Whoever Said It Was a Grand Old Party
The Ford people had a ball in Kansas City, but Texas Reaganites went down for the count.
Login / Register
ORNo Account? Register here.
They have arrived. One hundred unwavering Reagan votes descend from their buses and wander out onto the veranda of the motel, where an impromptu glee club greets them with songs about Texas: the eyes of it, deep in the heart of it, the yellow rose of it. There is a buffet line stocked with chicken wings and semi-exotic dips and flanked by champagne fountains. In the corners busboys are frantically popping the stems onto disposable wineglasses.
To the rest of the Reagan forces assembled in Kansas City, the Texas delegation will seem awesome and archetypal during the next four days, the stout, implacable maiden aunt who has arrived just in time to save a family in crisis from disintegration. Though Ronald Reagan’s home state of California outnumbers Texas in delegate strength, Texas has no rival in solidarity. Every Texas delegate and alternate is bound—preferentially, morally, legally, fanatically, lovingly —for at least three ballots.
I’m not a delegate, I’m not even a Republican (though I’ve been told I bear a slight resemblance to the recently reupholstered John Ehrlichman), but I can still pick out several species of Republican stereotypes: there are young ideologues in blue blazers and accountant’s glasses, birdfaced Buckley intellectuals with wet hair, doctors in boating shoes|, some women made up like Nefertiti, others whose resolute high color goes unadorned. Delegates with pastel leisure pants suits hover by the champagne fountains, but the earthier shades can be seen in the corners plotting strategy.
A man wearing an authentic Nazi helmet and who has a red terrycloth T-shirt draped over his beer gut blows a charge on a bugle, a sound that slices right through the glee club’s gloomy rendition of “Climb Every Mountain.”
“Yeah, Ree-gan,” he yells. “The neksht preshident—Ree-gan!”
Under the patio awning the noon light is waylaid, and so floodlights from various TV crews travel across the crowd, stopping here and there to illuminate for interview some delegate so nervous he can barely control his glass. The lights provide a measure of pomp for the entrance of John Connally, who comes in from the lobby and cuts a swath through the crowd, harvesting handshakes as he proceeds. You can feel the force of these handshakes from ten feet away: your digits are empathetically crushed. Still sensitive about Connally’s fence sitting and his ultimate support of Ford, the delegation tries hard to meet him with reserve, but his presence is too beguiling. The population of the verandaa drifts naturally into a reception line.
Sighting along an almost mutantly patrician nose, Connally looks each of the delegates in the eye. Everything about him is taut and focused. I have the feeling that if he makes one slip, if he lets his attention stray for one moment from the fact that he is John Connally, some vital mechanism will buckle and his perfect hair will stand on end, his teeth will spin out of his jaw, and he and his blue suit will rupture like a diving bell.
When he walks by the glee club, they break into a song they no doubt mean as an overture to Ford or, if luck holds, to Reagan:
Make me a match . . .
But Connally does not have the look of a fretful vice-presidential possibility: he looks more like a man who is confidently awaiting a time when the presidency itself will be conferred by natural selection.
A woman’s Instamatic misfires, and Connally politely poses until she finds a flashcube that works. The man with the Nazi helmet blows a bugle into his face, but Connally continues with his rounds and exits with a subliminal flourish.
I have a few hours to reconnoiter and to pick up my press credentials for the convention, which begins tomorrow morning. I take a cab downtown, a half-hour freeway drive from the motel. The Texas delegation is not exactly in the center of things. The Ford-controlled convention managers have stationed them in Overland Park, Kansas, eight miles and a state line removed from the arena. The day is overcast, and the grayness helps fuse all the disparate elements of Kansas City into a pleasant, assimilable whole.
For someone used to the greens and browns of the Texas Hill Country, there seems to be a bluish tint to the foliage, and, since I’ve prepared myself for prairies, its abundance is unsettling. There are fluvial plains that lead not to rivers but to railroad tracks, there are Carthaginian monuments nesting in the hills, and down by the Missouri River you can see the shed skin of an older Kansas City.
“That’s where the yippies are,” the cab driver tells me, pointing up to a hill where there is a high tower flanked by what looks like two massive grave vaults. This is Kansas City’s great brooding memorial to World War I.
I’ve heard that some vestige, some incarnation of the yippies are encamped in Kansas City with indistinct intentions, but I can see no sign of activity on the hill.
“They’re all behind the monument,” the driver says. “Over in the park. You can’t see ’em from here.”
