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Thursday, May 6, 2010 09:09 pm

Chicago political conventions, stories from Lincoln to Clinton

Chicago alderman to discuss his book at presidential museum May 10

Chicago Alderman Edward Burke appears May 10 at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.
Chicago Alderman Edward Burke’s career as an author had an unlikely beginning.

“I was sitting at a table with a writer and professor named Craig Sautter,” recalls Burke. “We were talking about all the great political conventions that had taken place in Chicago. But all anybody ever seemed to talk about was the fear in the streets in 1968 when the police and Vietnam War protesters struggled before a worldwide television audience. We both said somebody ought to write a book about all the other Chicago conventions because there were so many good stories to tell. Then we decided it might as well be us who told those stories.”

Out of that conversation came Inside the Wigwam: Chicago Presidential Conventions, 1860-1996. Named for the temporary, wooden meeting hall where the 1860 convention took place, the book is the first of three Burke has co-written on Chicago historical topics.

 With the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Presidential nomination in Chicago occurring this month, Burke will mark the occasion with an interview focusing on his book about Chicago’s presidential nominating conventions and on his own 41-year city council career. The event, which will include a book signing, will take place 7 p.m. Monday, May 10, at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum’s Union Theater.

Part of the museum’s popular “Evenings to Remember” series, Burke’s appearance will focus on how supporters of Lincoln, whom he calls “the darkest of dark horse candidates” snatched the nomination away from a better known, better funded candidate, U.S. Sen. William H. Seward of New York, setting the stage for Lincoln to go on to win the presidency on the eve of the Civil War. A special exhibit of newly acquired artifacts and memorabilia from the 1860 convention will be on display in the museum’s Treasures Gallery.

 A former Chicago police officer and lawyer, Burke has been a member of the Chicago city council since 1969 and has long been regarded as the council’s unofficial historian. He says he was drawn to the Lincoln nomination story in part because it happened at the first Chicago convention, but also because it was such a surprise. “Lincoln had already lost in a senate campaign two years earlier. He was a private attorney and not seriously considered by many for the office of president.”

Burke credits Bloomington Judge David Davis, who adjourned the Eighth Circuit Court so “his boys” could work full time for Lincoln’s nomination, as one of the key players in Lincoln’s unlikely nomination. In his book, Burke recounts how “Lincoln allies filed through Davis’ quarters where the liquor flowed, yarns were spun, free cigar smoke hung thick and deals were hammered out.” Davis was later a U.S. senator and a Supreme Court justice.

“People don’t realize,” says Burke, “that Lincoln didn’t even attend his own nominating convention. It was considered unseemly for a candidate to do so back then, so he stayed home in Springfield close by the telegraph while his friends worked the convention on his behalf.”

Burke’s research, he says, mined every resource he could find. He combed scholarly papers and university archives and read newspaper accounts filed away at the Chicago History Museum. Much of his research relied on the actual minutes of convention proceedings, transcribed in shorthand by eyewitnesses.

Burke’s book chronicles all 27 presidential conventions held in Chicago and concludes with the Democrat Convention of 1996 — the last time Chicago hosted the event. Burke laments the lack of relevance of today’s highly scripted and controlled conventions, but says political conventions can still produce some surprises because of the reach of television.

“Everything in life is timing,” he says. “Look at Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democrat convention in Boston that catapulted him to national prominence. The exposure it gave him on a worldwide stage — I don’t think he could have gotten that kind of attention any other way. In some ways, presidential conventions still matter. A lot.”

“Evenings to Remember” featuring Alderman Edward Burke interviewed on stage at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum by WSIU-TV Carbondale “Illinois Lawmakers” host Jak Tichnor will be open to the public, admission free. The program is 7 p.m. May 10. Reservations are required and may be made by calling 217-558-8934. Copies of Burke’s book may be purchased from the Museum Gift Shop that evening. “Evenings to Remember” is sponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation. Julie Cellini is a member of the foundation board.
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