by Stan Cutler
Is a tweet like an oration? When I heard that the Democratic Party was coming to Philadelphia in 2016 to select its nominee for President, I greeted the announcement with equal measures of excitement and dread. It would be fine to witness democracy in action – another proud Philadelphia moment – but I fear a spectacle of convention delegates peering at their smart phones and a population that doesn’t care to witness the proceedings as they unfold. Instead, they’ll read the hashtags and look at the pretty pictures on their tiny screens when they have a moment to spare.
I suppose I’m more sensitive to these changes than most. My checkered career, before I turned to writing novels, includes teaching history in Philadelphia high schools and six years teaching public speaking at Penn State. I’m that rare creature, a certified rhetorical critic, a man who loves oratory.
Sitting open on my desk is a crumbling book containing the word-for-word account of what happened here almost 70 years ago. I need this amazing volume because I am halfway through writing a murder mystery set during the 1948 Democratic Convention. My hardest writing challenge is to sustain interest in the mystery without it being supplanted in the reader’s mind by the incredible drama being played out on the floor of the old Philadelphia Convention Hall. The speeches were eloquent and the stakes enormous.
In many ways, that convention set the course of history, started us down the roads we still travel. In many ways, in terms of the issues and the politics, the 2016 convention will be its echo. It will be my privilege to anticipate and witness the 21st century’s version of democracy with you in the pages of the Chestnut Hill Local, our hometown paper.
In 1948, both parties used the Convention Hall that stood on the east side of Civic Center Boulevard. The Republicans came first and nominated Dewey at the end of June, and the Democrats nominated Truman on July 14. The consensus of both parties was “never again in Philadelphia.” Their biggest complaint was price gouging. They also complained about the Convention Hall. It did not have refrigerated air conditioning, even though the technology had been available during the building’s construction. The outside temperature was in the mid-80s during the Democratic Convention. The Hall’s stated capacity was 15,000, but no one took an accurate count.
Our city was selected by both parties in 1948 because of television. Around one million households had the miraculous devices with eight- and 10-inch, black and white screens, and most of them were in living rooms between Richmond and Boston. Philadelphia had the coaxial infrastructure that would allow the proceedings to be seen by the largest possible audience. So, aside from the momentous decisions made by both parties in Philadelphia in 1948, the conventions are a landmark of American culture: the beginning of the marriage between high finance and instantaneous visual media – the foundation of today’s national politics.
When the Democrats arrived in Philadelphia, the darkest cloud over the Convention Hall was the looming platform fight over civil rights. The North may have won the Civil War, but the South had won the peace. In 1948, men were being strangled to death by noose in live-oak trees by torchlight because they looked at a white woman, dared work at a white man’s job, or were in the wrong place when some racist moron happened to be in a bad mood.
To mollify the South, the party professionals had written a civil rights plank that did not assert that civil rights were guaranteed by the Constitution. This outraged the liberals, who came to Philadelphia determined to insert a bullet proof civil rights plank into the party platform. The southerners had vowed to leave the Democratic Party if the liberal plank passed. These white Protestants had been manipulating the party’s machinery since its establishment in 1828. Would the Democratic Party have the guts to sever its ties with the solid South? To do so could cost them the November election.
But civil rights were by no means the only contentious issue confronting the Democrats – a third world war seemed distinctly possible. As the Republicans had been holding their convention in June, the Soviet Union sent a large military force to blockade the city of Berlin, an Allied outpost in East Germany.
Democrats were divided over how America should deal with the Russians, who had been our allies during a cataclysmic World War II. Many favored a more conciliatory stance toward Stalin’s regime, believing that Truman’s bellicose anti-communism was provocative and could only lead to armed conflict.
The atomic bomb was a terrifying new reality, and many people feared that an oppositional attitude toward the Soviets would lead to an even more horrible war than the enormous catastrophe only so recently concluded. Every delegate who came to the Convention Hall knew that the wrong choice for President could result in nuclear war.
The Middle East was ablaze over the scrap of land that the British had vacated in March of 1948, the Palestinian Mandate. Our State Department was incensed that Harry Truman had officially recognized Israel as a sovereign nation, immediately following Britain’s departure, and countered his announcement by getting the United Nations to decree the disputed territory demilitarized.
Based on the UN decree, the State Department embargoed American arms shipments to the Middle East, where the Jews were fighting to establish Israel, facing the British-equipped armies and air forces of Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Iraq, all of whom had sent their soldiers to claim the land for themselves. Would congressional Democrats defy the Washington establishment and remove the embargo?
And there was much, much more. These three issues – civil rights, Soviet policy, and Israel – were only a few of the challenges addressed here during those four sweltering days. I hope, over the coming months, that you will accompany me on an exploration of that historical moment. But, I warn you, I don’t tweet.
As a toddler in Southwest Philadelphia, Cutler wore a colander on his head and banged pot lids together to celebrate V-J day. Since then, he’s held jobs ranging from lawn-care salesman to professor, from stable boy to IT consultant. He’s traveled widely for business and pleasure, but always came home to Northwest Philadelphia. These days, he lives on Highland Avenue, around the corner from the Local office. He spends most of his time writing historical/mystery/thrillers about Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Two of his books are available at www.amazon.com/Stanley-J.-Cutler/e/B0044OTXG0. He says two others are on his hard drive.