No one leaves the ornate City Hall office of Ald. Edward Burke without his book, Inside the Wigwam: Chicago Political Conventions 1860-1996. After I interviewed Burke, in January, he hauled a copy out a wooden cabinet, and inscribed it in green ink, as is his Irish wont:
“To Ted McClelland, On the occasion of your visit to Chicago’s historic City Hall. Ed Burke.”
Unlike most politicians, Burke had the class to list his ghostwriter first on the cover. Historian R. Craig Sautter has also ghostwritten for Harold Washington. This may be the only thing Burke and Washington have ever had in common.
Last week, I actually read the book, or at least the interesting parts. (I skipped the chapter about the 1884 Republican convention, which nominated James G. Blaine.) Chicago has hosted 24 political conventions, more than any other city. Inside the Wigwam makes the point that Chicago history became American history at three conventions, when the city determined the next president of the United States.
The 1860 Republican National Convention was Chicago’s first big political gathering. Earlier that year, at a meeting in Decatur, the state party had nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency. Once the delegates gathered in Chicago, they used their home-field advantage to win the big prize for Lincoln. Just as favorite William Seward was about to be nominated, Illinois delegates convinced the party chair to delay the vote a day, because the printer had not yet delivered the tally sheets. They used the extra time to print counterfeit tickets for Lincoln supporters, and to bribe the Pennsylvania delegation with a cabinet post for Sen. Simon Cameron. They also made sure the Pennsylvanians were seated between the Lincoln states of Indiana and Illinois. Lincoln won on the third ballot.
At the 1944 Democratic National Convention, Henry Wallace was the delegates’ favorite for a second term as vice president. But the liberal Wallace wasn’t the favorite of Mayor Ed Kelly. Kelly had participated in a White House meeting where it was agreed that Wallace’s support for civil rights and unions could hurt the ticket in the South. Sen. Harry Truman was a safer choice, all agreed. At the convention, held inside Chicago Stadium, Kelly gave away 15,000 extra tickets. When the delegates began chanting, “We Want Wallace!” he had the fire commissioner declare the Stadium, and sent everyone back to their hotels for the night. The next day, Kelly packed the crowd with patronage workers who were instructed to cheer for Truman. He replaced Wallace on the ticket, and succeeded to the presidency when Franklin D. Roosevelt died.
At the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the party was divided over the Vietnam War. Mayor Richard J. Daley was anti-war, but he was also anti-anti-war, determined not to let protestors disrupt his convention. As a young Chicago police officer assigned to the convention, Burke was an eyewitness to the “Battle in Chicago” between the yippies and the cops in Grant Park. He provides a vivid description of the divisions between the two sides: “Chicago police had little understanding or sympathy for the idealism of the assembled youth. Most police officers were hard-working men with families to support…The protesters were young and wild, and the police both disliked and envied them for their freedom.”
The violence outside the convention hall doomed the party’s nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, ensuring the election of Richard Nixon. Since then, America’s favorite convention city has hosted only one convention: the uncontroversial re-nomination of Bill Clinton, in 1996. That’s another reason Inside the Wigwam is history.
Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!