Downtown I receive my credentials and various complimentary press souvenirs and take a stroll over to the Muehlebach Hotel, which, seems to be no more the convention headquarters than anyplace else. The streets are lined with Jesus freaks, hustlers, anchormen standing alone on corners talking into microphones. A group called Animal-Kind, crusading against the use of leg-hold traps, has erected four-foot-high color pictures of foxes who have chewed off their legs to escape.
“Painless?” the signs say.
Across the street from the Muehlebach a man dressed as Abraham Lincoln dances in front of a sluggish three-piece jazz band. The man has a glassy black stage beard the thickness of a paint brush appended to his chin, and he dances manicly, with one heavy footstep after another. He shakes an American flag, and grins. His Lincoln suit is the color of a blackboard dusted with chalk, and there is something frightful and unstoppable in his eyes.
The mood is appreciably less ominous inside the hotel. Here journalists crowd the lobby and read the New York Times, which is being flown in during the convention. There is a diverting display of elephant trinkets, and a meeting hall has been converted into a bazaar with booth after booth of Republicana: plaques inlaid with a commemorative poem about Eisenhower by Otis Van Cecil (“The only county poet laureate in these United States has a reading pleasure for you”); elephant bookends and necklaces and earrings; every conceivable sort of campaign button; Ford and Reagan boaters and Frisbees and masks; four-foot-high portable drinking straws.
Kemper Arena, where the convention is to take place, is two miles from downtown, adjacent to but upwind from the decrepit stockyards. The arena looks like a futuristic revival tent, although inside it is no more forbidding than the average municipal auditorium.
It is almost deserted today. Workmen are checking out the podium sound system, the band is rehearsing the “Iowa Corn Song,” and there are a few other roving reporters, but all the blue gallery seats are unpopulated: they rise precipitously to the ceiling, where their bright blue clarity vanishes, melding into the topmost bunting.
The podium looks fragile and makeshift, like something you would find in a TV studio. Someone vaguely familiar is tinkering with the microphone, but it takes me a while to identify him as Robert Dole.
I arrive back at my hotel in time to attend a caucus of the Texas delegation. Perhaps 300 people—delegates, alternates, guests, and press—have seated themselves in the meeting room. Some of the delegates now wear boaters and tam-o’- shanters with “Reagan in 76” written on them, others’ lapels are crowded with buttons in which Reagan’s picture is under exposed and looks like a haphazard face arising from an ink stain.
The meeting is chaired by Ray Barnhart of Pasadena, the leader of the delegation, a man with a patient, unqualifiedly handsome face and a patina of good breeding. He is speaking now about the necessity of delegates remaining on the floor in preparation for votes.
“Now I know it’s hard to stay on the floor. I know it’s going to be dull. I don’t know if I can stand listening to seventeen Ford speakers, but I’m going to do it and I’m going to smile.”
A delegate, a member of the rules committee, gives a report on the committee’s defeat earlier of 16c, the rule which would force Ford to name a vice president before Wednesday morning and thus presumably suffer a fall from grace sufficient to throw delegate support to Reagan. Reagan’s hopes lie almost totally on the adoption of 16c tomorrow night by the convention at-large.
“People were all around us, these little Hitler gestapo guys with walkie-talkies,” the speaker says of the committee vote. “They’d radio back to command headquarters about who did not vote properly.
“The White House staff came up to one guy and said, ‘Well, you’re just workin’ too hard. What do you want?’ He said, ‘I don’t know what you mean. I just want to vote my conscience.’ ”
A good look at the Texas delegation confirms that such stories are not apocryphal. These people can’t be bought: their souls are grafted to Ronald Reagan’s, and they are flushed with ideological purity. The menace Richard Schweiker presents to this purity is underplayed, to say the least. I never hear his name mentioned voluntarily, and on campaign literature his name is set in type half the size of Reagan’s. In the hotel lobby are two posters: Reagan’s says: “He’ll beat Carter.” Schweiker’s bears a diminutive, grudging legend: “He’ll help beat Carter.”
The first session of the convention the next morning may have some rhetorical significance, but the speeches are of an impenetrable dullness. No one seems to pay much attention to them.
The high color of the arena is muted now by the dusky human forms that occupy only half of the seats. The delegates, though, are situated on the floor and are all duly present.
A good deal has been alleged about the convention manipulations by the Ford people, but I do not take these remarks seriously until I look down and notice the Texas delegation squeezed up against the press galleries in a remote corner of the floor, from which most of them can neither see nor hear the podium. When Betty Ford and her various offspring make the first of many well-timed appearances, they are seated directly above and behind the Texas delegation, which they look down upon with distaste.
