Today the McLaughlin Group showed a short video of the 1924 Democratic convention in Madison Square Garden as background to a cautionary exchange on the dangers of a brokered convention. The video is accompanied by the 1932 campaign song, "Happy Days Are Here Again." This anachronism must be outed.
McLaughlin's message today was that Democrats should get a move on to avert a brokered convention. Nothing wrong with the idea that the 1924 convention took a long time - 103 ballots over ten days - as the Democrats tried to pick a challenger to incumbent Republican Calvin Coolidge. NY Governor Alfred E. Smith was deadlocked against Californian William G. McAdoo and the convention eventually settled on a compromise candidate, John W. Davis of West Virginia. The November outcome was that Democrats won only the southern states and 28.8 percent of the popular vote. The Progressive candidate got one state (Wisconsin) and 16.6 percent. Coolidge got all the other states and 54 percent.
The problem with McLaughlin's "home video" (as guest Mort Zuckerman described it with a touch of sarcasm) of the 1924 convention is that the background music is the "Happy Days" theme. It couldn't have happened. The music for this song was not written by Milton Ager until 1929. The lyrics by Jack Yellen start: "Happy days are here again, The skies above are clear again, So let's sing a song of cheer again, Happy days are here again."
We must not let the glitter of "Happy Days" be tarnished in this way. "Happy Days" was not actually used politically until the 1932 convention in Chicago, and subsequently in FDR's campaign. It was brilliantly selected, offering an alternative vision to the disaster that the U.S. economy had become under incumbent Republican President Herbert Hoover and to the many failures of Prohibition. The Democratic Party in 1932 became the locus of opposition to Prohibition as Hoover persisted in defending it, calling it a "noble experiment". FDR came out unequivocally for repeal. "Happy Days" had a double meaning - economic recovery and repeal.
I have no reason to believe that whoever put together the video deliberately tried to tar the popular Democratic anthem with the brush of eight-years-earlier electoral failure. But FDR's legacy is too important to let it go by. My father won a spot in FDR's administration via competitive exam in 1933. FDR's name was sacred when I grew up. "Happy Days" was FDR's victory cheer.
A few days ago I was at the 75th anniversary of a dinner founded by Oxford and Cambridge alumni in New York City in spring 1933 because after April 7, 1933 Americans were for the first time in a dozen years allowed to drink anything more intoxicating than half a percent alcohol. I said at the dinner: "We are celebrating today not just the end of Prohibition. We are celebrating our right to celebrate anything at all."
POSTSCRIPT I received a nice note from WS, who remembered how important the "Happy Days" theme was during the FDR era. He sent this post on to Lou in Louisville, who wrote by email:
I was a kid of 11 in 1936 and remember the song very well and liked it...I can remember my Democrat Dad whistling it and singing it around the house. He was always singing and whistling, which our canary, Bimbo, enjoyed and joined in with him. Good story! As a young kid I kept hearing about the Depression but it had no impact on me at that age. Dad could always come up with a dime for the double feature at the Shawnee Theater, the Fountain Ferry swimming pool or a kit for a WW1 fighter plane. What depression? As long as the catfish were biting where Market Street met the river how could you be wanting of anything? Reminds me of Lazybones of the same era... 'and when you go fishin' I bet you keep wishin' the fish don' bite at your line.'