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How I Would Improve The Conventions: James Galbraith

Convention season is upon us. There will be clichés, giant flags, funny hats--and much, much whining about how these party-themed infomercials aren’t worth our time. But are there ways in which we could genuinely improve the content of the conventions? We asked a few friends of the magazine to offer their suggestions. Here’s James Galbraith, professor of economics and government at the University of Texas and author of The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too.

Twenty years ago, I encountered in the halls of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs my elderly colleague Emmette Redford, President Johnson's boyhood friend and distinguished administrative historian. Emmette asked if I was planning to attend that year's Democratic convention. I said no, I had already attended one interesting convention, in 1968.

"I know what you mean," he replied, "I also attended one interesting convention. In 1928."

I had in fact attended three Democratic conventions by then. The first was in Chicago, where I managed to be in Grant Park the night the police beat up everyone in Lincoln Park. The next night I was at the hall, to watch my father second the nomination of Eugene McCarthy, and to march back by candlelight, after they beat up everyone in Grant Park. The following morning, my father extracted me from the Chicago Hilton; that evening, the police raided my room on the McCarthy floor, and beat up everyone there.

Needless to say, that convention was a disaster for the Democratic Party.

In 1972, having just cast my first vote, I was an alternate delegate from Massachusetts to the great meeting in Miami Beach, a marvel of procedural struggle, late-into-the-night political discipline and popular democracy. Or so we who were there thought. The rest of the country was not impressed; apparently they wanted their television show over by midnight, thank you very much. Richard Reeves later wrote that the regulars couldn't tell people like the Galbraith brothers from hippies because we dressed the same way, but this was an outrageous invention. I had a suit on, every day.

Needless to say, that convention was a disaster for the Democratic Party.

1976 in New York was the last convention I went to, and while it had moments of drama--“Ron Kovic's great speech, "Born on the Fourth of July"--nothing important happened. Mo Udall, great and gracious, ceded the nomination to Jimmy Carter and the McGovern and Johnson wings of the party reconciled, briefly. That convention was a success.

All those since have just been television shows, scripted, fake, and boring, the American political equivalent of Olympic opening ceremonies, without the panache. And so when the editors of TNR asked for 500 words on how to improve them, I offered just two. Tear gas.

But I have a serious suggestion also.

As a McGovern Democrat at the Johnson School, I have a special respect for these two great non-persons of modern Party history. Lyndon Baines Johnson, born one hundred years ago, the greatest civil rights president since Lincoln, was airbrushed from official memory because of the Vietnam War. George McGovern, bomber pilot, was written out of the record because of his opposition to that same war.

And yet the Democratic Party today is the product of these two men: of Johnson's heroic stand on race, and of McGovern's heroic stand for peace.

It would be an act of decency, of honesty, and of probity to celebrate them both, this year.