Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Politics

Florida's last political summer: 1972

The last time Florida hosted a political convention, Richard Nixon was in the White House, Archie Bunker was in our living rooms and the nation was torn apart by Vietnam. It was 1972, and Republicans and Democrats both held their conventions in Miami Beach, known as "the sun and fun capital of the world," thanks to its biggest booster, Jackie Gleason (a Nixon supporter). It was the last time both conventions were held in the same city.

San Diego was originally scheduled to host the Republicans, but the GOP abandoned California after the embarrassing revelation that technology company ITT would give $400,000 to the convention in return for favorable treatment in a pending antitrust investigation.

Instead, Miami Beach, a garish strip of oceanfront hotels, 7 miles long and a mile wide, was the center of the political universe that summer.

Hippies and yippies, neo-Nazis and "women's libbers," Jane Fonda and Jerry Rubin, Strom Thurmond and Dr. Spock, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman — they all descended on the retirement haven of 87,000, smaller than the city of Clearwater of today.

Florida's population in 1972 was 7.4 million, slightly more than a third of what it is now, and politically, the state was the opposite of what it has become: Republicans had virtually no power in state politics, like Democrats today.

"It was an entirely different atmosphere," recalls Al Austin, the Tampa developer and chief architect of this year's Tampa event. As chairman of Hillsborough County for Nixon, he attended his first convention in 1972 and remembers Tampa friends treating him like "a total whacko" for getting so active in Republican politics.

Then, as now, Florida was "in play." It was a Democratic state that Nixon wanted to win as part of his "Southern strategy," and Democrats saw George McGovern as too liberal. George Wallace won the state's presidential primary that March with 42 percent of the vote.

Democrats nominated McGovern in mid July, and Republicans renominated Nixon ("Now More than Ever") in late August at a Republican event that became a magnet for protesters, officially known as "non-delegates."

They pitched tents at Flamingo Park, five blocks from Miami Beach Convention Hall, and some of them burned the American flag, smoked pot in public and skinny-dipped in a city swimming pool.

"It was awful. They were a terrific nuisance," Austin says.

Covering the convention for the Tampa Bay Times (then the St. Petersburg Times), Eugene Patterson described the contrast of "bra-less SDS girls in blue jeans denouncing capitalism and Nixonettes in trim blue and red uniforms."

A dominant figure at both conventions was Rocky Pomerance, the pipe-chewing 275-pound Miami Beach police chief, who oversaw security and made small talk with everybody from Bobby Seale to Barbara Walters.

Mindful of the violence at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, Pomerance discouraged confrontation and accommodated protesters, even giving radicals free bullhorns.

"He really understood young people," said Talbot (Sandy) D'Alemberte, the former Florida State University president who ran McGovern's Florida campaign. "He didn't believe in the 'lock everybody up' approach that was so popular around that time. Rocky was a great guy."

Security in Miami Beach was decidedly low-tech.

To keep protesters from disrupting the GOP convention, the Army rounded up 35 derelict buses in West Palm Beach, towed them to Miami Beach and positioned them around the hall perimeter.

That detail and thousands more were recorded in a personal diary kept by Pomerance's assistant, Seymour Gelber, a time capsule that runs for 285 pages. Gelber, a former Miami Beach mayor and circuit judge who is now 92, was a familiar presence in his dark suit and bow tie, quietly mingling among the protesters.

"They were just kids. They had a cause," Gelber said. "They weren't out to hurt anybody and we treated them with respect."

The Florida delegation to the Republican convention stayed very close by. But delegates at the Barcelona Hotel, a fading Art Deco landmark, complained of balky air conditioning and cockroaches in their rooms.

"It was a crummy hotel. That I do remember," Austin said.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

   
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