Up in the CBS booth Walter Cronkite hovers above the arena, looking down forlornly like some captive earthling on display in an alien circus. In the NBC booth John Chancellor and David Brinkley seesaw in their office chairs and swing forward to the camera in tandem.
A member of the press has no trouble killing a day in convention-dazzled Kansas City. Every building seems to house some sort of hospitality suite where free drinks and full-course dinners and TV sets are available to journalists in return for the patience to listen to an occasional lecture about how Kansas City has more fountains than any other city except Rome.
I spend the best part of the day in one of these establishments eating little elliptical sandwiches. By late afternoon I’m sitting in the empty mezzanine of the Muehlebach reading Newsweek when I notice an abrupt change in the ambience of the room. Young girls with Ford boaters suddenly swarm about and entrench themselves on the floor according to instructions laid down by a middle-aged man whose campaign buttons cover his suit front like the armor plate of some prehistoric lizard. A girl stacks a bundle of placards behind my chair. The Secret Service arrives with plastic stanchions and cordons off an aisle leading to a banquet room.
Ford, Gerald Ford, will, according to a colleague, soon be crossing this mezzanine on his way to that room, where I can see a giant GOP sculpted in ice and imperiled by a wreath of lighted candles.
But it takes an hour and a half for Ford to arrive. Camera crews come and go; sober men in blue suits with reams of schedules flit about; Secret Service men wearing earphone receivers wander through the room and sweat and seem to want desperately to do something with their hands. Occasionally they jerk their heads like dogs startled by some threatening scent, then begin to shuffle onlookers aside and rearrange the stanchions, according to instructions emanating from their inner ears.
Though I doubt that there are more than a hundred of us in the room, we are soon all straining unnecessarily against the rope, waiting for the President of the United States.
Someone comes in dressed as Snoopy, in a white terry cloth dog suit and a huge Styrofoam head.
“What is the connection here?” I ask one of the girls who is with him. I had meant to ask the dog, but the apertures in that gigantic head contain only dead space.
“Snoopy is a candidate for president,” she says rather smugly, pointing to an appropriate sticker above the brim of her hat. “He is being sponsored by Butternut Bread and Dolly Madison cakes.”
At the request of a photographer the girl kisses the dog’s nose, then whispers through a hole in its neck.
“Mary Ann, don’t you want to get up here in the line? Can you see? Are you sure?”
“Why don’t you girls get the President to greet the dog?” someone suggests. “It’d be great publicity. The wires would pick it up. You’d have to clear it with the security people. They’d want to make sure he doesn’t have a gun in there.”
Barely have I banished the image of Ford being assassinated by a giant Snoopy when various dignitaries begin to arrive: Earl Butz, Connally, Ron Nessen, and an anonymous host of governors.
When Ford himself finally appears, he sticks to the other side of the aisle, where the Ford girls have gathered and are squealing as he shakes their hands. Then he turns toward us and poses with Betty for photographers. With everyone else I’m straining against the rope, but I find my interest settling not on the President himself but on an overall impression of outstanding grooming and tailoring. There is a charismatic quality to his suit that goes a long way toward hiding the plain decent dullness of its occupant.
But Ford poses for a moment too long, and all our deflected yearnings settle into his face, and he loses something. There is a flash of undistinguished dental work, and his honest face is blighted by a smile held too long. He turns and moves toward the ice sculpture as humbly as a pilgrim.
The convention has begun in earnest. I have a floor pass good for twenty minutes at a time, and I use it to wander about to no real purpose. On the floor, in a light twice as bright as the noonday sun, pesteringly familiar people like Dan Rather and Leslie Stahl and Edwin Newman seem like figures in a wax museum who have just come to life.
Up on the podium Princess Pale Moon, a Cherokee in a beadwork tiara and a white fringed dress that looks suspiciously like double-knit doeskin, sings a patriotic song called “This Is My America” and interprets it with “beautiful Indian dance motions.”
The Texas delegation is seated in their wedge of red plastic chairs. Barnhart is at the apex, near his microphone.
“I want to skin Dan Rather,” he tells me. “I understand he just told somebody that the Texas delegation was giving up on Reagan’s nomination. You know one of the problems with a thing like this is all of a sudden you hear a rumor and—zoom!—it’s a reality.”
Rather will later explain the matter to Barnhart’s satisfaction, but in the meantime, at a spontaneous Reagan demonstration, Texas leaves no doubt about its support. The delegates stand on their chairs, hold up pairs of longhorns, and begin shouting “Viva!” to which the alternates high up in the gallery respond “Ole!”
