Fifty years ago today, on August 18, 1972, as a 14 year-old boy and with no adult supervision for the next week, I boarded a plane in Oakland, changed planes in Los Angeles, and then caught a red-eye plane to Miami to attend the 1972 Republican National Convention, where President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew won renomination for a second term as president.
The story of my 1972 Miami adventure, adapted from my 2013 book "And Then I Met..." is below. Looking back on the experience, I'm so glad that Alameda County, California apparently didn't have social workers tracking down mothers (like mine) who let their unaccompanied minors travel 3,000 miles to cavort for a week at a national political convention.
• • •
National nominating conventions are to political junkies and campaign memorabilia collectors what Valhalla is to a dead Viking, so my boyhood dream was to attend one. In 1972 my chance came when I received a letter from Tom Bell, chairman of the Young Voters for the President (YVP) delegation to the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami. Bell wanted to organize thousands of young volunteers to help staff the convention. For only $280, the YVPs offered round-trip airfare from California to Florida, hotel rooms and meals for a week, and admission to the convention to see the renominations of President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew. However, there was a hitch: the YVPs limited eligibility to registered Republican voters ages 18 to 30. I was a 14 year-old boy who thought of himself as a Democrat back then, but so what? The Democrats didn't invite me to their convention—the Republicans did.
There was a second hitch: I needed to convince my mother to let me fly cross-country alone and spend a week 3,000 miles away with no adult supervision. Knowing the likely response if I asked permission, I bypassed the consent route and went for the fait accompli. I filled out the YVP application (Jim Rogan, Registered Republican, Age 26) and mailed it back to Mr. Bell with a $280 money order that I purchased with savings from my part-time job at an Oakland toy store.
"Oh, Mom, I almost forgot to tell you," I mentioned casually after dinner that night, "this August I'll be flying to Miami for the Republican National Convention. I'll only be gone about a week. I'll call you while I'm there."
She laughed. "Are you kidding? You're 14 years old. You can't just fly across the country and be gone for a week by yourself. That's ridiculous."
"Mom, I'll be with 20,000 Republicans—how much trouble can I get in? Besides, I already paid for it—$280. It's nonrefundable."
She scowled at me before extinguishing her cigarette in the ashtray. "In that case," she told me, "have a good time. And stay out of trouble." My single mother's permissive standards sometimes came in very handy.
A week later I received from the YVPs my notice of acceptance, along with a confirmed reservation aboard the Miami Special flight departing Los Angeles International Airport at midnight on August 18, 1972.
• • •
I was unprepared for the anarchy aboard our charter flight to Florida. From the moment our plane went "wheels up," the college-aged passengers leapt from their seats and the in-flight party began. Someone pried open the liquor galley and passed out now-complimentary bottles to all takers. Rock music blasted through the cabin and people danced in the aisles or on the seats. Recognizing the futility of trying to preserve order, our stewardess crew kicked off their shoes, tossed aside their pillbox hats, and joined in the revelry.
Growing up in liberal San Francisco, I had always heard that you could tell a Republican by his or her hair color: gray for men and blue for women. My traveling companions smashed that stuffy stereotype. They were young, hip, fun, loud, and (for many soon after takeoff) inebriated. As I surveyed this wild scene, I remembered what I had said to convince my mother to let me go on this unsupervised weeklong escapade. Now I asked myself the same question I had put to her, but the emphasis changed: How much trouble could I get into with these Republicans?!
My late-twenties seatmate (I'll call her Bambi—not her real name) offered a potential answer to that question. At first, she presented a severe contrast to the other partying passengers. Her old-fashioned blouse buttoned all the way up her neck-high collar. She wore glasses, a long skirt, clunky shoes, and her hair piled high in a bun. We struck up a friendly but reserved conversation.
As the plane reached its cruising altitude, she drank a glass of wine—and another, and then another. In time, the upper buttons on her librarian blouse loosened up as much as her previously reserved persona. The bobby pins came out of her bun and piles of chestnut locks dropped past her shoulders. She kicked off her klogs and stretched her legs under the seat in front of her.
