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“Corrupt Politicians Make The Other Ten Percent Look Bad”: A History Of Conventions, 1972
by Brian Josepher

Richard Nixon placed a glass on the counter. He filled the glass three-quarters full with his favorite scotch whiskey. Nixon drank Famous Grouse. He then, as his tradition dictated, added a scoop’s worth of ice cubes to his drink. Nixon liked to crunch into frigidity. Nixon liked the hard edges in his mouth. Nixon liked the breakage and shattering effect.

The President filled a second glass in the same manner. He then poured a healthy helping of a different scotch whiskey into a third glass. He walked that drink over to his wife, sitting on the floral-patterned sofa. Pat Nixon drank Chivas. Unlike her husband, she drank her whiskey neat. Pat Nixon didn’t like the hard edges in her mouth. She didn’t like the breakage and shattering effect. She drank her whiskey neat because she was arguably the neatest (as in tidy) woman ever to live in the White House. Pat Nixon cleaned her own toilets. The hired help, she believed, didn’t do the job right. The hired help didn’t understand how to wield a toilet bowl cleaner with the precise muscle. Pat Nixon wielded a Rubbermaid with utter craft, cunning and strength.

Richard Nixon returned to the counter and grabbed the two glasses of Famous Grouse. He walked over to his fuzzy haired guest. Henry Kissinger wore a “Jew Afro,” according to the final person in the room, Joseph Brine, Pat Nixon’s longtime personal assistant. “He even combed it with a pick.”

Joseph Brine’s remembrance of the Nixon/Kissinger meeting can be found in the Oral History of Joseph Brine at the Nixon Presidential Library.

According to Brine, the Nixon/Kissinger meeting took place at the top of the Miami Beach Convention Center. “There was a series of offices up in the rafters,” Brine recalled. “There was a great deal of noise coming from the crowd down below. ‘Four more years,’ the crowd was chanting. ‘Four more years.’”

The date was August 23, 1972. Four years earlier, at the Republican Convention of 1968, held in the very same Miami Beach Convention Center, there was a hint of surprise. Richard Nixon was not a lock for the Republican nominee. Two governors, Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Ronald Reagan of California, led late charges. There were floor skirmishes before the nomination vote.

The Republican Convention of 1972 had none of those theatrics. According to the “dean” of convention reporting, journalist Elisabeth Drue (known affectionately as “Dean Drue” for books on many of the national conventions of the latter half of the 20th century, and into the 21st century), “The Republican Convention of 1972 was predetermined. President Nixon, in his reelection bid, was the nominee and there wasn’t even a hush of opposition. What made the convention noteworthy, though, was its scripted timeline. Nothing was left to chance. Now we expect scripted conventions, but 1972 was the first of its kind. From the various politicians across a broad spectrum – from Goldwater and Reagan on the right to Gerald Ford in the middle to Nelson Rockefeller on the left – endorsing the President to smoothly edited film tributes of Pat and Dick to a taped endorsement by a teary Mamie Eisenhower, the entire show provided tidy television fare. Tidy and boring. Even the Republican Rat Pack came off as unexceptional.”

The Republican Rat Pack included only one member from the famed Frank Sinatra-led Hollywood Rat Pack. His name was Sammy Davis Jr. The Republican Rat Pack also included John Wayne, James Stewart, Pat Boone and Charlton Heston. On the evening of August 23, as an introduction to President Nixon’s nomination speech to the convention, the Republican Rat Pack performed an Oval Office skit. With a script ghostwritten by Pat Buchanan, the skit featured Heston as Nixon, Wayne as Vice President Agnew, Jimmy Stewart as Al Haig and Sammy Davis as Henry Kissinger.

Only Sammy Davis received accolades for his portrayal. “He did a pretty good Kissinger,” journalist Elisabeth Drue elucidated. “Garrulous, pedantic, relentless, all in a booming baritone. Like Kissinger, he spoke in non sequitur. Of course, because it was Sammy, he smiled the entire time. Kissinger only smiled when the television cameras, and the ladies, were around.”