At the height of this demonstration the Fords—Betty, Jack, and Steve (with a cowboy hat the shape of a crescent moon)—make a strategic entrance. I can look up from the back row of the Texas delegation and see the underside of Betty Ford’s chin and the calm, regal, arrogant way she seizes the adulation from the Reagan forces.
When my twenty minutes are up I turn in my floor pass, find my seat, and settle in to endure several hours of speeches.
Nelson Rockefeller gives a sober, candid, halfway rousing address praising Ford and previewing his own swan song.
“I’ve tried to get your nomination for sixteen years. I hope it has helped this party and this American… I have no bitterness… somehow I never got to the church on time.” But is there any political fixture less compelling than a lame duck vice president? Placards appear from the New York delegation: “We love the guy,” “We love Rocky,” but his superfluousness is a minor-key embarrassment, and in time, as his speech grinds down into rhetoric, the convention’s enthusiasm pulls back like a tide.
Then Goldwater takes the podium and speaks in a strangely somber voice that makes his well-phrased but lifeless speech sound like blank verse.
Our enemies are deaf,
are whining and weak,
but they hear very well
the voice of strength.
“Oh, look!” A woman next to me says during Goldwater’s speech. “That’s Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.! Oh, God, he’s so beautiful!”
Robert Dole, the temporary chairman, is introduced. There is as yet no reason for the audience to pay attention to him, but he does his best to excite them.
“The party of Lincoln! The party of Theodore Roosevelt! The party of Dwight David Eisenhower!”
The party of Richard Nixon? There is nothing to suggest it except the presence of John Dean in the press area, on assignment for Rolling Stone. Dean is frequently interrupted in his work by requests for interviews, which he grants with good humor. He is tanned and relaxed, nothing like the ferret-bureaucrat he sometimes appeared on TV. What seemed at first a publicity stunt on the part of Rolling Stone seems now a benevolent act of genius: they have provided the only evidence at this convention that Nixon ever existed.
Somehow, to some purpose, the session ends. No crucial issues have been called forth, so both Ford and Reagan camps are in high spirits. On one of the Texas delegation’s buses I withdraw into my seat and listen to the cheers and to a song set to the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Ronald Ronald Ronald
Ronald Ronald Ronald
Ronald Ronald Ronald
He’ll win in Seventy-six
“Gig ’em Aggies,” a delegate in the front of the bus yells. We are passing the dreariest section of the city: a woman, sitting on her lawn in the dark, yells at us and violently shakes a hand-lettered sign that reads “Mexican food.”
The pep rally inside the bus intensifies. We pull up to the Crown Center Hotel, in whose uppermost suite Ford headquarters are located. The hotel is also the home base of the Michigan delegation, which is split 55 for Ford, 29 for Reagan. The Reagan faction has invited Texas and California here tonight for a pep rally in the sanctum sanctorum of established power, and when the rebel armada rushes through the swinging doors the Ford workers manning the information booths gape in astonishment and disgust.
“We want Reagan,” the invaders chant. The Texans punctuate this with hook-’em-horns stabs into the air, a gesture that onlookers regard either as mystical or obscene.
The Reagan forces, feeling their power as underdogs to vex the opposition, encircle a well-mannered Ford cocktail party and tighten the noose until the enemy is holed up in the lobby’s sunken conversation pit.
Then the two camps, like huge dumb braying beasts, fire salvos of slogans at one another. “We Want Reagan.” “Ford Can Win.” “We’re Against Ford.” The pandemonium is total. Individuals clamber up on chairs and try to shout over the din, fantasizing that they are leading this mob. Similar acts of insanity flare up here and there. I commit one myself when I try to talk to one or two people, an effort which turns out to be as fruitless as talking to the knees of a cow: the whole animal must be addressed.
The cheers degenerate into garbled nonsense phrases. I hear something like “Hoosier Wheat” yelled over and over, just when something seems about to break, the Reagan forces, following some mysterious internal momentum, file out of the lobby and stand on the hotel lawn, waving arcane signs—“Transcend Gutless Placater With Reagan”—and yelling with their remaining voice at Ford, who resides far above them, out of earshot maybe, in his rectangular aerie.
There are no more daytime sessions for the rest of the convention, and so the days are, except for an occasional caucus, relatively free. On Tuesday morning I board a bus with about twenty Texas delegates for a tour of Kansas City sponsored by an organization called “Guides ’n Gals.” We will “be told stories of the rough and tumble past,” and we will “relive the infamous 1933 Union Station massacre.”
