cost him next.
The developing line is much as one thought: peace and prosperity. What do the Republicans want, the Senator intoned, when they speak of wanting a clear choice? "Do they mean the repeal of the minimum wage law? Do they mean to weaken the unions in America under the pretext of their so-called right-to-work law? Do they mean we should withdraw from the Atlantic Alliance? . . . withdraw from the United Nations? . . . turn the clock back?" Rhetorical questions were born to be asked at national political conventions.
But one must admit, in fairness to the Senator, that sometimes it does almost appear as though there had been a little Divine coordination going on. The country's economy is booming, and the nation is technically at peace. It is suggested that the economy booms because every morning before breakfast President Johnson gets up and produces a hundred thousand cars, a million refrigerators, and a billion ears of corn. And we have peace. And if peace inexactly describes the conditions that prevail in South Vietnam and in Cuba, in the Congo and Zanzibar, and everywhere else that the Communists meet to plot, the fault is that of Republican extremists who fan the flames of hatred, and prevent the peace they charted at Teheran and Yalta, Potsdam and South Korea, Berlin and the Bay of Pigs.
It is sometimes necessary to sloganize the political order if only to maintain one's sanity. Factional politics is an opiate, as necessary to occasional serenity of the mind as sleep is for the health of the body. A national convention is where the judgments and discrimination are officially suspended (unless the convention features a Goldwater, in which case everyone is supposed to react as keenly, as questioningly, as skeptically, as students of Socrates at a session with the master of his garden). Gaiety in our time demands, after all, a considerable exercise in spiritual isolationism. Senator Pastore is a good man, and he could not have exulted at Atlantic City in good conscience, if he were required to mediate on the way the average Cuban spent the evening even as he spoke; or if he had to reflect on the infinity of despair the Chinese face, and the Poles, and the Russians. "If it could be proved that God wrote the foreign policy of the Democratic Party during the postwar years," these people are saying to each other, "then the Communists are right: there is no God."
At every corner in Atlantic City newspaper reporters, opinion-makers, opinion-regurgitators, politicians, nabobs, exhibitionists, hermits, and salt-water taffy vendors run around asking each other: "What's going on?" Some who are asked that question deem it a tax on their ingenuity, and presto they will give you the latest piece of current speculation. Others, individualists, will roll their own. No one I have yet heard ask the question, or attempt an answer to it, has ever suggested that Democratic delegates might have an answer. They are as irrelevant, at this proceeding, as cattle at a beef auction. The delegates are not only here to be seen and not heard there are not even ripples of life from them, let alone of irritation. One cannot get any idea of the sense of Democratic opinion out over the land from talking to them. If you were to ask a delegate whom would he truly like to see as Vice President, he would faint at the implied invitation to presumption. Nothing matters here, absolutely nothing, except the word of LBJ, which is, when you come to think of it, a strange evolution in the democratic way of life, at the hands of the Democratic Party.
The observation has often been made that conventions are notoriously rigged, that they are dominated by bosses, that they have as their principal function merely to ratify the decision that have already been reached by their leaders. But there seems to be something rather new about the state of automation which the delegates here assembled have arrived at. It suggests, come to think of it, one of the features of our evolving social situation which American conservatives are especially alarmed about. Here at work is the aloof Omnipotence who makes decisions involving us without consulting us, without taking us into his confidence, without and here is the final indignity so much as suggesting that it is our role to act as sentient beings, to weigh alternatives, and arrive at decisions on the basis of the operation of our own intelligence. The great lure of power is sufficient to make even such independently-minded persons as Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy pathetic and contemptible in their unctuous concern for the favor of the master. No postulant in any Miss America contest ever preened more abjectly before a panel of judges than these men, who want to be President of the United States (yes they view the Vice Presidency as a way-station, pure and simple), are doing, hoping to attract the haremkeeper's eye to their uniquely alluring specifications. And Lyndon Johnson's timing is supremely arrogant: he does not seem to care at all that the entire world is awaiting his decision. He wishes all the world to know that he and only he will decide, in his own time, who is the people's choice . . . and there's the rub. Because, increasingly, The People and himself have merged in his own mind into one happy identity. "The People" has become a term convenient in Democratic rhetoric for saying "LBJ."
It is curious how autocratic the professional democratists can be. Those who are naturally aristocratic one thinks of Adlai Stevenson often feel that they can actually afford to consult the people, as Adlai Stevenson did in 1956 when he asked the delegates to decide for themselves who should be nominated as Vice President. It may be that Lyndon Johnson's refusal to grant the Convention any shred of independence has to do with an innate sense of insecurity. Perhaps he remembers that only four years ago substantially the same group of people turned him down for someone more glamorous, more exciting more self-assured. Freedom and dignity are something that the Democratic Party desires abstractly for Negroes. Not for convention delegates.
The City might wish it hadn't lured the big show down this way. Too much copy is being written about the place. The merchants, to be sure, are uniformly pleasant. At the little Mayfair Hotel, for instance, the management receives you as if you were a beloved cousin come to town for an unexpected few days. The people of Atlantic City are not responsible for the ineffable vulgarity of the place, which even the healing sea cannot cleanse. I give you as an example a couplet form a poem engraved on a huge plastic canvas, yours for only $3.98, available at many of the boardwalk stores, which is a rendition recently transmitted through the heavenly ether waves by Jack to Jackie: "Little Patrick asks to say Hi / I love you, I am happy, so please don't cry." I cannot imagine anything more certain to make Jackie cry than the thought that there are people who buy, let alone sell, such items (one wonders: why don't the Kennedys do something about the vulgarization of their handsome myth?). The customer gets what he wants, and what the customer evidently wants is Atlantic City the way it is, with only a single memorable restaurant, no attractive outdoor cafés, an architectural chaos which, to the extent it favors any single style at all, seems to favor a sort of crypto-Byzantine; and now a brand new skyscraper hotel which looks as though it had been prefabbed by Sears Roebuck, rising, moreover, straight up in the way of the striking, glamorous Absecon Lighthouse which for generations was a trademark of the city. It will no longer be generally visible around the edge of the hotel that engulfs it, or drives right down Pacific Avenue under the Lighthouse's nose.
The delegates, as I have remarked, are very bored, and feel very useless, and were delighted at the momentary excitement caused by the walkout of the Mississippi delegation. The press, as witness to these dispatches, is comatose; and has a lot to be comatose about. And Big Daddy Bird is reputedly very pleased, very confident, in this the best of all possible worlds which wouldn't have been possible, nossuh, without the help of Mommy Bird, and Lynda, and Luci, and one hundred billion dollars a year to spend.