Peter Bart: In Films As In Reality, Mistakes At Political Conventions Can Portend Surprises

The Republican convention this week delivered cool optics, sharp reality television and an ominous threat to public health, in the opinion of most media critics.

“A political convention is like a movie trailer; if a party messes up, it will likely mess up the election,” according to Franklin J. Schaffner, a politically savvy filmmaker (Patton) who was also a key adviser to the Democratic Party during its self-demolition in 1968.

The Democratic convention that year is, in fact, the setting for a new movie from another filmmaker, Aaron Sorkin, who became fascinated by “The Year the Democrats Lost Their Mind” – a famous Washington Post headline.

Ironically, the Post ran an almost identical headline about the Republicans in 1948 when, after a bungled convention, that party’s smug, overfunded candidate, John Dewey, lost to underdog Harry S. Truman. “Dewey Defeats Truman,” the classic headline, is also the title of a perceptive new book by A.J. Baime.

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If Schaffner’s theory holds up historically, some political gurus today may question whether past mistakes may be rife for repetition this year. Does the confidence of the anti-Trumpers mirror that of the ’48 Republicans, who were certain Truman was history? Trump’s “law and order” campaign itself is a replay of Nixon’s slogan to defeat the fractured Democrats in 1968.

The 1968 debacle itself spawned another compelling film titled Medium Cool, depicting the story of a documentary filmmaker (Robert Forster) who set out to shoot the chaos of the convention only to become sucked into the actual events. Haskell Wexler’s 1969 film was revered because it bridged the gap between fiction and nonfiction filmmaking.

Sorkin’s approach in The Trial of the Chicago 7 reportedly is at once more ideological and more challenging, focusing on a cast of unruly characters who set out to sow chaos (Abbie Hoffman is played by Sasha Baron Cohen and Tom Hayden by Eddie Redmayne, with an October 16 Netflix release date). According to historic accounts, the Yippie principals hated each other as much as they detested the party establishment.

The 1968 convention was all but consumed by the events surrounding it — the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy and the anti-Vietnam riots. The Democratic leadership was also thrown into disarray by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s last-minute withdrawal, leading to the nomination of a non-charismatic Hubert Humphrey.

To the TV viewer of that moment, chaos ruled both inside and outside the convention hall. Even as police and National Guardsmen beat up protesters in the street, the cameras inside showed Dan Rather being brutally attacked by security as he interviewed a delegate.

Republicans at their convention were delighted by the Democrats’ melee. Although many delegates hoped for the nomination of young California Gov. Ronald Reagan, they settled for the battle-hardened Nixon, who won by hammering away on law and order.

The reverse had been true 20 years earlier when the Republicans were sure they had the right man in Dewey, a star prosecutor from New York. Dewey and his vice presidential nominee, Earl Warren, represented the liberal wing of the party, leaving the hard right in despair. Dewey and Warren failed to grasp the appeal of Truman among two strong constituencies – farmers and union members.

Truman’s campaign was so under-funded, however, that he periodically interrupted his campaign to beg for contributions from union leaders and big-city party bosses. In fact, the physical structure of the White House itself was in such severe disrepair that, according to Baime’s book, Truman had to abandon his crumbling bedroom and move to other quarters in the building.

At the convention, even the mistakes of Truman backers didn’t dent their excitement. After Truman’s rousing acceptance speech, organizers released scores of pigeons who flew into the blades of the huge ceiling fans, splaying dead birds across startled delegates on the floor.

Schaffner died in 1989 but, were he alive, he would likely be impressed by the cohesion and financial muscle of each of the parties today. Despite the current racial tensions, there are no breakaway parties from the South, like the Dixiecrats of the Truman era, and no blatantly racist political leader like Strom Thurmond.

I think Schaffner would have admired Joe Biden’s decorum and tactics. On the other hand, he likely would have cut Trump’s 70-minute acceptance speech and pumped more pizzazz into Biden’s.

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