The air-conditioning system in the bus is faulty. “It sure is hot in here,” a passenger complains.
“Well,” our guide (and gal) says, “once we get into Kansas City and many of our tree-lined boulevards I’m sure it’ll cool right off.”
For four hours we glide through the city, through Crown Center and the neighborhoods of the rich, skirting ramshackle buildings with stores like The Poor Man’s Friend (“Suits and Topcoats-$7.50 and up”), past a restored mansion in whose portico the owner’s Indian wife used to sleep in her teepee. We are let out to shop for an hour or so at Country Club Plaza, the world’s first shopping center, which is adjacent to Reagan’s hotel. The delegates return with needlepoint patterns and “Foods of the World” gift packages.
“I’m sorry we can’t go into the Liberty Memorial,” the guide says as we strain our eyes to catch a glimpse of it high on the hill we’re passing. “The yippies are up there camping and it’s closed.” I still can’t see them. Where are they? Who are they?
“There’s quite a few hard feelings in town over the fact the yippies are up there,” the guide continues. “If you or I went up there to camp we would be run off promptly. Last Wednesday night they converged on Crown Center to use the restroom facilities.”
This is intriguing. “See yippies,” I write in my notebook.
We arrive back to the motel in time for a 2 p.m. caucus. Red and white plastic cowboy hats with Reagan stickers are being passed out to the delegates and alternates.
The energy, in these pre-16c hours, is intense. The Reagan effort will peak tonight, and you can sense the desperation with which the caucus drives off intimations of defeat.
“I’m reminded that according to all the experts Ronald Reagan didn’t have a chance,” Barnhart says. He has put on one of the cowboy hats, and his natural gravity suffers for it. “Well, I’m afraid that some of our pollsters along with some of our politicians just don’t understand people, they don’t understand the folks who don’t want a damn thing out of politics, who don’t want the patronage . . . We’re working not just for Ronald Reagan, we’re working for ourselves and the things we believe in. I can assure you I have no despair in my heart.”
That night when the Fords arrive with special guest Tony Orlando and take their seats above the Texas section, the delegation seethes with hostility. Then they spontaneously erupt, like an animal waking suddenly from a nightmare to claw the air. “We want Rea-gan,” Texas shouts. They stand on their chairs, wave their hats, thrust their signs into the lenses of television cameras.
When Connally is introduced there is thunderous applause from the Ford forces and prearranged polite ovation from Texas, who can’t stand to see a native son go unappreciated, even if he deserves to.
Connally begins in oratory: “Two hundred years ago in the hot summer of 1776,” and for a while his Churchillian rhythms hold the crowd. “We are living under the rein of government gone amuck,” he says, and you can tell by the way he bites off “muck” and lets the syllable waft into his sinuses that Connally is operating in the grand tradition. But his timing is off. The speech goes on too long and slackens so much that quotes by Solzhenitsyn and Jefferson only drag it down.
The reception for Connally’s speech leads into another Ford-Reagan shouting match. When I go down to the floor in the middle of this, the Texas delegation is on their chairs again.
“Aren’t these conventions fun?” a delegate named Donald Truman from Victoria asks me. “I feel like it’s a small guy who don’t make a lot of money against the establishment rich. That’s the way I look at it, man. Hoooooo-WOOOOOOOOO! Whew! It sure wears you out, though.”
Some time after the “Viva/Olés” have died down and the majority plank of Rule 16c is being recited, Nancy Reagan arrives at the far end of the auditorium. The Reagan forces swoon, but the cunning house band, controlled of course by the Ford managers, greets her with, of all songs, Tony Orlando’s hit “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.” Immediately Nancy Reagan’s entrance is co-opted. Orlando and Betty Ford perform a dance within spitting distance of the Texas forces.
As if in apology the band finally breaks into “California Here I Come.” The Reagan contingent seizes the ball again and hogs it for a full fifteen minutes.
During the debate on 16c the whole floor is testy. Nelson Rockefeller, with an adolescent grin on his face, cruises through the New York delegation and snatches up a Reagan sign from an unforgiving Mormon preacher. In revenge Rocky’s phone is yanked from its mooring.
“The usual aplomb of the Vice President of the United States,” Ray Barnhart sneers as he stands at his delegation’s microphone, ready to deliver Texas’ 100 votes for 16c. During the roll call Barnhart and the other leaders of the delegation keep count on a tally sheet. For the benefit of the cameras they manage tight, cheerless smiles and, as each state delivers its vote, mutter confident little platitudes like, “Hey, that’s a little better than we expected.”