Somewhere over Kansas, a deeply relaxed Bambi turned toward the window and caught me looking at her. Embarrassed, I apologized. She reached over, took my hand, and studied me over the top of her glass frames with sleepy, half-closed green eyes. Her slow transformation from frumpy seatmate into an attractive—even sexy—woman mesmerized me.
"You know," she said in a low voice, "you really seem like a nice guy. You're easy to talk to. May I tell you something?"
"Sure," I said innocently.
"I have a bit of a problem. It's a secret." After assuring her that she could trust me with her confidence, she let it fly: "I'm a nymphomaniac."
Even at 14, I knew what that meant.
Bambi leaned in closer. "Say," she asked through those sleepy eye slits, "how old did you say you are?"
We looked at each other in silence for a few beats before I answered: "I'll tell you the truth. I lied on my application. I wrote back to the national committee and said that I was 26 because I really wanted to come to the convention. But it's not true. My real age would have disqualified me."
"So how old are you?"
I cleared my throat: "Bambi—I'm 32."
As a young boy growing up in a pro-union and Democrat San Francisco household, I couldn't understand why anyone would want to be a Republican. Now, as our airborne jubilee continued winging throughout the night, I recognized for the first time that America did indeed have a vigorous two-party system, and that perhaps I shouldn't be so hasty in deciding which one suited me better.
• • •
Our charter plane arrived in Miami the next morning. Once we landed, organizers packed our time with campaign and convention-related events. Since President Nixon faced no serious opposition, the thousands of enthusiastic Republicans descending on Florida gathered for a coronation, not combat.
That afternoon I attended a poolside reception for Vice President Agnew at the Americana Hotel. At the conclusion of the event, and always looking for a chance to add to my collection, I shimmied up a pole mounted near the platform and yanked the convention seal off a speaker's lectern. If I met any dignitaries, I thought this might be a unique item on which to collect autographs. As it turned out, I was not disappointed.
• • •
Nautilus Middle School in Miami has a significant bit of unknown historical trivia that might surprise their current faculty and students: Over one 24-hour period in 1972, three future presidents of the United States visited their small campus. I know because I was there.
August 21 was the first full day of the convention. I boarded an early morning shuttle to Nautilus (vacant for the summer recess), which became our YVP holding area during our week in Miami. There we encamped under a large outdoor tent on the athletic field. During convention down times, we assembled under the tent painting rally signs, making new friends from 50 states, drinking complimentary Pepsi Cola from a nearby concession stand, eating boxed lunches catered by the Marriott hotels, and meeting a parade of Party dignitaries dropping by to thank us for our help.
At noon, a station wagon pulled onto the field. Out stepped a middle-aged man with thinning brown hair and wearing gray slacks and a yellow open-neck shirt—Congressman Gerald R. Ford (R-MI), the minority leader of the House of Representatives. Recovering from recent knee surgery to correct an old football injury, he hobbled on a cane over to our tent. An organizer summoned the volunteers together and introduced him to us.
Many of the YVPs were indifferent to hearing or meeting the rather obscure congressman. While Ford spoke, most volunteers remained in the back of the tent painting signs, blowing up balloons, or napping on the grass. For those of us listening, he kept his remarks brief. He welcomed the YVPs to Miami and thanked everyone for their efforts on behalf of the Nixon–Agnew ticket. He then urged us to return home at the end of the convention and work very hard to deliver a Republican congressional majority in November. This, he added, would bring him his greatest personal ambition—becoming speaker of the House.
Ford mingled with the YVPs, signed a few autographs, and answered questions, but his prolonged standing appeared to aggravate his knee pain. When he signaled to his driver his readiness to go, the aide had to assist him back to the car. Ford slid his cane underneath the seat and waved goodbye as the station wagon pulled away.
