1952 was the first year political conventions could be seen from coast to coast. The coaxial cable had crossed the continent and all the viewers in the country could watch the same picture at the same time cable channels were decades away, as was tape recordings. Live was live.
I was drafted to assist in the production of the conventions. There was some discussion of who would anchor the television broadcasts. The administrators of CBS News continued to think radio was still the primary source for important news and they would not give us Ed Murrow or any of Ed Murrow’s boys who were all first string war correspondents. A third stringer in Washington, Walter Cronkite, was available. The head of CBS News asked four of us if we approved of Cronkite. All four of us did, including me. When Walter later treated me badly, I choked back the urge to tell him that in part I had gotten him his anchor job. Four producers and the head of the news division had little choice, so Walter was chosen. He did his homework.
These were the last conventions in which the only part television played was as a spectator. There were some 15 cameras covering the convention floor. I sat at the side of Franklin Schaffner, the director who later made Patton and Papillion and who became the head of the Directors Guild. At the ’52 Republican Convention, Senator Joe McCarthy was a strong presence. Frank had one camera focused on the senator at all times. McCarthy picked his nose often. Every time he did, or looked grotesque, Frank had the technical director switch to that camera. Finally the technician complained.
Frank had a copy of the contract, which stated that the director alone called the shots. He waved it at the control panel.
“Union rules. You take the shot I call! Take 14!!”
McCarthy with a finger up his nose was shown to America.
After two picks I told Frank to stop.
For the first few days, the presence of TV was hardly noticed. The Republican Convention proceeded according to plan, and often their plans were late. I was directing the six or eight cameras inside and outside the stockyards hall while the supporter of General Douglas MacArthur prepared his entrance.
It was an interminable stage wait. I yelled to the cameramen. “Take pictures! Take pictures of anything.”
They did. Clouds, airplanes in the landing pattern at Midway. A delegate sleeping, his face hidden behind a newspaper, the curious intersections of telephone lines, and a streetcar rushing by. A homeless man, in tight close up. The sort of montage that in later years would be called video art. The montage included a delegate on the floor heating a hotdog on a portable Sterno can. The Speaker of the House saw my montage on a black and white monitor backstage.
Representative Joe Martin, at the dais, chided the delegates. “There are television cameras here. Neaten up!”
We had trouble spotting our correspondents on the floor of the International Auditorium, and I solved the problem. I bought a dozen or so flashlights so the cameramen in the balcony could find the reporter who was on the floor.
Early on, while having breakfast at a greasy spoon on South State Street I noticed the menu was made up of plastic letters punched into a fibrous wall hanging. My colleague Don Hewitt and I bought it and all the letters. We set it up in a studio and had a stagehand insert the names of the speakers and our correspondents. Then we superimposed the names. A portable graphic was invented.
I was directing when the critical scene happened—one that would never happen again in any political convention. One party boss attacked another. Thomas Dewey had been the unsuccessful presidential candidate four years earlier. He led the charge to have the party leader Robert Taft declared the nominee.
Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois wanted revenge. He pointed his finger directly at Dewey and said, “You led us down the road to defeat!”
The hall exploded.
No one has ever been that impolite in public to members of his party.
Television picked the nominee. The leaders of the Democratic party, due in the same hall in a few days immediately published instructions to their delegates to mind their dignity.
From then on the conventions were staged for TV.
Senator Robert Taft of Ohio was a political conservative whose positions came to him by respected economists. According to party rules, he should have won because he had the majority of delegates pledged to him, but Dwight Eisenhower’s appearance on-screen caused a revolt among Republican voters.
Eisenhower knew little about economics but a great deal about war, and we were at war in Korea. His major appeal consisted of one sentence: “I shall go to Korea.” On camera he had a commanding and experienced look. There seemed to be both compassion and strength in his face. His face counted more to the electorate than his policies. Taft was cold; his natural face had an unfortunate built-in glumness. Victory was all important, and the rules of the convention could be discarded, if breaking the rules could win the November election. Ike could be elected: Taft, probably not. America liked Ike. On the second ballot, television made the general the candidate. He then went on to defeat Adlai Stevenson.
On Election Day, I was at Stevenson’s headquarters in Springfield, Illinois directing a pool of cameras. At about five o’clock in the afternoon, the bar was opened and a large buffet was spread for press and celebrities.
I had some technical bad news; the signal was going out by a complicated route and my pictures were arriving in New York before the audio. Although everything was live, the lips were not synchronous with the words
Adlai Stevenson lost early in the day. At 6:00pm central standard time, a cameraman asked if he could have a bite and a drink. “They’re taking the food away and putting the corks back on the bottles. Even before the concession speech.”
The room was half empty when Governor Stevenson gave a short but witty concession speech: “A politician is a statesman who approaches every question with an open mouth.”
We closed down the mobile video truck before 9:00pm and headed back to New York.
Americans liked Ike far more than Adlai.
I directed one of the many balls on President Eisenhower’s Inaugural Day. I called the shots from a remote truck with three live cameras. Camera 2 was on a long lens covering a close up of Ike and Mamie dancing. Suddenly there was a “pouf!” at the back of the truck and I had lost Cameras 1 and 3. I was stuck with the close-up, and no way to cut away. I hung there for three minutes yelling for someone to go to another remote truck and another ball.
The next day the papers recorded “the sensitive camera work which allowed the world to see in soft focus the tenderness the President and his wife shared while dancing.”
I Like Ike, 1952 Republican Convention
Senator Joe McCarthy, 1952 Republican Convention, AlternateHistory.com
Sterno Can, ebay.com
Robert Taft for President button
Robert Taft for President, AlternateHistory.com
Ike and Mamie Eisenhower, 1953 Inaugural Ball