In the skit, Sammy Davis as Henry Kissinger baritoned some lines, all in non sequitur, “America doesn’t have friends, America only has interests… Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac… Corrupt politicians make the other ten percent look bad.”

“Four more years,” the delegates in the Convention Center responded. “Four more years.”

In the office high above the floor, President Nixon met with the man whom he always turned to in times of trouble. Eyewitness Joseph Brine explained, “There was a small demonstration going on outside the Convention Center. Some Vietnam veterans on a perfunctory protest. The national media hadn’t as yet made news of the demo and Nixon wanted to keep it that way. How would it look if, while the President gave his nomination speech, the news split the television screen, with the President’s speech on the left and coverage of the protest on the right? Nixon wanted to stop the protest. So he called in Kissinger. He asked Kissinger to go outside and speak to the protesters. To reason with them.”

Why did Nixon ask Kissinger to go out and speak to the Vietnam veterans? “Kissinger had legendary status in America,” journalist Elisabeth Drue explained. “In a Gallup poll taken in 1972, he ranked fourth on a list of ‘most admired’ Americans, after Nixon, Billy Graham, and Harry Truman. The next year, after the death of Truman and with Nixon in his Watergate quagmire, Kissinger ranked first.”

According to eyewitness Joseph Brine, Kissinger responded to Nixon in his typical baritone, “If I had to choose between justice and disorder, on the one hand, and injustice and order, on the other, I would always choose the latter.” He then swallowed some whiskey and lifted himself from the chair. As he left the office he baritoned, “Military men are just dumb stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy.”

In the skit down below Sammy Davis as Henry Kissinger baritoned some lines, all in non sequitur, “A leader does not deserve the name unless he is willing occasionally to stand alone… The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer… Even a paranoid has some real enemies.”

“Four more years,” the delegates in the Convention Center responded. “Four more years.”

Joseph Brine’s characterization of “some Vietnam veterans on a perfunctory protest” smacked of denigration. In fact these Vietnam veterans were all wheelchair disabled. On the evening of Wednesday, August 23, they gathered outside the Convention Center and chanted, “Stop the bombing (of Vietnam and Laos)! Stop the bombing!”

The chanting coming from inside the arena drowned out the veterans’ chanting. “Four more years,” the delegates chanted inside. “Four more years.”

Sammy Davis as Henry Kissinger had just baritoned, “We perhaps deserve some credit for holding together the sinews of America at a time of fundamental collapse.”

The real Henry Kissinger stood before the wheelchaired Vietnam veterans. The leader of the veterans, Conrad Rovic, reflected on the moment in his autobiography, Disabled on the Fourth of July, “We didn’t know what to expect. How would the Republican Party deal with our protest? Who would play MacArthur, Eisenhower and Patton? Who would play Eleanor?”

Rovic’s mention of “MacArthur, Eisenhower and Patton” harkened back to 1932. Then, World War I veterans camped outside White House grounds. Protesting for the bonus promised to them by Congress back in 1924, the veterans became known as the “Bonus Army.” President Hoover sent the military triumvirate out to greet the veterans. General MacArthur, ignoring Hoover’s orders to peacefully move the protesters, cleared the camp by dispersing DM gas, an arsenic used paradoxically by the Allies during World War I. In the melee that followed MacArthur’s forces opened fire. Two veterans died from gunshot wounds. Hundreds were injured.

A year later, when the veterans returned to protest for their bonuses, new president Franklin Roosevelt sent out his wife Eleanor, with coffee and cookies. Eleanor persuaded many of the veterans to sign up for a new work relief program called the Civilian Conservation Corp. Many members of the Bonus Army built the highway to the Florida Keys, the southern most route of U.S. Route 1.

In his autobiography Disabled on the Fourth of July, Conrad Rovic continued, “In our wildest imagination, we never dreamed that Henry Kissinger would play the Eleanor role. Henry Kissinger, the war criminal. Henry Kissinger, the sociopath. I have come to believe there is nothing in the lives of human beings more terrifying than war and nothing more important than for those of us who have experienced it to share its awful truth. In concise terms, that’s called a social conscience. And what of Henry Kissinger? Where was his social conscience?”