• • •
The next day, Miami's brutally hot and muggy weather (combined with no air-conditioning under our tent) left the cluster of YVPs increasingly lethargic. Even the free cups of Pepsi failed to bring relief. The ice melted immediately in the oppressive heat.
This sluggish spirit evaporated when a sedan pulled up to the tent and someone shouted excitedly, "It's Governor Reagan!" Unlike the reception accorded Congressman Ford, volunteers ran from all corners of the school and crammed underneath the tent to cheer Reagan as he stepped from his automobile. Where other guest speakers generated only mild interest, his surprise appearance merited a rock star-worthy reception.
During convention week, the other guest speakers visiting us wilted quickly in the heat. Neckties came off, shirt collar buttons loosened unceremoniously, and dress shirts drenched in perspiration. Reagan proved the exception. He looked crisp and fresh throughout his time with us as he discussed the Nixon campaign, the important convention efforts of the YVPs, and his own vision for an America free of bureaucratic intrusion into people's lives.
When his impromptu remarks concluded, an aide told him it was time to go. Reagan brushed him off and told the crowd of young activists there was no place he would rather be right now than with them, and he took questions for another 15 minutes.
When a youth asked if he would run for president in 1976, the prolonged ovation almost drowned out his answer. Cocking his head and smiling, he demurred. "Well," he replied coyly, "1976 is a long way off."
The crowd mobbed Reagan when he finished. He signed autographs and shook hands as he made his way back to the car. Once inside, he rolled down his window and shook more hands until his driver pulled away.
• • •
A few hours later, another car arrived with an unrecognized dignitary: the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, former Texas Congressman George Bush (who had lost a U.S. Senate race two years earlier). Wearing slacks, an open-neck shirt, and a security pass hanging from a chain around his neck that resembled the ones that we wore, he walked around the field introducing himself and thanking the volunteers. Bush gave a brief pep talk to the troops that drew the same lukewarm interest shown in Gerald Ford's visit. It was less a reflection of their flat oratorical skills as it was the afternoon's draining heat and humidity. Besides, let's face it, Ronald Reagan was a tough act for anyone to follow.
• • •
I turned 15 on the opening day of the 1972 Republican National Convention, but the birthday blessing proved mixed. Getting inside the hall to witness history was more difficult than expected. Thousands of protesters descended on Miami to disrupt the proceedings. For our protection, the National Guard provided a fleet of buses with steel-barred and mesh windows to transport us through the downtown area. As our caravan barreled down Collins Avenue, I watched as troopers lining the route fought against demonstrators trying to break through the lines. Rocks and bottles crashed against our bus along the route.
At one checkpoint, a trooper in full riot gear and carrying an automatic rifle boarded our bus and gave us these ominous instructions: "There's a lot of tension out there on the streets and some of these people are very violent. If your bus is attacked, do not try to leave the bus. Stay on board. Your life may depend on it. If any of them break through and attack your bus, everybody needs to lean toward the rioters so they will have a harder time turning the bus over and killing you."
Lean toward the rioters if they try turning over the bus? The trooper offered no Plan B.
The scene outside the Miami Beach Convention Center looked just as grim. Police clashed with a huge mob of screaming rioters. Only a chain-link security fence separated us from the anarchy. The view unnerved me, but I hadn't come all this way to be deterred. I planned to get inside that hall no matter what.
Gratefully, our bus made it by the melee and dropped us safely at the entrance. Because security inside the arena was very tight, the line to enter the hall moved agonizingly slow. The Secret Service required each person to pass through two metal detectors and then have all personal items hand-searched. After half an hour, the line had barely moved. As the time approached for the opening gavel, I felt sure that I would miss it.
An impatient reporter at the rear of the crowd held aloft his press credentials and pushed his way through to the front of the line calling out, "CBS News—let me pass, please. CBS News...." The mass of people moved aside for him without ever looking over their shoulders. If it worked once, it might work again: I held my YVP credentials over my head. "Excuse me," I shouted. "NBC News—let me pass, please. Excuse me, please, NBC News...." Once more, the Red Sea parted and I walked directly to the security screening table inside the arena.
