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A Delegate’s Dissent at a Boring Convention

The Republican Convention of 1956, unlike the one going on this week, in Cleveland, was so predictable, and so tiresome, that when the Vice-Presidential nomination was nigh and a roll call of the states began, the Convention’s chairman asked the delegates to cut it short—in other words, Arizona should stop saying things like “the beautiful Grand Canyon state,” which only dragged out the proceedings. That Convention, held in late August at the Cow Palace, in San Francisco, was as “rigged” as it gets. The popular incumbent, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had been re-nominated without opposition, and the same was supposed to happen with Vice-President Richard M. Nixon, even though Eisenhower had tried, ineffectually, to drop him from the ticket.

But when the roll call reached Nebraska, there was an ad lib: A middle-aged delegate named Terry Carpenter, a wealthy entrepreneur and onetime Democratic congressman (from 1933 to 1935), nominated one “Joe Smith” for Vice-President. What followed was not exactly pandemonium, although the Chicago Tribune headline said “Convention Convulsed.” Chairman Joseph W. Martin, Jr., who had been running Republican Conventions since 1940 and who appeared slightly baffled, said, “Joe who?,” to which the chairman of the Nebraska delegation replied, “Joe Smith.” The moment seemed to wake up television correspondents. Chet Huntley, who was anchoring for NBC, looked delighted at this hint of drama, however unreal. Reporters, eager to learn more about Joe Smith, descended on Carpenter, who was more or less ejected from the hall after Martin said, “Take your Joe Smith and get out of here.”

Read more of our latest news and commentary from the 2016 Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

Not surprisingly, there was no Joe Smith, although Carpenter had said that he lived in “Terrytown,” a real place that Carpenter had built and named after himself, and that he was retired from “work.” Carpenter had done this, a front-page Times story reported, to assert the rights of delegates. “Joe Smith,” he declared, was “a symbol of an open convention.” At that time and place, having an “open” Convention meant only blocking a unanimous vote for Nixon. Carpenter said that he had nothing against the Vice-President, but he wanted to make his point.

Imaginary or not, Joe Smith would probably do well in a year like this, as the two major parties prepare to nominate candidates whom the nation has yet to embrace. In what may be the most alarming of many alarming surveys, Associated Press-GfK pollsters recently learned that more than half of those asked (fifty-six per cent) said they’d be afraid if the reality-show performer Donald J. Trump wins the White House, while the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton inspires nearly the same level of fear (forty-eight per cent). In other words, they’re both scary.

How we came to this pass will be much discussed over the next two weeks, and two Conventions. But, while Clinton’s charmless campaign and victory can be explained by the traditional churn of party politics and competition, Trump’s rise seems to be explainable largely in terms usually applied to nativism, racism, and jingoism. When he speaks this week as his party’s choice, he will be the most perplexing, even preposterous candidate ever, not unlike the P.R. man described by Don DeLillo, in “End Zone,” as someone whose mouth “seemed to invent the words as well as speak them.”

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