GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH
By D. W. • BROGAN HE greatest show on earth." So P. T. Barnum called his
circus. And the national conventions of the Republican and Democratic parties suggested the circus parallel to more than one British observEr. Indeed, this British reaction was formally rebuked —with vigour by Mr. Westbrook Pegler, with pained regret by the New York Times. And during each convention, as well as in New York, in San Francisco, on every occasion where it was known that I was a fugitive from the " Black Hole of Philadelphia," Americans tactfully or anxiously asked me had I been shocked by what I had seen on the theoretically solemn occasion of nominating the two men one of whom will be President of the United States next January. I replied, truthfully, that I wasn't shocked, that I had seen very little horseplay or drunkenness and that most of the fun and games seemed legitimate and useful. I was seldom believed ; I was regarded as being excessively tactful ; and one woman, looking me firmly in the eye, announced that if I was not ashamed she was. This forced me to ponder the problem of dignity in a democracy and speculate on what it was that made so many people think that this year's conventions overstepped the borders of the tolerable. That there was such a feeling owed a good deal to the increasingly ominous news from Berlin. In face of the possibilities that hung over the world, the horseplay and organised middle-aged imitation of adolescent pranks seemed an outrageous imposition to many. What will the Germans, the Russians, think of all this ? Can any- thing good come of a democratic system that can only perform its office of choosing candidates for the highest free magistracy in the world to the accompaniment of circus ballyhoo ? That was one reason for the irritation so widely expressed.
There was, I think, another. The conventions took place in Philadelphia. And many human activities that seem quite in place in New York or Chicago seem decidedly out of place in Philadelphia. A cup final would be badly located in Bath ; and gaiety, disorder, too free expression of the simpler and noisier emotions, seemed especially censurable in Philadelphia. The decorum, the dullness (and, of course, the presumed hypocrisy) of Philadelphia are part of American folklore. Twenty-odd years ago a popular song advised a visit to Philadelphia for those American citizens who wanted to find out how they looked when they were asleep. And it was just about that time that the custom of shooting grey-uniformed postmen in mistake for Confederate soldiers died out. It happens that the only time I ever saw the great strippeuse, Anne Corio, was in Philadelphia, and some of the high jinks at the conventions were carried out in a reverential atmosphere of ritual duty which reminded me of Miss Corio's strip-teasing.
It was a circus. There is no use dodging that fact. There were the circus animals, live and imitation—hundreds of rubber elephants, plus one small live one attached to the staff of Senator Robert Taft. With the bad luck that attended Senator Taft's campaign, a dis- gruntled circus employee slapped an attachment on the beast and spoiled the effect—whatever the effect was supposed to be. The main rubber elephant was continually collapsing ; whether it suffered mainly from leaking seams or lighted cigars dropped by malignant
135 Democrats was not plain to me. The Democrats ran to donkeys, real and mechanical. Their mechanical donkey put on a better and more disciplined show than did the Republican elephant, or than did the real donkey that I saw being pushed unavailingly into the hall (or arena) the night that Mr. Truman was nominated. Mrs. Jarley would certainly have refused to acknowledge that resolutely non- co-operative animal. There were, too, the doves loosed as a symbol of something or other at the end of the Democratic convention. Perhaps the one whose tail feathers were blown off by an electric fan above my head impersonated the seceding Southern delegations ?
But the humans were more interesting than the animals. It was possible to distinguish between the Democratic and Republican delegations—assuming that you knew in advance which was which. But one was again impressed by the success of American society in breeding social types so American even if, in height, weight and complexion, so diverse. Again and again I recalled Mr. Wode- house's dictum : " He looked more like an American than anybody except another American could look." E pluribus unum indeed !
Perhaps the Democrats were younger and less uniformly pros- perous middle-class business men and " clubwomen." The Repub- licans were (to judge by the names) more " Anglo-Saxon," but the melting-pot seemed to have done its job. Of course there were little shades of distinction. The Pennsylvania Railroad had . provided in a vast ball-room excellent facilities for the Press. There were good television, excellent radio, free cheese and free beer. All of these attracted the fourth estate, but at the Democratic convention one angry scribe (or statesman) was complaining bitterly that the beer had. run out. " The Pennsylvania Railroad is a Republican corpora- tion. The beer didn't run out at the Republican convention." The suggestion that Democrats drank more beer than Republicans was waved aside. There was, in fact, very little serious drinking. I saw only one plastered (Republican) delegate who wobbled out of the hall one night and, as he passed me, muttered darkly to himself, " I'll never speak to myself again." Indeed, the hotels and bars had reason to regret the money put up to get the conventions to come to Philadelphia, for little was spent there. " The Republicans came with one clean shirt and $z and didn't change either " was the gibe which was, of course, transferred to the Democrats with the subtraction of the clean shirt. I was told that the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks who filled in between the two conventions did far more for Philadelphia commerce than did the assembled statesmen. But I was then commuting to California, so I cannot give personal testimony to that. The Press-room presented more problems than the shortage of free beer. There was the temptation to stay and watch the show in comfort, in an air-conditioned room, rather than venture into the blast furnace below. Television may kill the old-fashioned convention reporter of the Casabianca type, and even the sight of Mr. H. L. Mencken seated on the burning deck whence nearly all but he had fled did not shame all of his colleagues to returning to the field of action where high temperatures, hot air, television cameras and mis- cellaneous noise made reporting harder (in every sense of the term', than it was above the battle in the Pennsylvania room. But absentee reporting was not a result of modern science only. So I was informed by a veteran reporter whom I met in the bar of the Pen and Pencil Club. He was attending his sixth convention, and he had long ago learned that the last place to get news was at the convention. He paid one formal visit at the end or the beginning, and he didn't even look at the television set in the bar. That pioneer has many disciples now.
Of course, one of the showman aspects of the conventions was the famous or notorious men and women who performed there. The women spectators wanted to see Mrs. Luce or Helen Gahagan Douglas or Van Heflin (a film actor, I am told). The most remarkable works of histrionic art I saw were the superb sun-tan of the wife of a famous radio commentator who is a film star in her own right and Senator Connally looking like W. C. Fields in one of his gloomier moments. Then there were the cranks. There was a man who paraded with the label: " The United States Government is unfair to grey-haired men " and the man who put up the notice, " The Lord is coming," at the Republican convention, but apparently thought the warning wasted on the Democrats. Indeed, my memory is full of odd and amusing events. There was the time when a man trying to crash the gate at the free-beer room was rebuked by the doorkeeper. " That isn't cricket." I learned later from the President of the Pennsylvania Railroad that they had been instructed to say this and had been drilled at a cricket match! Only in Philadelphia could this happen, for there alone in the United States (as readers of Kitty Foyle ought to know) is cricket a game and not a joke.
But was the convention system shown to be a joke ? I think not. Democracy is not a uniformly dignified form of government, though it is capable of moments of great dignity—and there were such moments. There was no place for Coriolanus at Philadelphia where the proceedings were conducted on the principle enunciated by Big Tim Sullivan a generation ago. " God and the People hate a chesty man." There were comic incongruities. The pipe band complete with kilts that added to the presidential claims of Mr. Stassen was largely recruited from Glasgow, and one of the pipers had, he informed me, been only a week in the country. There was a good deal of ham acting and of the general atmosphere of inco- herence and hopelessly deranged timetables that marks the village historical pageant. It was easy enough to find things to laugh at and to swear at. Is it certain that the world isn't suffering a little in its political life from the lack of subjects for laughter and the liberty of swearing ? One visitor, at any rate, preferred Philadelphia to Berlin, Moscow or Belgrade. He is not even sure about Scarborough.