Any lingering bus ride anxiety dissolved when I entered the hall. The sight thrilled me. Neat rows of tri-folded red, white, and silver state delegation banners perched atop poles rested amid the thousands of seats. At the front of the arena stood a two-story eggshell-colored podium bearing the seals of all 50 states. Huge American flags and Nixon banners hung from the rafters. In the skyboxes, network news anchormen Walter Cronkite of CBS, John Chancellor and David Brinkley of NBC, and Harry Reasoner and Howard K. Smith of ABC all looked down from their glass-encased perches. Behind the podium, two large Jumbotron screens flashed a repeated admonition: "Delegates and Alternates: Please be seated."
From my seat in the gallery, I watched as U.S. Senator Bob Dole banged the ceremonial gavel and called the 1972 Republican National Convention to order. Little did I dream that a quarter-century later, Dole—the 1996 GOP presidential nominee—would campaign for me in my three congressional races.
One of the first convention speeches that night was the briefest. Former Kansas Governor Alf Landon, the 1936 Republican nominee against Franklin D. Roosevelt, stood before the microphones and received a standing ovation. The 84-year old wore a huge sunflower (his 1936 campaign symbol) on his coat lapel. Landon accepted a commemorative plaque, and then he delivered a two-sentence speech: "We meet tonight in this convention in unity and enthusiasm for the winner of the next election, a great president, a great world leader, Richard Nixon. One good term deserves another."
Seeing Landon in person delighted me. A few years earlier as a young boy I had wanted him to send me an autographed picture. When I read somewhere that the Topeka telephone directory listed his home number, I decided to call him and ask for the picture personally. I waited for my mother to leave and run errands, and then I dialed Prescott 2–2460. Sure enough, the former governor answered the telephone himself, but the results proved frustrating. No matter how loudly I spoke, Landon kept saying we had a bad connection, he couldn't hear me clearly, and he told me to hang up and try again. I did—14 times. The next month, when my mother received the whopping $50 long-distance bill (the equivalent of $400 in 2020) for 14 peak-time calls to Topeka, I got a slap to go with the signed picture that Landon sent me. When Landon died 20 years later, I wrote a condolence letter to his daughter, U.S. Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum, and I shared that story. She wrote back: "I appreciate your story about Dad. It always amazes me to hear how many people have talked with him and remember him fondly. He of course loved the attention, and I am sure he enjoyed your calls as much as you did—and he didn't get spanked for it!"
Landon wasn't the only nostalgic speaker that night. Senator Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee, compared Democrat presidential nominee George McGovern to the coyotes roaming around his native Arizona: "My coyotes just bay and moan and cry over everything that exists, but they never suggest anything new, anything better, or anything constructive to replace them." He hit McGovern as an appeaser to the communist government in North Vietnam, saying, "For the first time, a candidate of one of our major parties has already surrendered to the enemy before the election has been held…. I say to the communist bosses in Hanoi that the McGoverns do not speak for America, nor will they ever get the chance."
Governor Ronald Reagan, the temporary convention chairman, used McGovern and the Democrats as fodder for his comedic talents, with each joke about them provoking uproarious laughter throughout the hall. Turning serious, he accused McGovern of pursuing utopian and extravagant policies amounting to a deliberate deception on the voters. "If we confiscated all the earnings of all the corporations in America at 100 per cent, we would have less than a third of the price of [McGovern's] promises."
The evening also proved memorable for an unexpected reason. During a filmed tribute to Mrs. Nixon (who made a brief appearance on stage following its conclusion), I stepped out of the hall for some fresh air. When I tried returning through the same gate, a guard said my pass didn't authorize readmission there and he didn't know where to direct me. I walked the outer perimeter of the auditorium trying other gate entrances, but security rebuffed me at each one.
