By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The literature on the interaction between national political conventions and their host cities is a slim one. On occasion, in the days when conventions were for choosing, not just crowning nominees, the locals in the galleries played a role: cheering on Abe Lincoln in Chicago in 1860 and Wendell Willkie in Philadelphia in 1940. (On the other hand, the galleries in L.A. in 1960 were boomingly for Adlai Stevenson, but John Kennedy had the nomination sewn up.) On other occasions, candidates’ alliances with the host political machine proved helpful, as in Chicago in 1940, when the spontaneous demonstration to “persuade” Franklin Roosevelt to seek an unprecedented third term began when Chicago’s sewer commissioner, from somewhere beneath the arena and far from the public eye, commandeered the sound system and began chanting, “We want Roosevelt!” (This incident went down in political lore as “The Voice from the Sewers.”)
What’s never happened before is a convention being viewed by its host city as an alien intrusion — but that’s just what’s happening in New York this week. When the Democrats convened in Chicago in 1968 (I was there as an 18-year-old staffer for antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy), anti-war demonstrators came from near and far to oppose the war. But roughly one-third of the delegates inside the convention agreed with them, and old Mayor Daley certainly wasn’t risking his re-election when he made clear to his cops that they could treat the protesters as roughly as their little hearts desired.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, by contrast, has surely hurt his chances for re-election by inviting George W. Bush’s Republicans to town. The president who has opted to govern from the right and to take the country into a discretionary, unnecessary and unpopular war is wildly unpopular here, and the city is now home to two distinct sets of activities, of, by and for two utterly opposed political camps.
This is so far from the norm of how a city and convention interact that it is almost in a class by itself in American political history. Last month’s Democratic convention in Boston, for instance, featured outdoor concerts for delegates and locals alike. No convention planner even contemplated such a mixing of populations here in New York, however. Delegates travel through the city in buses with police escorts; their parties are cordoned off by the cops; getting into their hotels requires running a gauntlet of separate security forces. At times, you get the feeling the Republicans may as well be holding their convention in Baghdad.
The California, Ohio and Tennessee delegations, for instance, are shacked up in the Marriott Marquis Hotel at Broadway and 46th, where a bewildering array of security forces make sure that no actual New Yorkers down on the streets can defile the sanctity of the hotel. When I was entering the hotel early Sunday evening, around the time that the day’s mega-protest demonstration was breaking up, a same-sex kiss-in was in full swing across the street from the hotel, while a roving troupe of drum-bangers was booming its way down Broadway. A phalanx of cops stood between the kissers and drummers and the hotel, lest any of the demonstrators dart across the street, scoot past hotel security, and plant a wet one on an unsuspecting delegate from Cincinnati.
The Republicans’ connection with their surroundings is a sometime thing at best. On the fifth floor of the Marriott, where a number of Republican organizations have their offices, the National Federation of Republican Women have set up shop in the Clifford Odets Room. Odets, of course, is the onetime Communist playwright whose 1930s plays — Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing in particular — are probably America’s most notable left-wing plays until the advent of Arthur Miller.
But it gets better, or worse, than that. All the rooms on the fifth floor of the Marriott Marquis, a hotel which contains within it a Broadway theater (currently reviving the ever-moribund Thoroughly Modern Millie), are named after playwrights — there’s the Eugene O’Neill Room and the Moss Hart Room. And the communications staff for the Ohio delegation inhabits the Bertolt Brecht Room — or is supposed to; there was nobody in the room named after one of the few genuinely Stalinist artists of the past century when I peeked inside it. The Odets Room, by contrast, was fairly humming with Republican women talking politics. Not surprisingly — and probably just as well — none of the women I spoke with had any idea who Clifford Odets was.