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Book Review: The 103rd Ballot by Robert K. Murray

In the summer of 1924, a very divided Democratic Party met at Madison Square Gardens to select their candidate for President. Two issues divided the party: prohibition and the Ku Klux Klan. Two strong and stubborn candidates, on opposite sides of these issues, battled for the nomination, a battle that would last for sixteen days and 103 ballots. In his 1976 book The 103rd Ballot: The Incredible Story of the Disastrous Democratic Convention of 1924, Pennsylvania history Professor Robert K. Murray tells the fascinating story of the marathon convention that left the Democratic party divided and battered not only for the 1924 election, but for many years to come.



The two front-runners were William Gibbs McAdoo of California of New York and Governor Al Smith of New York. McAdoo represented the party's ties to Wilsonian Democracy, which had been popular in the previous decade, but which had been soundly rejected in the last election. McAdoo was married to Woodrow Wilson's daughter Eleanor and had been Wilson's Treasury Secretary for over five years. He was a supporter of prohibition (a "dry") and while not a member of the Klan, he was at least tolerant of it and recognized its strong influence within his party. He had lost the nomination four years earlier in a 44 ballot fight held in his home state, in which he had led on the first 11 ballots. He believed that his time had come. Smith was a Catholic and an opponent of prohibition (a "wet"). The convention was being hosted in his state and he too believed that he was destined to lead his party to the White House.

Also running were a host of "favorite sons", candidates without national support, but whose names were put forth by their home states in the hope that if no candidate could reach the required two-thirds majority, the delegates would turn to their man as a compromise candidate. These included Senator Oscar Underwood of Alabama (an anti-Klan southerner), Governor James Cox of Ohio (the party's nominee in 1920), Governor Charles Bryan of Nebraska (younger brother of William Jennings Bryan), Senator Carter Glass of Virginia (the man who succeeded McAdoo as Wilson's Treasury Secretary), Senator Samuel Ralston of Indiana (a reluctant candidate, promoted against his wishes by his campaign manager) and John W. Davis of West Virginia (the eventual nominee).

Prior to the nomination vote, the Convention endured bitter policy votes over censure of the Klan and over prohibition. Murray describes the intimidation used and the intense emotional struggles involved in these votes. He then describes the various machinations among the candidates in the 103 ballots that followed to select a presidential candidate. Stubbornness and huge egos are not new features of presidential politics, and both of these were very much present in New York in the summer of 1924.

The strength of Murray's writing is in how he makes the reader feel as if he or she is present at the convention, having a front row seat for all the dysfunctional goings on, including the back-room dealings and the so-called "unity conferences". For example, he describes the loss of respect experienced by William Jennings Bryan from convention delegates, as well as some of the poor decision making and the stubbornness of the two leading candidates. He conveys the sense of frustration shared by those present as the convention went on for over two weeks and how that frustration finally resulted in the delegates settling on a candidate (Davis) rather than nominating one.

Finally, Murray completes the book with an excellent analysis of how this disaster of a convention hamstrung the Democratic Party's chances in 1924 election and how it had a hangover effect in the 1928 election as well. He reviews the 1924 campaign as run by the two major party candidates (Republican Calvin Coolidge and Davis for the Democrats) as well as third party candidate Robert M. LaFollette. He concludes his post-mortem with an excellent explanation of how Franklin Delano Roosevelt was able to be the one man who actually learned from his party's mistakes and how he was able to parlay that knowledge into personal electoral success in uniting the disparate regional and philosophical factions within the party.

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Any slowness within the book is the product of the actual events themselves and not the author's literary ability. On the contrary, forty years after it was written, Murray's account of this unique and unbelievable political anomaly continues to be well-told and fascinating. Its lessons about political vanity, ego, stubbornness and unwillingness to compromise are as relevant in 2016 as they were in 1924 and in 1976. As we head into convention season and endure the present nomination process, this book provides a timely lesson in history that we can all learn from.
Tags: author: m, genre: non-fiction, review, subject: biography, subject: history
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