Washington and Lee University’s mock-presidential nominating convention has been held every four years since 1908, when it featured the nation’s last great silver-tongued pre-radio orator, William Jennings Bryan. Now there’s the movie.
“Mock Convention,” a documentary funded by the class of 1953 and narrated by former newsman Roger Mudd, chronicles the long history of the event at W&L. The work captures everything from Bill Clinton playing saxophone on stage 1992 to the collapse and death of former Vice President Alben W. Barkley at the lectern in 1956.
Since its beginning, “Mock Con” has correctly chosen the eventual nominee of the party out of power 19 out of 25 times. Beginning as a notoriously raucous party, it has since evolved into a data-driven exercise in political research as well as a lively celebration.
Two years ago, Class of 1953 alumnus Tyson Janney walked into the Alumni Affairs office and demanded to know why the university had missed the opportunity to create a documentary on Mock Con for its 100th anniversary in 2008. “Frankly, I wasn’t sure it would ever actually happen,” said Beau Dudley, director of Alumni Affairs. But Janney persisted, and the seeds were planted. After extensive meetings with Director of Advancement Dennis Cross, board members, and W&L President Ken Ruscio, the documentary got the go-ahead in the fall of 2013.
Original plans were to produce the documentary for use in public broadcasting, as a sort of TV series, in which the documentary would be produced and released in small segments on PBS. Deciding that was “too grandiose” and shying away from the production requirements, the idea eventually evolved into a compilation of footage primarily targeting a W&L audience. However, a public TV station in Richmond plans to run it this summer.
The cost was estimated at $75,000. The Class of 1953 agreed to take on the project as a part of its 60th reunion gift to the university. “The cute part of that story is that Gerry Lenfest is a member of the Class of ’53,” laughed Dudley. Lenfest, a media entrepreneur and philanthropist, has donated over $50 million to the university since his graduation. Provided that half of the $75,000 was raised, Lenfest agreed to make a matching donation.
Fundraising took a few months, but gathering all the footage meanwhile was no easy task.
Once all of the records were gathered, the team reached out to Bill Parks, member of the class of 1982 and owner of digital media company Dominion Post. Parks had been the videographer for Mock Con since his graduation and was happy to help out. With Parks’ help, the team “spliced and diced” 20 boxes of Mock Con materials into a finished product. Realizing the need for a narrator along the way, they reached out to Roger Mudd. Mudd, an alumnus of the class of 1950, is a former reporter and anchor for CBS and NBC news and the History Channel. Mudd lent gravitas and credibility to the documentary, said Dudley.
“He’s like a direct punchline that says ‘Believe me, if you’re asked to participate in Mock Convention, don’t pass the opportunity up.’”
Dudley, Parks and Mudd spent a lot of time in Parks’ studio in McLean, combing through the footage. About four months ago the final 29-minute product was ready. Since then, Janney has pitched the documentary to several local public-broadcasting stations. John Felton, head of the PBS station in Richmond, WCVE-TV, agreed to put it on the air. According to Felton, it is set to premiere mid-summer.
“If you think about the number of people that had a hand in this, from the basement of the library, to Mr. CBS, to a 80-year-old alumnus who had the energy to see this thing through,” said Dudley, “it’s – I hate to be sappy – but it’s a really heartwarming thing about kind of ‘go team’ attitude.”
The production team also decided to create two shorter, web-based versions of the documentary. One will be hosted online for use by the Admissions office in explaining Mock Convention for prospective students.
The Mock Con Speaker Committee will use the other to recruit potential speakers and donors for the event. “If you’re the Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Congresswoman so-and-so and you’re asked to come speak at the Mock Convention, odds are you have no idea what it is,” said Dudley.
The 2016 Mock Convention will be next Feb. 11-16, with events held as early as this May.
“The documentary has been instrumental in getting the community excited about Mock Con 2016,” said sophomore Courtney McCauley, director of operations for Mock Con. “I know it will be instrumental in years to come as well.”