Landlocked Republicans

December 05, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Did you see where House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas abandoned his brainstorm of housing delegates and other attendees on a cruise ship in New York Harbor at next summer's Republican National Convention?

Mr. DeLay backed off in the face of strong protests from the city's hotels and other businesses eager to reap the financial windfall from the quadrennial event, at which free-spending party members, the news media and other political junkies customarily take the rubber bands off their wallets.

Within the Republican Party as well, cooler heads did not care to invite allegations of elitism in the spectacle of delegates daily descending the gangplank of the foreign-registered Norwegian Dawn onto the often scruffy streets of Gotham. Former Republican Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who did a fair job of cleaning them up, surely would have been offended.

The current (Democratic convert) Republican mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, and New York's Republican governor, George E. Pataki, both are said to have applied pressure on Mr. DeLay, whose reputation for its steely application has earned him the moniker "The Hammer."

Even without such heat, though, you might have thought that political history concerning cruise ships and other water transport would have persuaded Mr. DeLay against the idea.

A one-time mayor of Cleveland named Ralph Perk once tried to lure another Republican National Convention to his city by housing delegates on ships tied up on the Cuyahoga River, famed for once having caught fire and earning Cleveland the nickname "The Mistake on the Lake."

Not surprisingly, the convention bid failed.

In 1972, G. Gordon Liddy of the Committee to Re-elect the President, the infamous CREEP that helped bring President Richard Nixon a second term, proposed chartering yachts to be tied up at Miami Beach near the Democratic National Convention, stocked with booze and ladies of the night to lure Democratic delegates into range of hidden cameras and recording devices. That idea was dropped, too.

The biggest maritime political fiasco of all, however, occurred in the fall of 1967, when the National Governors Association chartered an old trans-Atlantic liner, the SS Independence, and held its annual conference aboard from New York to the Virgin Islands and back.

As might be expected, the trip was short on business and long on revelry, with one bizarre exception. It so happened that President Lyndon B. Johnson was trying at the time to extract a strong bipartisan statement from the governors in support of his conduct of the Vietnam War, and at least one of them, Republican James A. Rhodes of Ohio, was balking.

LBJ, in a DeLay-like move, had a cable sent to his representative on the cruise ordering him to twist Mr. Rhodes' arm, and the cable fell into the hands of one Lyn Nofziger, an aide to Gov. Ronald Reagan of California. When the cable was photocopied and circulated among the also-reveling reporters, all hell broke loose.

Democratic Gov. John B. Connally of Texas, one of Mr. Johnson's closest allies and friends, took sanctuary in his cabin as the press peppered Democratic and Republican governors alike about the arm-twisting. In the end, the Vietnam resolution was scuttled and LBJ canceled plans to fly to the Virgin Islands to address the governors' conference.

On the same cruise, Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York, supporting Gov. George W. Romney of Michigan for the 1968 Republican nomination and apparently wanting to help him, told a couple of reporters on deck that he didn't "want to be president." That whopper caused a shipboard buzz too, and Rocky later had to eat those words when he challenged Mr. Nixon for the '68 nomination.

Henceforth, the SS Independence was known as "the Ship of Fools" and the floating governors' conference was never repeated.

So, as you can see, conducting politics at sea or even at dockside has not proved to be particularly rewarding for either major party. No matter. Democrats and Republicans alike seem quite as capable of foolishness on land or sea.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau, and his column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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