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Scene at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.John Phillips—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
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Soapy Williams sings the Star Spangled Banner during the 1952 Democratic convention in Chicago.
Mrs. Estes Kefauver (center, in white hat) watching the action at the 1952 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Michigan Senator Blair Moody (right) and Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. confer during the 1952 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Mrs. John F. Kennedy at the 1956 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Left to right: Senator Estes Kefauver, Gov. Frank Clement, Sen. Albert Gore and candidate Adlai Stevenson at the 1956 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Delegates strategize on the floor during the 1956 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Scene at the 1956 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Two-way radios were used to interview delegates on the floor at the 1956 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Georgia Congresswoman Iris Blitch, a staunch segregationist during her time in Congress, being saluted by her state's delegates before her speech at the 1956 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Democratic politician Averell Harriman watches former President Harry S. Truman support him during the 1956 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Harriman lost the nomination to Adlai Stevenson that year, and in 1952.
Eleanor Roosevelt addresses delegates at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, where she supported Illinois' Adlai Stevenson over the party's eventual nominee, John F. Kennedy.
Not originally published in LIFE. Senator John F. Kennedy speaks at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.
Adlai Stevenson (center) and Lyndon Johnson (right) congratulate John F. Kennedy on winning the party's presidential nomination at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.
Delegates from Illinois show their support for President Lyndon Johnson at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Robert F. Kennedy (right), his wife Ethell and Democratic stalwart Averell Harriman at a reception for Jackie Kennedy during the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
President Lyndon Johnson with his running mate Hubert Humphrey during the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Demonstrators protest American involvement in the Vietnam War outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, 1968.
Not originally published in LIFE. Connecticut delegates and Eugene McCarthy supporters Paul Newman (right) and playwright Arthur Miller during the contentious 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
A protestor is grabbed by police during a demonstration outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, 1968.
California delegate Charles Anderson burns his credentials to protest the party's decision to seat only half of Georgia's civil rights delegation during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, 1968.
Chicago mayor Richard Daley — a Democrat who served for five terms and remains one of the most controversial figures in Chicago political history — on the floor during the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
Delegates for Alabama's George Wallace cheer behind a delegate for New York's Shirley Chisholm—the first African-American woman ever elected to Congress—during the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach.
George McGovern delegation co-chair Willie Brown, Jr.—later the powerful, long-time Speaker of the California State Assembly and, eventually, the mayor of San Francisco—embraces an unidentified woman during the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach. McGovern would win his party's nomination, but was crushed by Richard Nixon during the presidential election, winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
Scene at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.
John Phillips—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
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LIFE's Best Convention Photos: The Democrats

Sep 02, 2012

Politics and politicians of every stripe always held a central place in LIFE Magazine's mission, as articulated by LIFE founder Henry Luce, "to see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud ... to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed...."

And while the magazine's approach to touchstone events — World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, the Space Race, the Vietnam War — as well as famous (and notorious) public figures cemented LIFE's reputation as the photojournalism publication of the 20th century, its straightforward political coverage was, in its own way, equally powerful. After all, to make politics, and politicians, visually exciting is no mean feat.

LIFE magazine July 25 1960 Howard Sochurek—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

In recent years, of course, conventions have come to resemble coronations rather than the passionate, quarrelsome rumbles of old. But as many of the pictures here from Democratic conventions of old attest, every once in awhile the carefully stage-managed spectacle could go thrillingly -- and sometimes, as in Chicago in 1968, frighteningly -- off the rails.

At the 1948 convention in Philadelphia, for example, boisterous Southern delegates -- opposed to the Democratic platform that, in their eyes, attacked the "Southern way of life" -- actually walked out in protest. That same year, the "Dixiecrats" formed the States' Rights Democratic Party and ran their own candidate, South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, for president. (Thurmond won 39 electoral votes in the fall, and nearly scuttled Democratic president Harry Truman's chances at re-election.)

But whether or not the convention is filled with tension or a yawn-fest, every four years, as the delegates don their pins and loud, crazy clothes and wave their flags and pennants, and the states' names bob and weave above the crowd like unimaginatively designed carnival puppets — every four years, we pay attention to the spectacle. Every four years, we listen to the speech-makers who hope and trust that speaking before their party's bigwigs and being seen by millions of people watching on TV will somehow help their own chances on the national stage in the next election, or the one after that. We watch and we listen not because we believe that there will be any stunning upsets or even any especially surprising moments, but because the conventions are probably the best and most efficient way for the average citizen to gauge the mood of both parties.

Here, LIFE.com presents a selection of LIFE's best pictures from the Democrats' national conventions across several decades. Famous Dems are here in abundance -- FDR, Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, the Kennedys -- as are other long-forgotten pols who were players in their day and the folks who, in the end, provide both parties' conventions with their real energy and their often surprising level of fun: namely, the shouting, laughing, weirdly garbed, wide-eyed delegates.

The American political process has never been pretty. The photos here, however, remind us that, pretty or not, that process can make for wonderful, memorable imagery.

See LIFE's best photographs from GOP conventions.

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