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Why conventions still matter (+video)

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The country had plunged deep into a depression. Both Southerners and Westerners believed in "bimetallism": having the dollar backed by silver as well as gold. This, they argued, would enlarge the money supply and allow farmers to sell their crops for more money.

The national champion of bimetallism, former Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan, came to the convention in Chicago intending to speak about his pet issue.

He started softly. But as he began talking about farmers, the hall exploded. When he mentioned miners, the cheers were so thunderous he couldn't go on.

At the end, he bellowed the now-famous lines: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." Putting both hands to his head, Bryan stretched out his fingers – like the crown of Jesus. And held that pose for five seconds.

Delegates hurled their coats in the air, then rushed over to lift Bryan on their shoulders and paraded him around for a half-hour – and the next morning made the 36-year-old the nominee.

Michael Berman remembers a more recent speech set against a backdrop of passion. Now president of a big Washington lobbying firm, Mr. Berman played organizing roles in seven Democratic conventions.

But in 1968 he was a young staffer to Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale. The country was torn over the Vietnam War. Outside the Democratic National Convention, also in Chicago, police tear-gassed, beat, and arrested demonstrators – one report called it a "police riot."

Inside, horrified antiwar delegates heard the news. As Connecticut Sen. Abe Ribicoff nominated antiwar candidate George McGovern, a deafening chorus of boos erupted from the regulars, led by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Ribicoff looked into the crowd at Daley. "And if George McGovern were president," he cried, "we would not have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago!"

Daley jumped to his feet slashing a finger across his own neck, shouting words this magazine can't print. It was a madhouse.

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