Karl Rove: This Day in Convention History -- FDR and the voice from the sewer

As the 1940 election approached, it was widely thought President Franklin D. Roosevelt would not seek an unprecedented third term. He fostered this impression by encouraging leading Democrats to run.

Among those FDR urged to seek the Democratic nomination were Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Works Progress Administration chief Harry Hopkins, Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace, Solicitor General Robert Jackson, Farm Security Agency Director (and former Indiana governor) Paul McNulty, Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley of Kentucky, Montana Sen. Burton K. Wheeler and New York Gov. Herbert Lehman.

By summer 1939, FDR told Democratic Party chairman and Postmaster General James Farley that he would not seek a third term. The cagey Farley then began thinking about running himself.

But in reality, FDR was duplicitous. He wanted a third term – badly – and knew the more New Deal supporters he got to look at the race, the less likely that one of them could cobble together a majority at the Democratic Convention. Keeping the situation fluid kept the president’s options open.

In reality, FDR was duplicitous. He wanted a third term – badly – and knew the more New Deal supporters he got to look at the race, the less likely that one of them could cobble together a majority at the Democratic Convention. Keeping the situation fluid kept the president’s options open.

One hopeful Roosevelt didn’t encourage was Vice President John Nance Garner. FDR believed the Texan was too conservative and was unlikely to carry forward the New Deal agenda. “If we nominate conservative candidates or lip-service candidates on a straddle-bug platform,” Roosevelt declared in an August 1939 speech to Young Democrats, “I personally … will find it impossible to have any active part in such an unfortunate suicide of the old Democratic Party.”

When Farley visited FDR at his Hyde Park, N.Y., estate in June 1940, hoping to get a definitive statement that he would not seek or accept the party’s nomination, the party chairman failed to smoke Roosevelt out. The president talked around the issue until Farley left, discouraged and angry.

The president’s position was still unclear on July 15, when Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly greeted Democratic delegates. Kelly packed the galleries and then used his welcoming remarks to kick off a Draft Roosevelt movement, declaring, “God has sent a guardian of our liberties, the kind of man that mankind needs, our beloved president, Franklin D. Roosevelt.” This provoked a loud and enthusiastic demonstration before Kelly closed by saying, “We are praying for a man who will give, if need be, of his life’s blood, a man who may be crucified but never corrupted, a man who will recognize this as the call of civilization itself.”

Roosevelt, however, was too practical a politician to leave the outcome to civilization’s call, so he made a call of his own. He phoned Farley to suggest he arrange to have FDR’s renomination made by acclimation. The Democratic chairman refused, dismissing the president’s suggestion as “perfectly silly” and warning it would “wreck the Democratic Party in November.”

Now feeling betrayed by the president, Farley repaid his chief in his speech to the convention, reciting the Roosevelt administration’s achievements without ever mentioning the president’s name. This was followed by a lackluster speech by House Speaker William Bankhead (Tallulah’s father) of Alabama. When the evening ended, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes wired Washington, “The convention is bleeding to death.”

Things changed the next night. Barkley headlined the evening, delivering a speech in his role as permanent convention chairman. A consummate speaker, the Kentuckian soon had delegates roaring as he ridiculed Republicans and cheering as he extolled the New Deal’s accomplishments. Like Farley, he didn’t use the president’s name, at least not until he neared the end of his speech. When he did, there was a brief silence before the tens of thousands in the arena exploded.

For nearly half an hour, delegates and guests cheered, screamed and sang along when the house band swung into FDR’s 1932 campaign song, “Happy Days Are Here Again,” and in a tribute to his service as Navy secretary, “Anchors Aweigh.” State placards, flags and large portraits of FDR were frantically waved. Cowbells, whistles and horns rent the air until the crowd spent its energy and the demonstration sputtered out.

Barkley had stood quietly at the podium as the scene played itself out. When order was restored, he told the gathering, “I have an additional message from the president of the United States.” He then paraphrased a letter FDR had given him to share. Roosevelt “has never had, and has not today, any desire or purpose to continue” as president. Having said that, he wanted “to make it clear that all of the delegates of this convention are free to vote for any candidate.” With that, Barkley left the stage.

It took a few moments for stunned delegates to realize Roosevelt had given permission to nominate him for a third term. The floor and galleries were stirring and buzzing when, all of a sudden, the sound system began to hum and a voice boomed out. “We want Roosevelt! we want Roosevelt!” then “Roosevelt! Roosevelt! Roosevelt!” over and over again. For variety, the voice chanted, “Chicago wants Roosevelt!” “New York wants Roosevelt!” “Illinois wants Roosevelt!” even “America needs Roosevelt!” and “Everybody wants Roosevelt!”

The voice was that of Chicago’s superintendent of sewers, Thomas P. McGarry, whom Mayor Kelly had planted in the basement with a microphone. His calls kicked off an hourlong demonstration even more enthusiastic than the earlier one. During it, Barkley reappeared on the stage holding FDR’s picture. The convention was effectively stampeded, and delegates left the hall that night bent on nominating Roosevelt a third time.

When the delegates finally voted, it was no contest. FDR received 946 ½ votes to Farley’s 72 ½ to Garner’s 61 and Maryland Sen. Millard Tydings’ 9 and a half.

Farley moved to make the nomination unanimous, but later he refused to take a role in Roosevelt’s general election campaign.

He never forgave the president for misleading him, the nation and the party about his intentions for a third term.

Author’s note: For more information, check out Conrad Black’s “Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom” (PublicAffairs, November 2003) and Susan Dunn’s “1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler—the Election amid the Storm” (Yale University Press, June 4, 2013).