Though it is not yet over when Barnhart steps to the microphone to cast “one hundred principled votes aye,” the
drift is plain. The unanimity of Texas rallies the Reagan forces but it cannot put them over. Florida, after passing on the first round, breaks for Ford, and Reagan’s desperate shot misses and his viability unofficially dissolves. I’m in the gallery when the final vote is announced and I can look down at the Texas delegation and see those red and white hats, which were waving frantically with hope and excitement a few minutes before, each in its place on the motionless head of a delegate.
The Crown Center shopping mall is a glittering cubic diamond faceted with shops and restaurants. At noon on Wednesday I’m sitting in a sort of cafeteria, eating a sort of barbecue sandwich, when I notice what can only be a yippie couple leaving the complex on their way to the park down the street.
I follow and fall easily into conversation with them. They’re carrying box lunches and beer back up to their campground. Their names are Edward and Kimberley.
Edward is 28, he wears a stiff, cracked leather vest against his bare skin and has on a pair of blue jeans whose back pockets seem to have torn loose a decade earlier. He says he’s a musician, with albums pending on major labels, that he’s a self-made millionaire and survivor of the sixties.
“I’m one of the few that made it out of the storm,” he says, then begins singing “Riders on the Storm.”
Kimberley is younger—20—and better dressed. When I was a kid I remember noticing that blonde girl babies were suddenly all named Kimberley or Courtney or Heather and I wonder if this Kimberley is part of that generation.
“What exactly is going on up there?”
I ask, pointing to the hill.
“Not much,” Kimberley says. “A lot of people are up there just to get attention, to get in the newspapers.”
“Some of those gay people really gross me out,” Edward says. He notices that I’m walking between him and Kimberley and I can see his face blanch with paranoia.
“Hey, babe,” he says, “why are you way over there? I miss you.”
I fall back so that they are reunited. Arm in arm, they peel off and walk away.
A broad, bare hill leads up to the monument, behind which the yippies are purportedly gathered in force. When I reach the crest of the hill I see kids skinny dipping in the fountains and running naked on the grass. Teenage girls are guzzling bottles of Coronado wine and singing, “Cocaine don’t make me lazy.” An undermanned rock band with banks of amplifiers is playing to an empty field that stretches all the way down to Union Station. The war memorial flagpole is fitted with a strange banner so inert on this still, sluggish afternoon that I can make out only some random stitching on a black field.
The memorial tower rises up starkly from a vast cement plain, and on the other side of the monument two huge stone sphinxes with wings instead of forelegs have drawn a curtain of feathers across their eyes.
These statues guard the yippie camp, such as it is. There are five or six tents and tarpaulins, and clusters of people gathered around wood cooking fires in the midday heat.
The first group of people I approach regards me suspiciously. I have a sport coat slung over my shoulder and, though a copy of the Yipster Times protrudes from a side pocket, I suspect that one garment is enough to obliterate the rest of my radical credentials. These people are not helpful: they have beer guts and AWOL haircuts and tell me they know nothing of the yippie grand design. They suggest I introduce myself to Marijuana Mike, who is something of a leader.
I find him hacking up brush with an ax. Marijuana Mike has only one tooth, a long festering stalactite occasionally visible in the cavelike darkness of his empty mouth.
“Sure, man,” he says, “I understand you’re an important personage, so let’s find us a good place to rap.”
We go off in search of such a spot. On the way he kicks an empty orange juice bottle out of the sun and tells a girl who is panting in the heat that glass gets hot if you leave it out in the sun.
“I have to teach these kids camping lesson number one,” he tells me.
After a detour for a joint we sit down on a quilt decorated with faded pictures of bighorn sheep. Marijuana Mike has the lithe, wasted body of a yogi, and on the outside of each of his calves there is a vertical tattooed banner of Chinese characters. When I ask him what the characters mean he frowns and explains that he’s not sure anymore. When he was in jail he had them copied from a book called The Importance of Being, but he forgot what they meant and the book is now out of print. Worse, the tattoos have blurred with age so that not even Chinese can decipher their meaning.
“But isn’t this nice, man?” He gestures at his encampment: a kid sits against a tree and eats crackers with reverence, as though each one was bringing him some new and undreamed of knowledge; two girls with bad complexions look at us quizzically, like kittens. The Republican Convention is very far away.
“The mix and the process, that’s what’s going on,” Marijuana Mike says. “Acculturation in the grand style. We are now on the grounds some four hundred nondelegates to the unconvention for the election of Nobody.”
