Thursday, August 23, 2012

Nixon's Convention

"It was neither to the audience of the faithful delegates at the convention, nor to the press, that Richard Nixon was talking. He was talking, as he had for months, and as he had designed his convention, to the people Out There."

Theodore H. White
"The Making of the President 1972"

In modern times, with political conventions as meticulously scripted as they are, the proceedings are wrapped up in four days. Just like clockwork.

Before television began to dictate things, it often took delegates several ballots to agree on a nominee. Under such circumstances, a convention could go on indefinitely.

But, in 1972, the Republicans actually completed their convention business in three days. Of course, there wasn't much to do. The platform was decided in meetings that were conducted well before the convention began. President Richard Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, faced no obstacles to renomination.

There was no suspense of any kind.

Mostly, the convention was little more than a series of speeches. In fact, it was at the 1972 GOP convention that the tradition of the first lady addressing the gathering began.

Pat Nixon wasn't the first first lady to address a convention, but she was the first Republican first lady to do so, and her speech in 1972 established what is now a commonplace practice in American politics.

The 1972 GOP convention was also the first major party national convention to have its keynote address delivered by a woman. Others followed, but Anne Armstrong of Texas was the first.

The reason for the abbreviated gathering was simple, really. The convention originally had been planned for San Diego, but the location was changed at virtually the last minute.

The city had already been experiencing a number of problems, but then columnist Jack Anderson revealed that a memo written by a lobbyist for International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) recommended that the company make a substantial financial pledge to San Diego's bid in return for a settlement of the Department of Justice's antitrust case against ITT.

Because they were concerned about a scandal, Republicans decided three months before the convention to move everything to Miami instead. Ironically, around the time that the convention decision was being made, the seeds for a real scandal were being planted at the Watergate Hotel in Washington.

On Aug. 23, 1972, when Nixon delivered his acceptance speech, the Watergate break–in was barely two months old.

Less than a month later, the seven men who were arrested at the Democratic National Headquarters were indicted, prompting an Oval Office meeting in which White House counsel John Dean later claimed he first discussed Watergate with Richard Nixon.

There really were no indications on this night 40 years ago that Watergate was on Nixon's mind.

He was in Miami, where he was about to deliver his fifth acceptance speech to a Republican convention.

What I remember about that night is that my parents, my brother and I were in Washington, D.C., watching the convention on the TV in our motel room.

We were driving home to Arkansas after spending some time in Vermont visiting with some of my parents' friends. I suppose my brother and I were scheduled to start school the following week, and my best guess is that we probably spent the next two or three days on the road in order to get back on time.

We had spent a little time seeing the sights of Washington, but we were back in the motel room by the time Nixon spoke.

On this night, my recollection is of the four of us in those two beds, the sound of the air conditioning competing with the sound from the TV, a mixture of Nixon's voice and the roar of approval from the delegates.

Every once in awhile, my father would utter what the Nixon White House would later famously label expletives in transcripts of recordings of White House conversations. Dad despised Nixon so much that, when Oliver Stone released his biopic about Nixon in the 1990s, he refused to see it "even though they trash him in it."

Of course, Dad wasn't alone on that. Even many of Nixon's supporters despised him. There were many, many times in that 1972 presidential campaign when I heard Nixon described as "the lesser of two evils."

I frequently hear electoral choices described that way, but Nixon must have set some sort of record for it in 1972. I'm not exaggerating. No one seemed to like him.

Well, the Republican delegates seemed to like him well enough when he stood before them to give his final acceptance speech 40 years ago tonight.

"He had been around this track often enough to know the pace," wrote historian Theodore H. White, "and was hitting his adversary first with humor, then with scorn, before delivering the message."

Within two years, though, Nixon would return to California, a disgraced former president

No comments: