Don’t miss Orioles players, John Means & Paul Fry, as they guest host at our Brews and O’s event!

Nowadays, much ado about not so much


Jack W. Germond, who covered his first national political convention in 1960, takes a wry, irreverent and occasionally serious look back.

PHILADELPHIA - For veteran political reporters gathered for the Republican National Convention, tension is growing as we consider the stories we will have to cover in the next few days. Will Gary Bauer be allowed to speak? What will Alan Keyes say? Will John McCain be shut out of prime time? Will Elizabeth Dole use her hand-held microphone again? Who will be the first intrepid reporter to expose the Philly cheesesteak sandwich? Or the ingredients in Philadelphia scrapple?

This is the dirty little secret about national political conventions: Nothing much happens. Every 20 years or so there is a legitimate news story - something either interesting, significant or, rarely, both. But not often.

Even when there is a story, it rarely has anything to do with what is supposed to be the main business of the convention - the choice of a presidential nominee. That is decided by the primaries and caucuses. The last time there was even a soupcon of suspense about the nominee was at the Republican convention in Kansas City, Mo., in 1976, when Ronald Reagan briefly threatened the nomination of President Gerald R. Ford. And even that threat was largely illusory.

But in the days before all politicians were laundered and all calculations centered on how it would look on television, conventions sometimes exploded into genuine debates that told a great deal about the political party involved. The 1964 Republican convention in San Francisco was a case in point.

The prime contenders for the nomination that year had been Barry Goldwater, the conservative senator from Arizona, and Nelson A. Rockefeller, the liberal second-term governor of New York. By convention time, Goldwater had defeated Rockefeller in a decisive California primary, then held off another liberal surrogate, Gov. William Scranton of Pennsylvania. So there was no question who would be nominated.

But the bad blood between the two wings of the party made for a highly contentious convention as the conservatives delighted in burying "the eastern liberal establishment" led by Rockefeller. Indeed, when the New York governor took the podium, the Goldwater delegates and the galleries drowned him out with boos and catcalls. And they cheered wildly when Goldwater declared in his acceptance speech that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and ... moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

'It stinks around here'

Reporters were also whipping boys. Conservative delegates crowded around the press stands screaming imprecations, and when reporters went onto the convention floor to interview delegates, they frequently were accosted and berated. When several of us took a well-known Goldwater operative to dinner one night at Ernie's, then the ultimate in San Francisco restaurants, a group of delegates refused a table near ours "because it stinks around here" and chastised the Goldwater man for dining with us.

There was some pragmatic political business done, however. I was startled when the roll call reached New York and Rockefeller's handpicked state chairman Fred Young announced, "87 votes for Nelson Rockefeller, five for Barry Goldwater." I couldn't imagine anyone breaking ranks with the home-state governor. I hurried down the aisle and asked Young, "Freddy, who are the five?" To which he replied: "Anybody that needs them."

In the end, the turmoil at the convention reflected the party. Many of the moderates sat on their hands or simply took a walk during the general election campaign, making Goldwater's landslide loss to President Lyndon B. Johnson even more of a debacle.

Democrats in '68

The Republicans, however, have not had a monopoly on self-destruction. In 1968, the Democratic convention in Chicago set a standard unlikely ever to be matched for turmoil and tumult. The context was a spring and summer of extraordinary events - the rise of Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and then Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York as primary challengers to Johnson for the nomination, Johnson's withdrawal announcement March 31, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and then the assassination of Kennedy in June on the very night he had won the California primary and appeared to have the nomination in hand.

Now the party was meeting to nominate Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, a much-admired political veteran but a man burdened by his association with Johnson and, more to the point, Johnson's conduct of the war in Vietnam. That was the issue that had brought McCarthy and Kennedy into the race and now brought tens of thousands of demonstrators into Chicago.

In the convention hall, emotions were out of control, and the rhetoric was bitter and unforgiving. I sat 10 feet away in a press stand just to the left of the podium listening to Mayor Richard J. Daley shouting language at the speaker, Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, that even by today's standards cannot be published in a daily newspaper. On the final night of the convention, Daley packed the galleries with city workers whose roars of approval or disapproval controlled the scene.

Tear gas seeps into hotel

Outside the hall there was what a subsequent investigation called "a police riot," as Chicago cops dealt with the demonstrators with nightsticks and horses. The Conrad Hilton, the headquarters hotel, reeked of tear gas, some of which seeped in after police pushed some protesters through the plate-glass window of the hotel's street-level bar, the Haymarket Lounge. From the upper floors some of the protesters dropped bags of urine on the police below, further enraging them.

There were other problems. But many could be dealt with in a practical way, meaning with bribes. The telephone company technicians were on strike, but we found someone who, for a modest gratuity, would run an extra line and some telex lines into a suite at the hotel so we could file our stories.

Getting to the convention hall was a chore, but for a few hundred dollars, we bought a special pass that went onto the windshield of our station wagon and allowed us through all the barricades to a reserved parking space next to the press entrance. Moreover, when our vehicle wasn't using the space, a cop stood guard to make sure no one took it.

'Inside information'

Even more than most political conventions, this one was a fertile ground for wild rumors. One day one of my superiors with the Gannett Newspapers, a publisher, came to me with "inside information" - he would not disclose his source - that Ted Kennedy was plotting an eleventh-hour candidacy to "steal the nomination" from Humphrey.

