As Notre Dame went, so went the nation.
That was the story of the Mock Political Convention, a quadrennial event that was once to the political life of campus as Bookstore Basketball is now to its athletic life.
Launched in the spring of 1940 by Paul Bartholomew, a young politics professor, Notre Dame’s raucous mock cons became minor fixtures of the U.S. presidential election season, luring big-name politicians and wire-service reporters to the old Navy Drill Hall and, after 1960, Stepan Center. There they joined the hundreds of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s student delegates who mobilized for four-night programs that accurately mimicked the pageantry, infighting, horse-trading and ideological drama of the real Republican and Democratic deals.
“In 1964 we had a very robust mock convention,” says political science Professor John Roos ’65, then one of a group of progressive-minded students who unsuccessfully pushed Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton as an alternative to Barry Goldwater.
Collegiate mock conventions were once ubiquitous, but Bartholomew’s Course in Practical Politics achieved a notoriety that he and the University’s public information staff attributed to the national draw of the student body and the accuracy of their early predictions of nominees, usually for the party out of power: Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 (Democrats faced the contentious prospect of a third term for FDR that year, making their choice more interesting than the one facing the GOP), Eisenhower in ’52, Adlai Stevenson in ’56 and Kennedy in ’60. They chose Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg in 1948, but four out of five was deemed not bad.
In a 1972 interview, Bartholomew recalled doing most of the legwork for the first convention, held that one time in the Cushing Hall auditorium. He even hand-painted and erected the state placards throughout the hall. Students were swept up into five months of campaigning and delegation organizing among home-state peers.
From food fights to Vietnam
At the conventions themselves, realism ruled—up to a point. When the convention was Republican, Harold Stassen was a perennial candidate. Joke nominations like Bing Crosby’s in 1952 became a tradition—in the 1980s, authentic candidates had to push their way past the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Cookie Monster. Sessions commonly went past midnight, forcing Bartholomew at least once to phone Saint Mary’s for permission to delay curfew. Floor fights over procedural arcana and credentials—not to mention platform standoffs on issues from Vietnam to busing to abortion to unemployment, depending on the year—evoked real-world enthusiasm and real-world cynicism. Nomination speeches could be drowned out by disruptive demonstrations, with order restored only by command performances of the national anthem.
Sometimes it was hard to separate reality from role-play underneath the cigar smoke. Over the years, leading national pols like Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, Idaho Senator Frank Church and Illinois Representative Henry Hyde traveled to campus to make serious policy speeches and take their shots at the other side. Radio personality Paul Harvey put in an appearance at the 1956 event. By then, the South Bend Tribune was providing daily coverage and wire dispatches noted the participation of hometown boys across Indiana. South Bend native Paul M. Butler ’27, then the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, blasted Ike as a “do-nothing” in his speech, roiling a Republican running that year for Indiana governor.
The conventions served up an early taste of a life in politics for more than one young leader. Casper Taylor ’56 banged the opening gavel at the 1956 convention and at age 40 launched a 28-year career in the Maryland House of Delegates. California congressman Dan Lungren ’68 championed the “Students for Nixon” campaign during his senior year.
For Father Jim King, CSC, ‘81, ’87M.Div., ’07MNA, who made his “first real public speech” at the podium for George H.W. Bush in 1980, the convention held other lessons. With the elder Bush locked in mortal combat with Ronald Reagan coming out of the New Hampshire primary, the national campaign tasked Bush’s oldest son with making its pitch at Notre Dame. “He looked so bored and ticked-off, like he’d drawn the short stick in the family,” King recalls.
Meanwhile, he says, Reagan’s student organization “brought in some heavies from their state committee who tried to twist arms.” One beefy, 40-something campaigner spotted King approaching the student campaign chair and told him to “Get the hell outta there.” Bush won the student nomination at 5:30 in the morning, and King and fellow co-chair Jim Niehaus ‘80 were invited to a fundraiser for the candidate in South Bend. “I had the time of my life,” King says, but the backslapping and superficiality snuffed any thoughts he’d entertained of a political career.
Compromise and idealism
By King’s day, the ND conventions had lost their early prognosticative power. Kennedy’s nomination back in 1960 left some conventioneers fretting that his Catholicism and youth appeal had tricked them into throwing away their pick on a candidate the national party would never support, even though he did eventually win the nomination. But it was the compromise choices and idealistic statements of subsequent ND conventions—U.S. ambassador to Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge in 1964 and peace candidate Mark O. Hatfield in ‘68 for instance—that revealed the convention’s deeper value as an engagement with serious issues.
That engagement soon had to find other outlets. The 1984 and ‘88 conventions turned out tiny fractions of the 2,000-plus delegates who’d rallied in earlier decades, reflecting several changes in the times. Democratic delegates in1988 got the nominee right—Michael Dukakis—bringing Notre Dame’s batting average back up to .500 over 12 conventions, but Dukakis’ daughter Andrea declined to show at the last minute, and organizers could only secure an address from Indiana’s junior senator, Dan Quayle, via interactive satellite.
What happened? For one thing, Roos explains, the national parties shifted the weight of decision-making to the state primaries and caucuses, reducing the conventions’ relevance. Passage in 1971 of the 26th Amendment, standardizing the voting age at 18, further devalued the hypothetical exercise. Bartholomew died in 1975, depriving the mock cons of their institutional memory. King, now the rector of Sorin Hall, notes the general lack of students’ interest in events that lie outside their career goals or social lives and require months of preparation. Then there’s the steady decline in voter participation that has shaped American political life for decades.
Still, in Roos’ judgment, 2008 “could have been a spectacular year for the Democrats,” given the response of under-30 voters to the campaign of Illinois Senator Barack Obama and the “potential for enormous contention” when they convene in August. Had Super Tuesday finished it, though, a mock convention would have bombed.
John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine. Email him at email@example.com.
Photo: University Archives.