Meanwhile, another violent confrontation erupted between police and rioters on the other side of the nearby chain-link fence. Teargas burned my eyes and throat as it wafted my way, while members of the mob directed profane jeers and gestures at the only visible conventioneer—me. Someone threw a rock that missed my head. Trapped outside the hall between a convention fortress on one side of me and a riot on the other, I didn't know what to do. Fortunately, a Secret Service agent saw my plight. He ran over, checked my credential quickly, and then he escorted me back inside the hall just as more rocks crashed where I had stood moments earlier.
Later that night, on the armored bus ride back to our hotel, I looked out my barred coach windows. Shrieking rioters again tried to break through the police lines to attack us. For the $280 I paid to be in Miami, I was getting far more of a convention experience than I ever anticipated. Still, it was an unforgettable way to spend my 15th birthday.
• • •
The next morning, the YVPs boarded buses for President Nixon's arrival ceremony. Thousands of supporters waving flags and campaign signs packed the temporary bleachers on the tarmac at Miami International Airport's Eastern Airlines hangar on 36th Street. The lineup of celebrity speakers warming up the crowd for Nixon included singer Ethel Merman and movie stars James Stewart, Mickey Rooney, and John Wayne.
Cheers arose when the gleaming Air Force One came into view on final approach. Chants of "Four More Years! Four More Years!" rang out as the plane landed and taxied to a stop. The clamor grew earsplitting when the cabin door swung open and a solitary man in a blue suit stepped onto the mobile stairs and waved.
President Richard Nixon deplaned and walked to the bank of microphones on the tarmac. Joined by First Lady Pat Nixon and their family, he thanked the YVPs for their welcome and promised to reward our efforts with a November victory. "I have not yet attended the convention," he told us. "The custom is that candidates who have not been nominated do not attend. I should not be here now, but I think I'm going to be nominated tonight, and so is Vice President Agnew!" With the 1972 election the first where 18 year-olds could vote for president, he added, "Based on what I've seen here today, those predictions that the other side is going to win young voters are wrong. We are going to win them."
When he finished speaking, he and Mrs. Nixon walked along the fence shaking hands. As he passed in front of me, I reached for his hand across the people in front of me, but he moved too quickly. I missed my chance.
The Nixon family boarded Marine One, the presidential helicopter. It circled the crowd twice before disappearing.
I didn't meet the president of the United States, but I saw him arrive on Air Force One and give a speech, and he came within a few feet of me. Not a bad way for a young political history buff to spend a morning.
• • •
Inside the convention hall that night, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller placed Nixon's name in nomination. During the roll call of the states, organizers corralled our YVP groups into an auditorium and handed out noisemakers, flags, and floppy Nixon hats. As the balloting neared its conclusion, they escorted us to the delegate entrances on the convention floor.
Over the loudspeaker came the voice of the chairman of the Missouri delegation casting all of its 30 votes for Nixon, which gave him the needed majority. From my spot, I saw Congressman Gerald Ford, the chairman of the convention, pound the gavel and declare Nixon the 1972 Republican presidential nominee. The band struck up patriotic music, ushers threw open the gates, and the YVPs waving flags and tooting noisemakers swarmed onto the convention floor as a quarter million balloons dropped from ceiling nets.
I wandered the arena taking pictures and gathering campaign buttons worn by generous delegates. Standing near the podium, I looked up and saw convention chairman Gerald Ford off to the side of the stage speaking privately with vice chairman Bob Dole. The irony of that image returned to me four years later. Through the twists of history, these two obscure 1972 convention officials stood before the next national convention as the 1976 Republican nominees for president and vice president.
• • •
On the final night of the convention, I sat in the gallery for the acceptance speeches. In his address, Vice President Agnew pledged, "I shall do everything in my power to help reelect this great president and, after his reelection, to assist him in every way 1 can in the difficult task that lies ahead. That task is to make this nation the best possible home for all Americans…. Do we turn our country over to the piecemeal, inconsistent and illusory policies of George McGovern? Or do we entrust the future of this nation to the sound, tested leadership of Richard Nixon? There can be only one answer to that question. And in November it will be answered resoundingly with the reelection of the president."