It didn't make sense, but at conventions, the rumor that is an acorn at breakfast is a full-grown oak tree by dinner. And, besides, reporters don't prosper by blowing off publishers' hot tips. So I hurried across the street to the Blackstone Hotel, where Kennedy and his entourage were staying. And there were all the senator's principal political advisers heavily into the bloody Marys and a long lunch. So much for that plot. The next day there was a new one: Lyndon Johnson himself was coming to the convention to nominate Gov. John B. Connally of Texas.

In a deep hole

Taken together, the four nights of television coverage of that convention put Humphrey and his running mate, Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, in a deep hole for the general election campaign against Richard M. Nixon. Opinion polls showed that the chaos on the floor and in the streets had evoked a harshly negative reaction from voters, damaging enough so there was reason to believe that Humphrey might have reversed Nixon's razor-thin margin in November with a more promising start.

No one emerged from that convention unscarred. Even the sainted Gene McCarthy had disappointed and alienated many of the kids who had supported him all year - "We're clean for Gene" - by his cool detachment from what was happening in the streets. The day after the convention, I invited two young women who had staffed his primary pressrooms to a farewell thank-you lunch at one of Chicago's best restaurants. We were no sooner seated than both burst into tears and began recounting their disillusionment. Other diners watched, wondering what beastly thing I had said to these innocent women.

Slow learners

When it came to understanding what the convention had done to them, the Democrats were slow learners. Four years later, at Miami Beach, they turned the convention floor into such a wild scene that the presidential nominee, George S. McGovern, couldn't make his acceptance speech until 2 a.m., a tad beyond prime time anywhere other than Hawaii and Alaska. And, again, polls showed that voters had come away from their television sets with an image of the Democrats as out of control.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter had locked up the nomination by defeating Ted Kennedy in the primaries. But the convention managed to convey a picture of something less than total harmony, particularly on the final night when the TV audience was largest.

Kennedy showed up late for the customary unity tableau, forcing Carter to wait and then obliging the president to pursue him around the podium, unsuccessfully, in quest of the usual "armpit shot" picture of victor and vanquished waving to the multitudes.

In 1984, the Democratic convention in San Francisco was a picnic for those who were there, either as delegates or reporters. Once Walter Mondale had chosen Geraldine Ferraro for vice president and the delegates heard spellbinding speeches from Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson, the story was over. And because the sessions were scheduled for prime time in the East, there was ample time to eat well.

But there were some discordant notes. At one caucus of black delegates, for example, supporters of Jackson's candidacy booed Andrew Young, who had been at Martin Luther King's side when Jackson was a college kid, because of his backing of Mondale. At another, they even booed Coretta Scott King for the same reason.

Mondale and his managers also threatened the aura of good feeling right before the convention by plotting to dump Charles T. Manatt, a Californian, as national party chairman and replace him with Bert Lance, the former budget director from Georgia. Unhappily for them, the plot leaked the Friday night before the convention when Ann Getty, one of those oil Gettys, was holding a dinner for 100 or so prominent Democrats and a few press people at her home overlooking the Pacific.

Manatt was there, and so were many of the Democrats' major fund-raisers from California, all outraged at the cabal and the fact that they had heard about it over dinner. At my table, one man was particularly vehement and profane, so I suggested he sounded as if he deserved to be consulted. To which he replied: "I just raised $185,000 for Fritz Mondale this year." Enough said.

When the story appeared in the morning newspapers, the attempt to replace Manatt was dropped. As a reporter told the chairman, "Chuck, they've done something for you you've never been able to do for yourself. They've made you a sympathetic figure."

This kind of thing doesn't happen anymore. On the contrary, the conventions are so controlled and bloodless that any display of spontaneous but normal human behavior seems stunning. And the press is reduced to acting as if trivial events are important.

Focusing on the trivial

At the 1992 Democratic convention, for example, there were endless stories about whether and when candidate Jerry Brown would be able to address the convention. And there were others about whether then-Gov. Robert P. Casey of Pennsylvania would be allowed the slot he was seeking to excoriate his party for its support of abortion rights. But by 1996, the Democrats were so controlled that the "story" of the week was about a political consultant who allowed a call girl to listen in when he spoke with President Clinton on the telephone.

The Republicans slipped up slightly at Houston in 1992, when they made the mistake of permitting Patrick J. Buchanan to deliver his harshest rhetoric in prime time. But they made no similar mistake four years ago at San Diego. The big story then was how Elizabeth Dole used Oprah Winfrey's microphone technique.

'Dodd for Vice President'

Contrived events, however, are nothing new. At the 1964 Democratic convention in Atlantic City, reporters whiling away an evening at the 500 Club heard that "Dodd for Vice President" posters were being painted in the convention hall sign shop. I hurried over the next morning and found it was true.

This seemed to mean that Sen. Thomas J. Dodd of Connecticut (father of the current senator) was on Johnson's "short list" for vice president, a big story indeed for those of us covering for a Hartford newspaper. But it proved hollow. Johnson and Dodd were old cronies from their youth, and the president started a rumor because it might help Dodd get re-elected. There was, as is so often the case at conventions, less than meets the eye.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad