When John F. Kennedy wrote his famous book about political courage, PROFILES IN COURAGE, he ended the book giving examples of various figures in American history who happened to be courageous at great cost. Among these was Senator Oscar Underwood of Alabama (here played by Sidney Blackmer). Underwood is a forgotten figure today, but in the first two and a half decades of the twentieth century he was a leading figure in the Democratic Party. His greatest achievement was during Woodrow Wilson's Presidency, when he authored a tariff that was one of the lowest in American history (traditionally the Southern states favored a low tariff for it's agricultural products, while the northern ones wanted higher tariffs to protect industries - most of which were located in the north). After Wilson left office, the Republicans came in under Warren Harding. Harding's domestic programs were popular, but a series of scandals marred his administration. He died in 1923, and his successor, Calvin Coolidge, while not involved in these scandals faced explaining them in the coming election.
Underwood was one of the leading contenders for the 1924 Presidential election. The two leading ones were William Gibbs McAdoo (Wilson's son-in-law and the former Secretary of the Treasury) and Governor Al Smith of New York State. Both men were more than capable, but McAdoo, as a practicing attorney after he left the cabinet, was a Wall Street lawyer who represented one of the oil companies involved in the Teapot Dome Scandal in Harding's Administration. Smith faced two problems. He was a Roman Catholic, and a pronounced "Wet" (anti-prohibition amendment). He was also a leading figure of New York City's Tammany Hall, although one who was a great reformer.
The period from 1913 - 1932 saw the rise of nativist feelings in much of the U.S., especially the South. Anti-Semitic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-African-American feelings were symbolized by the success of D.W. Griffiths' BIRTH OF A NATION, and by the trial and lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia in 1915. The Ku Klux Klan rose to it's greatest overall strength in this period - controlling the government of several southern and mid western states (especially Indiana). Smith, being a Roman Catholic, was targeted by the Klan and it's allies to be prevented from achieving the nomination.
Unfortunately neither McAdoo nor Smith was willing to drop out of the campaign for the Democratic nomination. The convention was meeting in the old Madison Square Garden in Manhattan (where Stamford White was shot in 1906 - see RAGTIME or THE GIRL IN THE RED VELVET SWING). It was a sweltering summer, and for two weeks partisans of both candidates refused to budge, one ballot after another. Underwood was the third highest candidate, and the hope of the convention was that he would become the compromise choice. But before they did that, they asked Underwood to just avoid one topic. He had become thoroughly sick of the bigotry of the Ku Klux Klan, and they requested that he soft pedal, even back track on this issue. If he did, he would be nominated, and then probably be elected because of the Republican scandals.
Underwood's courage was his refusal to agree to this demand. He despised the Klan and would not be silenced against it. The result was that he could not be the simple answer to the deadlocked convention. William Jennings Bryan, attending what would be his last convention, attacked New York's Tammany Hall (and thus also Smith). He was booed off the podium. This led to more deadlock and party strife.
Americans, in the meantime, got amusement from Will Rogers, who saw the Democrats as acting like idiots and gave nightly impressions of them on the radio, calling role call after role call. Slowly the image of a major party committing suicide replaced the issue of Republican scandals.
In the end, on the 103rd ballot, another, lesser figure was nominated: John W. Davis of West Virginia. Now a Wall Street lawyer (and a first rate legal mind), he had been Wilson's Solicitor General and our Ambassador to the Court of St. James. But few had ever heard of him. His running mate was Charles Bryan of Nebraska, the brother of William Jennings Bryan.
This did not impress the public too much. 103 ballots for an obscure Wall Street attorney, and the brother of a man who was a three time Presidential loser. The more liberal elements of the Democrats and Republicans nominated Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin for the Presidency as a Progressive. In the three way race, despite not attracting most of the electorate, Coolidge got 55 % of the popular vote, and most of the electoral college. Davis got about 30 % of the popular vote, and the electoral votes of most of the Southern (Democrat) states. La Folette only got the electoral votes of Wisconsin, but he polled impressively for a third party candidate.
As for Underwood, he was defeated for re-election due to his attacking the Klan. He lived into the 1940s. His stand on his principles is admirable (as Kennedy suggests) but one wonders if it would have made more sense to lay the issue aside, get the nomination, fight Coolidge harder for the Presidency, and possibly win it. Then he might have turned his attention back on the issue from a position of some strength to have attacked it. Or would he have found the Klan too well entrenched by a Democratic Pary victory to attack successfully. It's a hard decision to second guess.
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