I look around. There seem to be thirty nondelegates here at the most; I press Marijuana Mike for some strategical details. He wants to harness the power of apathy, he says: if enough people vote for Nobody, the yippie candidate, the election will deadlock and be thrown into the electoral college.
“But what good would that do?”
“Oh, man.” He turns away in disgust and mutters something about a kangaroo and a “carcinogenic civilization.” Others, with deeper rational commitments, join us, but I never get a clear picture of what the yippies are up to here. And there is obviously no pervasive fervor that would unite them: the flock tends to stray. When the yippies go down to the arena to demonstrate, city-sponsored rock bands stationed at strategic points begin to tune up and entrance the more impressionable radicals, leaving them as soothed and content as puppies with alarm clocks in their beds. It’s rough, the leaders agree.
“It’s a herb or sacrament a priori any of ’em,” Marijuana Mike mutters.
At six p.m. the Texas delegation pulls out all the stops outside of Kemper Arena. They have kazoos now and long plastic trumpets that sound a little too appropriately like wounded elephants. They sing “The Eyes of Texas,” begin a round of “Viva/Olés,” and form a snake dance beneath an ABC camera.
“I’m very, very hopeful,” Dottie Smith, a Fort Worth alternate, tells me. “I’m just hoping for Reagan to pull it out. I don’t know if he’s going to.”
Wanda Jones, an alternate from Waco, concurs. There is a look of expectant bliss on her face, and I ask her how she feels.
“Right now, right now I just feel there’s an inherent goodness and goodwill in the world.”
“It’s going to be close,” George (“That Cool Cat from San Pat”) Andrews tells me. “We’re goin’ for all the marbles tonight.” The delegates form a huge bulky circle, stack their hands together in the center like a high school football team before the kickoff, mumble the Lord’s Prayer, and venture into the hall.
In the middle of an insensate, excruciating speech by Jacob Javits, a lone plastic trumpet bleats in boredom, and immediately the sound spreads across the hall. In a moment every Reaganite has joined in the chorus. The demonstration is unstoppable. The house band, the snide nerve center of the convention, plays along with the mood for a while, throwing the Reaganites a few musical bones like “California Here I Come,” and then tries to rein them in with “God Bless America.” But the Reagan people won’t sit still for harmony: they will sit still for no one but Ronald Reagan. The sound of hundreds and hundreds of kazoos swarms over the floor. It is the finest moment of the convention, instinctual, ungovernable, and venomous.
And this is simply a prelude to the Reagan demonstration that comes when his name is placed in nomination. It lasts a full 45 minutes and is as sad and desperate as it is manic. These particular muscles will never be flexed again. The band, with bar after bar of “God Bless America,” cannot cauterize the enthusiasm. Down on the floor Texas delegates with no voices left mime their “Viva/Oles” and strain their muted vocal cords even further. What could not be done for Ronald Reagan before through persuasion and negotiation has now to be done by sheer voice.
But it doesn’t work. Ford is nominated. Hundreds of beach balls drift down onto the multitude. Ford Frisbees soar across the coliseum and smack delegates in the back of the head. Ford placards sprout from the floor like an abrupt field of sunflowers. Sonny Bono kisses Susan Ford. Jack Ford dumps a bagful of confetti and toilet paper on a Texas delegate who will later claim that the President’s son “physically assaulted” her.
This sedate ecstasy—its intensity, its length—could be plotted on a graph. When it is over, the chair asks if there are any states wishing to file protests.
“Come on Barnhart,” people from all over the arena yell, “Come on Texas.”
But Texas, despite some sporadic resistance, has used up the last of its quixotic resources. On the bus back to the motel only one Texas delegate is vocally bitter. The rest of the passengers sit calmly in their seats, in a state of disappointment that borders on shock.
“We’re not going to lose our spirit, are we?” a woman asks herself. “We’ve got our Texas spirit with us.”
A few delegates croon words set to the “Mickey Mouse Club” anthem:
but the malice that should accompany it cannot be mustered. The delegates are too reflective even to notice that the yippies are banging their fists against the side of the bus. Few of them bother to read the banner hung against the mesh of a hurricane fence that says “Farewell Dinosaurs.”
There remains the announcement and ratification of the vice-presidential candidate. The next morning I turn on the TV in time to catch Gerald Ford introducing Robert Dole, who stands before the press twitching a Bogartish upper lip and projecting all the enthusiasm of a man who has just been dragged out of bed.
