Inside the 1964 GOP Convention



Inside the 1964 GOP Convention

  This year's Republican National Convention holds few, if any surprises, unless those surprises come from the many Democrat endorsed protestors who have pledged to "demonstrate" in the streets of Tampa. But, internally, on the floor not even Ron Paul is expected to create a stir. However, it hasn't always come off that way.

  One of those years was 1964 when Arizona Senator, columnist and commentator, Mr. Conservative, Barry Goldwater got the nomination over liberal New Yorker Nelson Rockefeller. I was a young reporter from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, covering the convention (it was my second), and I had some inside contacts in each of the camps, including one not connected with either of the front runners. It wasn't a convention to match the violent 1968 Democratic one in Chicago, but it did have brief moments of chaos and confusion caused by my outsider contact.

  The background was this: Barry Goldwater appeared to have a lock on the convention and the strong conservative voices rising at that time were dominant. Challenging Goldwater was New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller a popular national figure. Rockefeller was just coming off a divorce a year or so ago, and his new wife had just birthed a child. That was a bit scandalous 40 years ago even though "conservative" then didn't encompass the social issues as much as now. Worse, Rockefeller wasn't exactly fiscally conservative, the big issue then, as now.

  The lines were firmly drawn between the two factions although Rockefeller had only a slight chance. Into this breach stepped Pennsylvania Governor Bill Scranton, a quiet, competent middle-of-the-roader, without much of a chance, but a good compromise and persuasive voice nonetheless. I knew key people in the Scranton camp and had been on the "inside" of his initial drive to unseat establishment Republicans in Pennsylvania.

  The day of the nomination voting, one of those contacts called me at my hotel (before cell phones) to tell me to get to the Cow Palace (the convention center) early. She refused to explain except to say to get there really early if I wanted to get in. I had a press pass, but, she said, "get there early". I did and, bored stiff, waited around for some time when I began to hear talk of "problems". There was a buzz throughout the convention and stirring on the floor although few delegates appeared to be there.

  There was a good reason. Lots of the delegates - those who didn't come really early - couldn't get in. There was a good reason for that, too. Some of the Scrantonites had printed up counterfeit tickets so the real delegates couldn't get there. I suppose they were thinking that a vote could be pushed through and only the Scranton people would be able to vote. Pretty stupid. Bill Scranton found out about it and fired those on his staff responsible (including my contact). In the meantime, there was chaos and delays, and some suspense, for a few hours until things got sorted out, and I got a good story. It wasn't the kind of impact Scranton had in mind and, if I recall, he withdrew and no votes were cast for him. He went on to be a successful two term, reformist, governor of Pennsylvania.

  Goldwater won handily and gave his famous "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! and let me remind you that moderation in pursuit of justice is not virtue." He went on to expound on his fundamentalist approach to governing, the size of government, and his passion for individual freedom. It was a stirring speech and worth reading again. It also seemed too extreme for a public that bought into Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" vision. It didn't help that Johnson painted Goldwater as a reckless war monger who would unleash the atomic bomb again. The TV advertisement showing the little girl holding a daisy in a field of flowers with an atomic bomb explosion in the background was the final touch.

  Goldwater also advocated defoliating the Ho Chi Minh Trail and was castigated for that. Ironically, President Johnson did just that as he escalated the Vietnam war. Funny how things turn out and how different the rhetoric of a political campaign is than the realities of governing. Nonetheless, the Scranton affair was an exciting interlude in an otherwise pretty cut and dried convention.