Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Opinion

When it comes to political conventions, the 1964 RNC was declared 'ugliest'

In a few weeks the Republican National Convention meeting in Tampa will doubtless release volleys of partisan rhetoric against President Barack Obama and the Democrats, but hopefully not the kind of emotional excess that marked the "ugliest Republican convention" held in San Francisco, July 13-16, 1964.

That convention, which I covered as a reporter for the then-St. Petersburg Times, marked a takeover of the Republican Party by angry conservatives determined to end control of the party by moderates from eastern states. In nominating Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater for president, RNC delegates booed New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and threw reporters (including me) off the convention floor.

The delegates also voted down a proposed platform plank intended to endorse the recently passed Civil Rights Act of 1964. Another plank they rejected was one proposed by Rockefeller, denouncing extremism.

Goldwater's acceptance speech, thunderously applauded, was the one that included the famous phrases "... extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," and "moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

Goldwater's biographer, Robert Alan Goldberg, called the convention "the Woodstock of the Right," but it was another reporter, Rick Pearlstein, writing in Smithsonian magazine, who called the convention the "ugliest Republican convention since 1912."

The anti-press crowd cheered when all reporters were ordered off the Cow Palace floor. I was hustled off, along with two reporters from the Louisville Courier-Journal, Dick Harwood and Ivan (Red) Swift, by a pair of young staffers wearing convention ID medals that looked like those given to marksmen in shooting matches.

They weren't just asking us to leave, they were physically shoving us toward the exit doors.

This antipathy toward the media, however, was directed mostly toward television reporters. TV had only recently gone from 15-minute to 30-minute nightly news formats. And the three networks also had just begun wall-to-wall coverage of political conventions.

Conservatives especially hated the irreverent commentary of NBC anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, as well as the words of Daniel Schorr and Dan Rather, reporters for CBS. In the parlance of the time, some conservative delegates claimed these celebrity figures sounded as if "they were broadcasting from Moscow."

John Chancellor, then a young NBC staff reporter, was famously shoved off the convention floor while wearing the bulky backpack needed for live television in those days. He signed off the air, saying "This is John Chancellor, somewhere in custody…"

Harwood, (later a top editor at the Washington Post), Swift and I complained loudly as we went — but we went.

The press wasn't the only object of conservative anger. They claimed "Wall Street Republicans," aka "Rockefeller Republicans," locked up presidential elections every four years by backroom actions.

"A few secret kingmakers in New York" excluded the conservatives, they griped. That's why they were throwing their votes to Goldwater, a Westerner who embraced a dual philosophy of militant anti-communism and desire to shrink the federal government.

Ronald Reagan, then newly converted from Democrat to the Republican cause, appeared at the convention as keynote speaker. This was two years before he successfully ran for governor of California.

Curiously, the runner-up to Goldwater in convention balloting was Gov. William Scranton of Pennsylvania, who had entered the race for party nomination only four weeks earlier. Rockefeller was a poor third with only half of Scranton's votes.

The moderate Scranton wanted to save the party from the right wing. He got 214 votes to Goldwater's 883. Rockefeller got 114 and former Michigan Gov. George Romney received 41. The first GOP female presidential nominee, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, received a mere 27 votes.

I interviewed Scranton in his hotel suite the day before the convention vote and he was a lonely figure whom the majority of the national media had virtually ignored. Still, the Harris Poll had determined that 62 percent of registered Republican voters preferred him over Goldwater.

Years later, after the resignation of President Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford chose Rockefeller as his vice president.

By the way, Barry Goldwater's running mate for vice president in 1964 was a Lockport, N.Y., congressman named William E. Miller, whose only claim to national political identity was the Homburg hat he affected. Miller was so unknown he appeared in an American Express TV ad which asked, "Do you know me?"

Jerry Blizin, who lives in Tarpon Springs, was a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times from 1948 to 1965.

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