John Connally, Anne Armstrong, Howard Baker, where are they? What has happened during the night? On this Thursday morning Ford’s choice seems torpid, and cynical, and against that impression Reagan’s unprincipled selection of Richard Schweiker is remembered as a dauntless leap of the imagination.
I’m sleepy. The Texas delegation had a tearful locker room scene last night that lasted until 4 a.m. There was talk of sending a message to Reagan, asking him to accept the vice-presidential spot, but the hardcore faction was bitterly against it, preferring to have their candidate pure in defeat. Instead a message was sent voicing the delegation’s support in whatever Reagan chose to do.
At the 2 p.m. caucus today it is apparent that almost a third of the delegates have gone home early to escape the agony of Ford’s acceptance speech. A resolution condemning the Ford domination of the convention, as well as the behavior of Betty and Jack Ford and Nelson Rockefeller, is read, and tactfully amended to spare the Fords and the Veep.
No resolutions, though, are brought forth in support of Ford and Dole. The delegation is too grievously hurt to make any sort of broad conciliatory gesture. They will wait to see how Ford lives up to the platform Reagan has forced him to run on.
At the final session of the convention a huge painting of the President has been hung from the ceiling of the arena. The artist has depicted Ford’s smile as a primate’s sneer; the presence of such a totem is unsettling.
Ford and Dole. The ticket has a thudding sound, but the signs nevertheless are everywhere, held in reserve until Dole’s nomination.
Dole captures the votes easily enough, but when the time comes for Texas to dispense theirs he is granted only 26 out of 100. Forty-three more go to Jesse Helms, and the others are divided between Roger Staubach and Ray Barnhart and a tedious list of token candidates. (Only the desperate pleading of a delegation leader keeps three votes from being cast for Nixon.)
During Texas’ recitation of its votes, Ronald and Nancy Reagan enter the opposite end of the arena. They are so far away and so high up in the gallery they look like figures on a wedding cake.
The reception Reagan receives has an intensity that can only come from thousands of broken hearts longing to be made whole again. The presidency seems all at once a minor prosaic office compared to the sainthood to which Reagan has now risen. His ideals hover inviolate and glorious in the vacuum of lost possibility, and it must gall Ford, poor dull Ford, not to share a little in that transcendent defeat that enshrines his rival.
A series of “Viva/Olés” breaks forth from Texas, and for one heart-stopping moment the cheer spreads to the entire convention.
“Speech! Speech! Third Party!” the delegates roar, but in time they allow the business of the convention to proceed. Dole is nominated; there is modest approval. John Connally sits in the guest gallery, his upper lip taut and gray. (When a Maine delegate voted for him for vice president he did not even look up.)
Dole speaks: a plain voice embellishing a plain rushed speech. Then there is a long-term chain reaction of introductions that culminates in Ford taking the podium. The Secret Service has by now commandeered every entrance and exit, and by the looks on their faces it is plain that any sudden move could mean death.
“From the snowy banks of Minnesota to the sandy plains of Georgia,” Ford roars. Though I’m not sure there are sandy plains in Georgia, it’s a good speech for Ford. His therapists have smoothed out his assertive gestures so that he no longer seems like a robot when he makes a point, and the text is candid and wistful, ending nicely with an unexpected participial fullness —“God helping me, I won’t let you down.”
Then comes the arm waving, the wrist wagging, the adulation basking. Ford signals to Reagan: come down, come down. You can sense Reagan’s reluctance to descend from the firmament, but there is no way out of it, and when he appears on the podium his radiance is intact. The gravity he always lacked as an actor seems to have come into his face in one epiphanous dose. Ford is a sensitive, conciliatory winner, but he cannot hide his joy—I think he actually prances. Next to Reagan, whose Mr. Magoo face has taken on, like Ahab’s, a “crucifixion,” Ford’s features are sleek and glossy.
“We’re all tremendously pleased and honored to have Ron Reagan and Nancy come down,” he says. “We are all a part of this great Republican family.”
There is something irritating in the way Ford calls Reagan “Ron,” but the Texas delegation, in tears, in dejection, in crushed hopes, begins to learn to live with it.
In the limousine to the airport I sit down next to a man whose vocal cords are so ravaged he can barely speak. But he seems to want to talk anyway, and so I ask him where he’s from.
He looks hurt. “I’m that Cool Cat from San Pat,” he reminds me.
The last time I saw the Cool Cat a red cowboy hat was mushed down on to his head and his face was compacted with adrenaline. Now that face is pleasant and subdued: it has regained its shape, and the Cool Cat’s eyes are able to take in, unflinchingly now, a Ford billboard.