By Sid Salter
STARKVILLE – In the national political conventions of my youth, the events offered drama and intrigue that rivaled modern-day reality television shows.
Today’s conventions offer virtually no drama.
Well into the 1970s, the national conventions arrived with the nominee of the respective parties in doubt. The 1976 Republican convention gave Mississippi a moment in the sun as Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan sparred for the soul of the state’s GOP.
After assuming the presidency following the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon in the depths of the Watergate scandal, President Gerald Ford began in 1975 to seek the 1976 Republican nomination for president that would culminate at the Kansas City GOP National Convention.
In Mississippi, Reagan had earlier won support from Greenville’s Clarke Reed, then-state Sen. Charles Pickering of Laurel and Jackson oilman W.D. “Billy” Mounger. Ford was supported by then-U.S. Rep. Thad Cochran, 1975 Mississippi gubernatorial nominee Gil Carmichael of Meridian and then-Jackson City Commissioner Doug Shanks.
But when Reagan chose liberal Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Richard Schweiker as his running mate, Reed defected to the Ford camp and other Mississippi delegates followed.
Nationally, the Ford-Reagan battle for the nomination was almost dead even and both candidates began to scour the country for uncommitted delegates to the convention. Because of the so-called “unit rule” – which required that the candidate who had the support of the majority of the state’s 30 delegates got all 30 votes – a procedural vote on a Reagan-backed convention rules change was the showdown vote.
Mississippi’s 30 votes went against the rules change and Reagan’s bid for the nomination was effectively dead.
Mississippi Democrats – once the dominant party in state politics – continue to struggle against the state’s current Republican juggernaut. During World War II, Mississippi Democrats took 94 percent of the state’s vote.
The late 1940s saw the rise of the Dixiecrat Party over the issue of segregation, but Democrats were able to return to dominance in the 1950s.
But the presidential candidacy of John F. Kennedy in 1960 signaled the beginning of the end of Democratic dominance in presidential politics in Mississippi.
Despite Mississippi’s rather predictable presidential political behavior, the conventions were still dramatic affairs up until the rise of early primaries and “Super Tuesday” politics. Now, the conventions carry zero drama.
That’s why actor Clint Eastwood’s appearance at the GOP convention was so captivating. His rambling, vaguely scary speech kept Republicans and Democrats alike on the edge of their seats.
Politics was more fun before the spin doctors, the speech writers, the TV commercial producers, the ad agencies and the focus groups took command of the process.
Clint Eastwood reminded the nation that there is virtually nothing more invigorating for political junkies than an unscripted speaker in front of an open microphone – empty chair and all.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.