Unlike Eleanor, Kissinger did not appear with coffee and cookies. “He held a whiskey glass in his hand,” Rovic reflected.

Kissinger, in his basic baritone, growled at the protesting veterans, “While we should never give up our principles, we must realize that we cannot maintain our principles unless we survive.”

Rovic did a double take. “What did that mean?” he wrote in his autobiography. “Just more Kissinger mumbo-jumbo. Kissinger was King Mumbo-Jumbo.”

To Kissinger, Rovic replied, “War is not the answer. Violence is not the solution. A more peaceful world is possible.”

Behind Rovic, his fellow veterans broke into their chant: “Stop the bombing! Stop the bombing!”

Inside the Miami Beach Convention Center Sammy Davis as Henry Kissinger baritoned, “I would rather like to think that when the record is written, one may remember that perhaps some lives were saved and perhaps some mothers can rest more at ease. But I leave that to history.”

“Four more years,” the delegates inside the Miami Beach Convention Center responded. “Four more years.”

The television camera caught an interesting sight just off stage: the chuckling of three politicians. A little over a year later one of those politicians, Spiro Agnew, would resign the vice presidency. He would plead no contest to the charge that he had failed to report $29,500 of income.

The second chuckling politician, Gerald Ford, would replace Agnew as Nixon’s vice president. A year after that he would be sworn in as the 38th president of the United States.

The third chuckling politician, Ronald Reagan, would essentially doom President Ford’s reelection campaign in 1976. Ford believed, to his dying day, that he lost his reelection to Reagan, not to the Democrat Jimmy Carter. According to Ford, Reagan exposed all of Ford’s weaknesses during the primary season. Carter merely repeated them during the general election.

Gerald Ford would never forgive Ronald Reagan. In the 1976 primary campaign he accused Reagan of “disloyalty.” He lashed out, characterizing Reagan as “intellectually thin with a penchant for offering simplistic solutions to hideously complex problems.” Spiro Agnew, a Ford supporter, took the accusation further. In his typical alliteration he called Reagan “that purveyor of pusillanimous perfidy.”

The television camera, interestingly enough, did not swing from the skit or the chuckling politicians to the scene outside the Convention Center. The television camera missed Kissinger addressing the wheelchaired Vietnam veterans. “Not surprisingly,” noted Conrad Rovic. “The head of NBC news, David Brinkley, received a vote for vice president at the convention. There were delegates wearing ‘Brinkley for Vice President’ buttons. Why would Brinkley want to harm his own cause?”

According to the dean of convention reporting, Elisabeth Drue, the Brinkley buttons “were a joke. Yes, Brinkley did receive a vote for vice president, but Spiro Agnew received the rest of the votes. Rumor is, Roone Arledge, the chairman of ABC, led a whispering campaign for Brinkley as a V.P. candidate. ABC of course was NBC’s competitor and if Brinkley somehow became vice president, well, ABC would be better off. Of course, Arledge would later hire Brinkley away from NBC.”

Outside the Convention Center Henry Kissinger offered a major concession to the protesting veterans, at least at first glance. “I believe it’s high time for a ceasefire,” Kissinger baritoned. “You have my word, I will work toward ending the war and restoring peace.” In 1973, in fact, a ceasefire broke out in Vietnam. For his role in the negotiations Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Kissinger’s next remarks to the veterans, however, hinted at a war that would continue well after the ceasefire, and make a mockery of his Nobel Prize. “What is wrong is when you lose,” he baritoned, “not getting up off of that floor and coming back and fighting again.”

Conrad Rovic did a double take. “What did that mean?” he wrote in his autobiography. “How far would Kissinger go with his double-talk? King Mumbo-Jumbo was at it again.”

King Mumbo-Jumbo’s words, however, had an effect. The veterans were stunned into silence.

Meanwhile, inside the Miami Beach Convention Center, the delegates responded with noise. The skit performed by the Republican Rat Pack ended with Charlton Heston as Richard Nixon assuming a Moses-like pose at the parting Red Sea. The lights faded on Moses. When the lighting resumed seconds later, there was President Nixon in his V-for-Victory pose.

Published: Aug 7,2008 12:35
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