Thursday, August 28th, 2008
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
FORTY FOUR YEARS OF NATIONAL POLITICAL CONVENTIONS
Some 4000 delegates are converging in Denver this week, and Minneapolis next week. Millions of voters are expected to view the televised events, which are meant to convey an image of party unity. For political groupies like most of us who write and read these columns, this is the time the fun really begins. And if you have never attended a party convention, even as just an interested observer, you have really missed quite a show.
My first Democratic convention was in Atlantic City in 1964. On summer break from Tulane Law School, I was driving my twelve-year-old Volkswagen convertible up to New York City to visit relatives, and made a last minute decision to divert to Atlantic City. The Democrats were gathering in the old civic auditorium on the boardwalk, which for many years was the site of the Miss America pageant.
I was able to park my car about half a block from the auditorium and walk right up to the front door. A guard asked me where I was going, and I said I wanted to join the Louisiana delegation.
“Are you supposed to be with them?” he asked.
“I sure am,” I said. I might have exaggerated a bit, but I was still hoping to get in the door.
“Well, then welcome to Atlantic City, and go right on in.”
I stood about fifty feet away from the stage where President Lyndon Johnson kept the crowd in suspense until he announced that Sen. Hubert Humphrey would be his running mate. Johnson was a cinch to be reelected, and the Democrats pulled together as one big happy family. What a contrast to what happened four years later.
In 1968, the Democratic convention was held in Chicago. I was living in Ferriday, La. then with my wife and our two-month-old daughter Campbell. We decided on the spur of the moment to travel to Chicago and visit old friends, so we packed up the car and headed north.
The main party headquarters was at the Sheraton Hotel, which faces Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago. I spent my first day at the convention “people watching” in the lobby, and reading the scores of brochures being passed out by special-interest groups lobbying delegates.
Major opposition to the Vietnam War was building, and a large number of protesters had gathered in Grant Park across from the Sheraton. Confrontations were breaking out between protesters and police officers all around the hotel.
I ran into Ingersoll Jordan, an old friend from Tulane who was working for Congressman Hale Boggs, a New Orleanian who was the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives in Washington. Off we went to the Blackstone Hotel close by for dinner. The restaurant at the Blackstone is in the basement. Just as we started our meal, I looked up to see white smoke seeping down the stairs into the dining room. My experience in the military told me immediately that it was tear gas, and I knew we had to get out quickly. The waiter had just put down my filet mignon. I grabbed the steak off the plate, slapped it over my nose and mouth, and dashed up the stairs through the tear gas, losing my friend in the confusion.
By the time I reached the street, riots were breaking out up and down Michigan Avenue and all over Grant Park. I knew I could get a better view from the top of the Sheraton, so I headed for the elevator in the lobby. When the doors opened, there were three people inside: Senator Russell Long, State Senator Mike O’Keefe and Louisiana Governor John McKeithen. Rumors had been circulating around the convention that McKeithen was under consideration as a possible choice for Vice President on a Hubert Humphrey ticket.
Sticking my hand out, I introduced myself to John McKeithen. “Governor, I’m Jim Brown from Ferriday.” McKeithen smiled, and he was visibly surprised at my introduction.
“Why Jim, what are you doing up here?” he asked.
“Governor,” I said. “I came all the way up here to support you for vice-president.”
McKeithen laughed, slapped me on the back, and told me he could not be more pleased.
Some months later, O’Keefe told me they had been on their way up to Vice President Humphrey’s suite to urge him to put McKeithen on the ticket. When he didn’t get tapped for the job, the Governor left in a huff and headed back to Louisiana.
Now for a good Republican Convention story.
It was 1988 in New Orleans. The GOP gathered to pick their nominee at the Superdome. An old friend had a box suite and invited me to join him there to watch the festivities. The President to be, George H.W. Bush, had just completed his acceptance speech and the Suite emptied out. I lingered to watch all the celebrating, when the door opened and Sen. Bob Dole walked in.
Dole had lost the nomination to Bush in a heated battle marked by some sharp exchanges. The Kansas Senator had won the first battle in the Iowa Caucuses, with Bush finishing third. But Bush recovered and was unopposed for the nomination at the convention.
“Sorry, I must be lost,” he said. “There’s supposed to be a suite where I can sit a bit, but I’ve forgotten the number.”
“Senator, you are welcome to relax here.” I offered him a drink and we both sat and watched the jubilation and TV commentary. You could tell he was wishing he could have been the nominee taking on Gov. Dukakis in the coming fall election.
“Dukakis is leading in the polls now,” I asked. “Can Bush win?”
Dole paused for a moment, then said: “Yes, I believe he will. But that promise about ‘read my lips….no new taxes.’ That may come back to haunt him in the future if he is elected..”
The Senator was right on the mark. That phrase was a big factor in Bill Clinton’s victory over the incumbent President four years later.
At the Democratic Convention in Denver this week, my sister Madeline is attending as a delegate. Her body guard there is her husband, who just happens to be the Republican Sheriff of Plaquemines Parish. Daughter Campbell is at the anchor desk in Denver for CNN, so the Brown Family is well represented.
As for me, 10 different political conventions are enough. I’ll join millions of Americans at home watching the TV circus, and anticipating a knock down drag out campaign in the weeks to come. And a note to Gustav. Please don’t rain on our parade.
“A political convention is not a place where you can come away with any trace of faith in human nature.’ Kempton, Murray
Peace and Justice.
Jim Brown’s weekly column appears in a number of newspapers and websites throughout the State of Louisiana. You can read Jim’s Blog, and take his weekly poll, plus read his columns going back to the fall of 2002 by going to his own website at http://www.jimbrownla.com.
Jim’s radio show on WRNO (995 fm) from New Orleans can be heard each Sunday, from 11:00 am until 1:00 pm.