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ON YOUR MARK!
It is impossible not to note, this week, that the politicos of both major parties have ooched over into our (wonderful) world again and have borrowed almost everything in the way of effects, atmosphere and method they could find lying loose to facilitate the nomination of the presidential candidates. It is a point, it should be added, in which we take a certain pardonable pride. For all their solemn purpose—or, more accurately, because of their solemn purpose—American political conventions have always been great American sporting events too, and it is pleasant to be able to report that those of 1956 make no exception to the old pattern.
The Democrats referred to their Chicago ticket this time as "our team," an unabashed adoption of Republican nomenclature which the G.O.P., of course, got secondhand from us to begin with. As their hero dueled with New York's Governor Averell Harriman, Stevenson supporters (obviously former UCLA students all) set up a stunt card section in the Chicago gallery and spelled out such messages as ALL THE WAY WITH ADLAI with verve and precision. The political processes in Chicago were accompanied—and are being accompanied in San Francisco this week—by an endless and familiar uproar on the floor, in hotel lobbies and on the streets; by snake dancing, sign waving, by hoarse and awful oratory, by band music and by boos and applause which all might have stemmed straight from Ebbets Field or a campus bonfire before the big game.
In drawing these analogies between big-time politics and big-time sport—in drawing them, at any rate, in tones of satisfaction and approval—it is only fair to note that a good many critics, both foreign and domestic, take a very dim view of the whole noisy convention process simply because such similarities exist. It is easy to lament the American political convention, just as it is easy to lament American sport (the sharp practices of baseball, say, as opposed to cricket, of U.S. football as opposed to soccer) and easy to look with dismay at the fact that candidates for the most important governmental position in the world must be chosen amidst an atmosphere reminiscent of the Kentucky Derby.
While lamenting, however, it is also easy to overlook the fact that the stresses and strains and philosophies common to both institutions—and even the splendid and time-blessed vulgarity which flavors both a convention and a World Series—reflect qualities deeply ingrained in the American soul: vitality, exuberance, the instinct for reconciling teamwork with fierce individual competitiveness, a frontier-born reluctance to honor an unproved man. A Frenchman might have difficulty in understanding how Adlai Stevenson and Harry Truman could join hands with honor after their break in Chicago; the incident would be less puzzling to a man who understood the unwritten code of the brush-back pitch.
The man who competes in the arena surrenders himself to a kind of basic democracy, and it seems only right and proper that an American politician be called upon to perform there, that U.S. candidates do not "stand" for office but must "run" for it and that their backers fall prey to the national passion for victory and cheer them on their way.
Our props are yours for the duration, gentlemen—banners, drum majorettes, scouting reports and liniment. May the better contestant emerge triumphant, as the elegant Harry Balogh used to say in the old squared circle.
OTHER TIMES, OTHER CUSTOMS
There are certain things you just don't do. You don't besmirch the American flag, particularly in times of war, national crisis or an election year. If you live in the Tonga Islands, there is a taboo against touching the tribal chief or his clothing. If you are a movie actor nowadays, you are careful not to form any political affiliations left of, say, Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota. If you have won your major Y at Yale, you don't wear it in public unless you turn the sweater inside out (so only the stitching will outline the Y), thus demonstrating becoming modesty over your distinction as an athlete. If you are a baseball player, you don't whistle in the clubhouse, nor do you spit at the press and the public. At least, you shouldn't if you are Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox.
Yet there are baseball players who might get away with it. Billy Martin of the Yankees, for instance, because Billy is no symbol of rectitude; he is a Peck's Bad Boy of baseball, who is supposed to be mean and truculent on the playing field and a scrapper who would spike his grandmother for a winning run. It is hard to think of any roughneck shenanigans that a fellow like Billy would not be forgiven simply because of the sort of public personality he wears. Conversely, the upright, God-fearing ballplayers such as Gerry Coleman, Billy's Yankee teammate, or Robin Roberts, the great pitcher for the Phillies, might well be drummed out of baseball for the very behavior that is expected of Martin. The professional wrestling industry figured all this out years ago and developed clear-cut heroes and villains to satisfy the craving for symbols of good and evil. The villains are expected to perform every conceivable outrage while the heroes must suffer and win according to the code of clean sportsmanship.