by William A. Harris, Deputy Director
This year marks a major turning point in Presidential nominating conventions with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The quadrennial exercises in party politics have without question evolved over the years. During FDR’s active life in national politics, the conventions were raucous affairs, full of intrigue and electoral horse trading. Presidents and candidates were made and broken at them. It was all part of the process, but visible to few Americans.
In 1940, the conventions remained key to Presidential politics. Though Roosevelt held firm control of party machinery, he was seeking an unprecedented third term with no guarantee of re-nomination. There was also the thorny question of the Vice Presidency. John Nance Garner was being retired. The Republicans faced a wide open field after two disastrous national elections. Anything could happen at a convention. FDR knew it.
The 1940 conventions would also prove precedent setting for another reason—television. Broadcast TV was in its infancy in 1940, and commercially available sets had only been available since the previous year. Yet one national network, NBC, comprised of three stations, had grand broadcasting plans. Philadelphia would host the Republicans, and NBC had a coaxial cable connection there from New York City, enabling almost gavel-to-gavel coverage.
The Republican Convention broadcasts in June were enormously successful for NBC. Though viewers were scarce—only several thousand sets had been sold—the network coverage proved the viability of TV for major events. The convention turned out to be an exciting affair with dark horse candidate Wendell Willkie emerging as the nominee. He appeared live on TV for a five-minute acceptance speech to deafening cheers from the crowd. It was riveting.
Press coverage of the broadcasts was widely laudatory. Though television lights were glaringly bright and hot, forcing some correspondents, including NBC commentators to don sunglasses in the arena, lucky viewers were mesmerized. The broadcasts ran six to eight hours daily whereas radio coverage was fragmentary. After watching Willkie on the convention broadcast, one columnist noted that the Indiana Republican, a dynamic, colorful orator, was made for TV. He judged FDR better suited to radio.
The Democrats hosted their 1940 convention in Chicago. This presented a dilemma for NBC. The network wanted live coverage, but limited television technology made it impossible. So NBC developed another plan. Partnering with American Pathe newsreels, they would fly 1000 feet of film (the length of a standard 16 mm film reel or about ten minutes worth of film) to NYC, and each day broadcast filmed highlights instead–not ideal, but better than nothing.
Recognizing the success of the Republican coverage, and knowing they had an unusual opponent in Wendell Willkie, Democrats agreed to this arrangement. Each day at 3:30 PM and 9:00 PM, the network would broadcast the ten-minute films. With no plans to attend the convention, FDR approved the plan. He would follow the convention by radio and telephone from the White House—not by TV.
Though FDR had embraced radio and played an outsize role in popularizing the medium for political and policy communications, he did not do so for television, though he held the distinction of being the first President to appear on TV at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. We can speculate about his general disinterest in television. Maybe he thought the infant medium was too limited, or maybe he thought Willkie was better on TV, too.
FDR had agreed to the installation of a television at the White House in late 1938. However, that plan had been shelved after the manufacturer publicized the effort in order to sell television sets. He did allow NBC to install one at Springwood, his Hyde Park home, in mid-1939, but he seemed more interested in having the technicians service his radios. A TV did eventually get installed at the White House, but it was more of a curiosity than a source of information or entertainment.
The 1940 Democratic National Convention also proved an exciting affair. FDR had played coy about a third term, though he wanted re-nomination. After a slow start to plans for a convention draft, he dispatched Eleanor Roosevelt to Chicago to speak on his behalf, proving his political prowess once again. All that was left to do was accept the nomination. He did this shortly after midnight on July 19, 1940, speaking before radio microphones and newsreel cameras in his shirtsleeves at the White House.
Later that morning, the American Pathe newsreel footage of the President delivering his speech was sent to New York City where it was developed and shown on TV at 3:30 PM, making FDR the first President to appear on television accepting his party’s nomination. Only a short snippet of his half-hour speech made it into the ten-minute broadcast. The newsreel footage was also shown in theaters.
One intrepid viewer in New York City, Robert Eichberg, captured the moment in photographs that he sent to FDR a few days later after having them developed. The size of his TV screen is lost in these pictures, but most likely it was no more than seven to nine inches and probably looked similar to the President’s Springwood set. FDR would also appear on TV that fall in a campaign address at Madison Square Garden also carried by NBC.
NBC maintained a meager television schedule during the war years. Other organizations, such as Dumont (an early TV network after the war), also tried to interest the President in televising events, such as his 1941 birthday ball. The telecast would come directly to the White House from a Washington, DC, hotel, enabling the President to see, not simply hear over radio, the festivities. His response was a terse “no.”
FDR’s aides resisted efforts by NBC to broadcast the President’s White House speeches in March 1945. We can speculate that it had as much to do with the President’s appearance and declining health as it did with fairness (see letter below). CBS and Dumont would most likely have found a way to make it work if given the chance. And radio, print, and newsreel pool coverage had worked during the war. FDR would die five weeks later.
But TV lived on, and after the war, television manufacturers and broadcast networks began a stunning technological and commercial advance that would make TV the dominant medium in the United States within a decade. Willkie may have been more suited for television in 1940, but FDR did just fine by radio. After all, he won a third term.