TAMPA, Fla. – "There is something about a national convention that makes it as fascinating as a revival or a hanging. It is vulgar, it is ugly, it is stupid, it is tedious, it is hard upon both the higher cerebral centers and the gluteus maximus, and yet it is somehow charming. One sits through long sessions wishing heartily that all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell -- and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour."
That was Henry Louis Mencken, writing in July 1924 about the Democratic National Convention that had adjourned a few days earlier at New York's Madison Square Garden. Never was a presidential convention more grueling. It lasted 16 days and went through 103 ballots before finally anointing John W. Davis, a former solicitor general and ambassador to Great Britain, as the Democrats' standard-bearer. Four months later Davis lost in a landslide to President Calvin Coolidge.
Ah, for the good old days, when party conventions really mattered. They may not have had a national TV audience or air conditioning; they had to make do without balloon drops, iPad apps, or a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired stage. But nominating conventions conventions in decades past had something today's vast high-tech pageants lack: an authentic and indispensable role in the nation's democratic process.