I started paying attention to presidential elections in 1960, when my parents let me stay up late until the networks called the race for John F. Kennedy. In 1968 I started watching the political conventions, too, which in those days had gavel-to-gavel coverage on the three national networks. News anchors like Walter Cronkite even managed to shut up during most of the speeches, assuming that viewers wanted to hear the speakers rather than the babbling nabobs in the broadcast booth.
That seems strange today, when the commentators insist on commenting before the speeches are even over—or commenting instead of covering the speeches at all. It's an odd political universe. I seldom watch conventions on TV anymore. For one thing, they're more scripted than ever and most of the drama has been leached out of them before the opening gavel is struck. The old conventions were different. In 1968, for example, we really didn't know who would get the GOP nomination until the ballots were cast. (I was predicting Nelson Rockefeller on the fifth ballot, but it never got that far. Instead we ended up with the doleful political resurrection of Richard Nixon.)
The old-fashioned chaotic conventions of the past have provided the backdrop for several political thrillers, The Manchurian Candidate probably being the best known. In a review of classic political movies in last Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle, Ruthe Stein cited 1964's melodrama about a closely fought contest for a presidential nomination, The Best Man. Henry Fonda plays the noble William Russell, who has fought ruthless rival Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson) to a standstill. Each candidate has potentially devastating information about the other, if only he were willing to use it. In Gore Vidal's script, the two men have been pushed to the brink and Russell has to make a fateful decision. (See the clip below.)
In Stein's newspaper article, she singles out an especially pertinent quote from Vidal's screenplay. He gives these lines to a former Democratic president:
“Someday we're going to have a Negro president. After that we're going to do something for that other minority and elect a woman.”I do believe he's right on both counts, and it looks like he even got the order of precedence correct, too. Back in 1964.