by Stan Cutler
Go to the Top of the Hill and step into one of the coffee shops. Maybe you meet a friend, or maybe you just like to do your work there. You don’t think much about the atomic bomb; it’s certainly not a topic of normal conversation.
But somehow or other, the subject comes up today, and somebody asks you whether we ought to have cinderized Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs. Instead of searching the Internet for the answer, you engage an actual person in thoughtful conversation about mushroom clouds and city-eating fireballs.
The last time the Democratic Party came to Philadelphia to nominate their presidential candidate, in 1948, most Americans had seen Technicolor newsreels of the terrifying explosions. But it would not even have occurred to them to ask the question. Our atomic bomb had ended the war, period. Good for Harry Truman. Good for us!
Let’s say the coffee shop is downtown and it’s 1948 and you just happen to be a delegate to the Democratic Party’s National Nominating Convention. Let’s say you’re a Philadelphia politician, a man or woman with a good public education. The biggest issue, of course, is whether to allow Harry Truman to try to get elected President, a post he’s held since FDR’s death in April of ‘45.
It’s still up to the Convention to make the decision. The core members of the Democratic Party, 1,245 men and women from every corner of America, have come to our fair city for that very purpose. Most of them have serious misgivings about Truman’s fitness for the office.
The Pennsylvania delegation has 74 voting members, more than any other State except New York with 98. You’ve got a ticket that gets you inside the Convention Hall and a floor pass that lets you sit with the Pennsylvania delegation, right up front, with a great view of the podium.
There are more brilliant and charismatic men who see themselves as better presidents than Harry Truman. But the one important thing that Harry Truman has going for him is that he’s proven his guts by dropping those bombs. And, by God, America has the guts to grab the glory. Us! Americans! Yeah Harry! Three cheers for the red white and blue.
Do you remember that great feeling when the Phillies won the World Series? That’s what patriotism felt like in 1948, and that’s how people felt all over America when that horrible war finally ended. In 1948, two years and eleven months after the explosion that changed the world, Americans still feel the afterglow of great victory. At the same time, they’re frightened by the prospect of yet another World War.
They had already seen two World Wars in their lifetimes. Why not a third? Isn’t that the way of the world? And right here, in our Philadelphia, the great Democratic Party is picking its leader, a man who’ll be granted godlike powers like no other single person in all of history.
That’s why, if you are that Philadelphia politician sipping coffee on a hot July morning in Center City Philadelphia, maybe at a Linton’s or an H&H, you take yourself seriously. And the people watching on their televisions and listening on their radios, and the people reading newspapers in every city on the planet, they all think that the Democratic Party’s convention is very damned important.
But let’s get real. The Democrats are returning in 2016. That convention won’t be nearly as dramatic as the one that nominated Truman. What’s the big deal? Everyone these days knows that the party conventions are nothing more than advertising for a predetermined candidate. The parties are brands, and the conventions are extravagant spectacles intended to sell the brand. Nothing more.
Once upon a time, during one of my early career incarnations, I studied and taught rhetoric at Penn State. I learned that if you look at the communication itself, the media and the messages, you can see a lot of important things. That’s what these columns are about. What does it mean that we rely on personal input/output devices? What did television mean in 1948? What’s the same? What’s different? These essays are about what the differences mean, about what we can learn by comparing them.
We have to start with the most obvious difference between 1948 and 2016 – the level of the drama, the magnitude of the stakes. If we are going to understand what it was like to be a delegate to the 1948 Democratic Convention, we have to get our heads around the idea that those people believed that the consequences of their choices would be world-altering. They had come through a bitter economic depression. They had transformed their country to win a war. Theirs was a world dominated by great personalities – FDR, Hitler, Churchill, Stalin – and they had to pick someone who could play on the same stage as those awesome men.
As they sat listening to the orators, the Soviet Army had surrounded and blockaded our military outpost in East Germany. Powerful Communist parties in Western Europe would welcome them if they decided to move West. How should we react? If the Democrats got it wrong in Philadelphia …
The Great Depression was as deep an influence on the delegates as World War II. Roosevelt had convinced most Americans of a theory concerning the common man, and more importantly, of the federal government’s obligation to do right by him. To fulfill these obligations, driven by FDR’s philosophy, government agencies were established by new laws, called the New Deal. Republicans had opposed all of it.
The Democrats who came here in 1948 believed that the federal government could and should be dedicated to improving the lives of ordinary citizens. If you had been one of those delegates, you would have had a well-justified fear that all the social gains of the New Deal would be doomed if the the wrong man were to win the nomination.
What are the stakes in 2016? Unless something awful happens during the next months, and let’s keep our fingers crossed that it doesn’t, the 2016 Democratic Convention will be less dramatic than any episode of Justified, or CSI, or Blacklist, or Breaking Bad. We are used to high drama as make-believe, addicted to tidy hour-long dramas and sports, to the Superbowl and the World Series. How can an assemblage of self-interested politicians be nearly as interesting? It depends on how you look at it.