Democrats Party In Denver Like It's 1908
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It's summertime, and the Democrats are holding their national convention in Denver. A lame-duck Republican president is nearing the end of his term. He's an outdoorsman, a man's man, who feels a strong bond with Texas. He wears cowboy hats.
The Democrats want to regain control of the White House. Eight years earlier there had been a heated contest, a tight presidential race in which both sides felt as if the future of the country hung in the balance.
The year was 1908. And the parallels with 2008 don't end there.
Just like 100 years ago, the Democratic National Convention is being held in Denver. Last time around, President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, was finishing his first full term and had announced he wouldn't run again. His handpicked successor was his secretary of war, William Howard Taft.
In Denver 1908, the Democrats would select William Jennings Bryan to run against Taft. Bryan, a populist renowned for his lyrical oratory, had already lost two presidential elections.
A century later, the Democrats return to nominate Barack Obama, whose lyrical oratory and populist ideas have a hint of William Jennings Bryan in them.
Denver Then And Now
This is a tale of one city, two conventions. Some things about holding a convention in Denver have changed; others have not.
Then: "It was considered gauche for a presidential nominee to even come to the convention," says Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley. During the 1908 proceedings, "Bryan was sitting in his home in Lincoln, Neb., receiving telephone reports."
Now: Obama is planning to give a high-profile acceptance speech on Thursday night, Aug. 28.
Then: Guided by President Roosevelt, the Republicans in 1908 wanted to set aside large tracts of wilderness in the West for conservation, says Brinkley, who is working on The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, 1858-1919. The Democrats, including Bryan, preferred that the land be used for timber and mining.
Now: These days, Republicans are generally seen as the party more likely to argue for drilling, mining and timbering on public lands.
Then: America in 1908 had been in a financial downturn, and immigration was a huge issue. American forces had occupied a foreign country, the Philippines, for many years. Bryan opposed the occupation.
Now: The country is again in financial straits, and immigration again is a large-looming issue. American forces have been in Iraq for many years. Obama opposed the war.
Then: There was a political dogfight over the West, Brinkley says. "The North was heavily Republican and the South was Democratic," he says.
Now: "We have red states and blue states," Brinkley says. "Both parties still want to win Western states."
As for Colorado's political leanings, Brinkley says, "it's exactly the same now as it was 100 years ago. It's a 50/50 state. It's a bellwether state." In both 1908 and 2008, he says, the Democrats demonstrated their commitment to the West by choosing Denver.
It didn't hurt that in 1908, Denver's Democratic mayor, Robert Speer, and convention organizers offered the Democrats a $100,000 payment to bring the convention to town, says Colorado state historian William Convery. "It was almost a bribe," he says.
A Gold Camp Spectacle
The public perception of Denver at the time was of a rough-and-raucous, Wild West town. "It was only 50 years old, and a lot of people still remembered Denver as a gold camp," Convery says.
Speer hoped to alter that worldview. He used his considerable local power to build wide, tree-lined streets, a fancy new city auditorium and a magnificent, colorfully lit Prismatic Electric Fountain in the city's Ferril Lake.
Townsfolk and visitors sat lakeside and watched 90-foot geysers illuminated by various colored lights. The spectacle was dedicated in May 1908. It ceased operation in the 1930s and fell into disrepair. A century later, the fountain has been restored and, Convery says, the lights will be turned on in time for the convention.
The 2008 meeting will play host to 6,000 delegates, 14,000 Democratic muckety-mucks and 15,000 members of the media. In 1908, there were 1,008 delegates; five were women and there were no people of color, Convery says.
Convention organizers decorated the streets with state themes and brought snow from higher elevation for midsummer snowball battles. They imported several dozen Apaches to pump up the authenticity of the Wild West town. Denver newspaperman Damon Runyon wrote that the only difference between the Democrats and the Native Americans was that the delegates had more badges on their chests, Convery says.
The delegates convened in the city's new blond-brick auditorium. The building still stands as an opera house. Most delegates arrived by train. They were greeted by a brass band at Union Station, which is also still there. Many party operatives, including the Tammany Hall delegation from New York, stayed in the still famous Brown Palace Hotel.
The 1908 Democrats voted down suggestions of equal voting rights for women and African Americans. Bryan ran on the slogan of "equal rights for all, special privileges for none." In reality, he was skittish about offending Southern Democrats.
Rocky Mountain High
In anticipation of the 1908 gathering, Convery says, the city's entertainment venues published a discreet guide to Denver's brothels, saloons, racetracks and vaudeville theaters. Houses of ill repute referred to their working women as "boarders."
Hooch flowed freely in Denver and, according to one observer, many delegates spent the first few days testing the effects of high altitude on alcohol consumption. One wrote home that he was "35 highballs above sea level," Convery says.
Things are tamer now, but last month an old blue law was struck down just in time for the 2008 convention. For the first time in decades, Denver alcohol stores will be able to sell hard liquor on Sundays.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.