Nowadays, much ado about not so much

TV has conventions on best behavior

July 31, 2000|By Jack W. Germond | By Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PHILADELPHIA — 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.

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