The Obscured Virtues of Smoke-Filled Rooms

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Then sorrowful as I was, I spoke and told my companions: “Friends, since it is not right for one or two of us only to know the divinations that Circe, bright among goddesses, gave me, so I will tell you, and knowing all we may either die, or turn aside from death and escape destruction. First of all she tells us to keep away from the magical Sirens and their singing and their flowery meadow, but only I, she said was to listen to them, but you must tie me hard in hurtful bonds, to hold me fast in position upright against the mast, with the ropes’ ends fastened around it, but if I supplicate you and implore you to set me free, then you must tie me fast with even more lashings.”

— Odysseus

Our growing dependence upon primary election campaigns to choose Presidential candidates, instead of what are now disparaged as “brokered” conventions, poses certain risks for republican government in the United States.

George Washington announced in September 1796 his unavailability for a third term as President. It took several weeks for this information to reach all of the United States. Even so, time enough remained thereafter for selection in the various States of Presidential electors in early November, which electors met in their respective state capitals the following month to settle upon a President. This meant, in effect, that choices had to be made among men already quite well known to electorates in the various States. This meant, also, that there may have been considerable canvassing but very little campaigning.

It is fashionable to be concerned lest such an arrangement as this, of which the Electoral College is but a part, deprives the American people of their right to choose their leaders. But it might be useful to restate this concern by asking, What is the best way for our people so to arrange matters as to bring out the best in them and to make it most likely that their interests will be served? The larger the electorate, the more careful we should be to provide opportunities for experience and good judgment to play a part in the decisions made in our name.

Governor Jimmy Carter, we are told, is well on his way to the nomination of the Democratic Party. And yet he is barely known even to those conscientious citizens who make an effort to keep themselves informed about political affairs. Few seem to know where he stands on any of the major issues of the day; nor can one be reasonably reassured, as to what he is likely to do, by a long career of known public service. This is not to say that Mr. Carter is not a decent man or that he cannot be a good President. It is to say that we have as yet had little by which to judge him in a responsible manner.

Thus, we have moved in successive Presidential elections from an unwarranted reliance upon someone [Richard M. Nixon] whom the public should have known well to an impending captivation by someone [Jimmy Carter] who is for the most part unknowable. This may look to some like liberty and free choice—but it may really be an undue and necessary subservience to chance. Exclusive reliance on primaries, and thereafter on a direct popular vote electing Presidents, would open the way to demagoguery and is hardly the prudent way of a self-governing people.

The irresponsibility of the exploitation by the press and Congress of the Watergate affair and other official misconduct has become evident in the current campaign. No doubt, our misguided efforts in Indochina are also responsible, perhaps even primarily responsible, in that they too have inclined the public to distrust those upon whom they had relied. And so, general respect for government has been undermined; the inevitable sins of established figures are exaggerated; new names and new faces become unduly attractive.

No doubt, Mr. Carter will be obliged, if he should get the Democratic nomination, to address himself more to the issues than he has thus far. It is possible, of course, that a television-sated public may tire of him too before November. Governor Ronald Reagan, who has the knack of always making himself appear fresh, seems also to be profiting temporarily from the public disillusion with “Washington.” But is it not evident that both Mr. Carter and Mr. Reagan have been drawing upon, and effectively manipulating, both the restless George Wallace vote and a significant element (but only a minority) within their respective parties?

It still seems to me that President Gerald Ford is likely, despite his current difficulties, to get the Republican nomination. Indeed, it could well turn out that Mr. Ford, a tested politician with known policies and character, will find it considerably easier to get elected than to get nominated. Certainly, sober Republicans must recognize that the appeal which might permit the saber-rattling Mr. Reagan to be nominated would make it virtually impossible for him to get elected.

Be that as it may, nominating conventions once provided opportunities for responsible politicians (aware of instructive primary election results here and there, but not bound by them) to deal with one another and in known qualities. But we have moved, especially since the 1960 John F. Kennedy campaign, toward substantial dependence upon primary results. This is a dangerous step toward reliance upon an uninformed and volatile public opinion and away from reliance upon disciplined parties and deliberative bodies as arbiters of our fate.

Much more can be said than we hear these days on behalf of “brokered” conventions—and for other long-established institutions which, although imperfect and hence subject to abuse, do provide our political good sense a fair chance to work.


An edited version of this paper was published in the CHICAGO TRIBUNE, May 19, 1976, § 3, at 4. The epigraph is taken from HOMER, ODYSSEY, 13k. 12, lines 154-164.

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