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Retelling Tales of Contentious Conventions

Political conventions aren't what they used to be. Floor fights over platforms and nominees have given way to "unified, happy affairs," NPR News Analyst Cokie Roberts says.

As Democrats convene in Boston to nominate Sen. John Kerry, Roberts and NPR's Renee Montagne discuss the history of some of the most contentious conventions and why the gatherings aren't as dramatic as they once were.

"The parties have been trying to go to the electorate with a unified message," Roberts says. "But beyond that, the people who control the conventions won't let the people with different views speak."

The last time there was even an attempt at that was in the 1992 Democratic convention, when Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey wanted to talk about abortion. But Casey was told he could not make a pro-life speech at the convention.

Also long gone are conventions with a real fight over the nomination. The 1952 Republican convention pitted conservative Robert Taft of Ohio against Dwight Eisenhower. Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who backed Taft, accused Thomas Dewey, the GOP nominee in 1944 and 1948, of leading the party "down the road to defeat." Eisenhower was nominated and went on to become president.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater was considered by some Republicans to be too conservative. New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller tried to bring the GOP back to the middle, warning of "an extremist threat" to the party posed by groups like the John Birch Society. He was drowned out by cries of "we want Barry" from the convention floor. Goldwater won the nomination but lost the election in a landslide to Democrat Lyndon Johnson.

The country's deep division over the Vietnam War came to a head at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, addressing the convention, condemned "Gestapo tactics" of Mayor Richard Daley's police cracking down on the antiwar protesters outside. Vice President Hubert Humphrey was nominated over Sen. George McGovern, who was favored by war opponents.

"There are some Democrats who think that that convention cost them the election in 1968, which was very, very close, and they haven't had a raucous convention since then," Roberts says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cokie Roberts was one of the 'Founding Mothers' of NPR who helped make that network one of the premier sources of news and information in this country. She served as a congressional correspondent at NPR for more than 10 years and later appeared as a commentator on Morning Edition. In addition to her work for NPR, Roberts was a political commentator for ABC News, providing analysis for all network news programming.