Agnew concluded his remarks by introducing Nixon, who emerged from behind the stage to the strains of Hail to the Chief and a wall-shaking ovation. State banners and Nixon signs bounced up and down as the chant again rolled through the arena: "Four More Years! Four More Years!"
Once the applause died down, Nixon claimed his prize: "Four years ago, standing in this very place, I proudly accepted your nomination for president of the United States. With your help, and with the votes of millions of Americans, we won a great victory in 1968. Tonight, I again proudly accept your nomination for president of the United States, and let us pledge ourselves to win an even greater victory this November in 1972."
• • •
When the acceptance speeches ended, Nixon and Agnew wrapped their arms around each other and waved to the delegates as balloons dropped, the music blared, and conventioneers cheered themselves hoarse. Before adjourning the proceedings sine die, Gerald Ford announced that the Nixons and Agnews wanted to meet as many people as possible before leaving.
I rushed through the delegate floor entrance, which was next to the vice presidential receiving line. While waiting my turn to meet the Agnews, legendary singer Frank Sinatra and Governor Nelson Rockefeller strolled by me as they left the nearby VIP box. As a longtime Sinatra fan, I would like to have met him, but I didn't want to lose my place in line.
Agnew gave each of us moving through his line a ball point pen bearing his facsimile signature and the vice presidential seal. I thanked him and his wife, and then I hurried over to the Nixon line. While waiting, I added more autographs to my convention seal, including Governor Rockefeller, Bob Dole, future Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and many other notables.
The Nixons greeted people in their receiving line for over an hour. As my turn neared, a security guard shut down the line. For the second time this week, I has missed my chance to meet President Nixon. (As it turned out, 20 more years would pass before we met.)
Nixon picked up a microphone and announced it was time to go: "I was just reminded that we have a rather light day tomorrow," he explained. "Let me give you an idea of what a 'light day' is for a president: I fly to Chicago and speak at the American Legion Convention. Then I fly to Detroit to dedicate the Eisenhower High School. Then I fly to San Diego and speak at a rally, and then we fly by helicopter to San Clemente and speak there."
• • •
After the Nixons left, the convention hall emptied quickly. Workers swarmed onto the floor and began disassembling the arena in preparation for an upcoming sports event. Souvenir hunters grabbed state banners off the poles, tore them into thirds, and divided the pieces. Before Miami, I had always envied the political convention cleanup crews because I assumed that they would find treasure troves of discarded campaign memorabilia when it ended. Now I combed the empty aisles looking for abandoned mementos. I found the only thing a cleaning crew inherited at the end of a national convention was a messy hall.
• • •
After joining fellow YVPs for a postconvention party at the Americana Hotel (complete with a fully hosted bar and buffet), I dragged myself back to my hotel room around 4:00 a.m. Shortly after dozing off, shouts in the hallway awakened me. I dressed quickly and opened my door. A man down the hall yelled, "Get that woman out of my room!" As a small crowd gathered around him, he explained that he had come back from the Americana party, took a shower, and then he discovered a nude woman in his bed demanding sex. I thought he might be drunk until I heard a female inside his room shouting slurred obscenities and pleading for him to return and, well, take care of business.
I peeked through his open door. A naked and crying woman stood against the far wall using the window drapes as partial covering.
Bambi! It was my seatmate from our charter flight to Miami a week earlier.
As hotel security led her from his room, I patted on the shoulder the guy she had surprised and told him, "She's a nice girl once you get to know her."
• • •
I carried home to California a suitcase filled with political memorabilia, as well as countless memories of that historic trip. Those three future presidents I had met at Nautilus Middle School had each signed the convention seal I swiped from the podium my first night in Miami. Later I added President Nixon's and Vice President Agnew's signatures to it. Today it hangs framed in my office.
Back then I never imagined that in later decades I would come to know many of the people whose autographs I collected at the convention, including those three future presidents. The Reagan family invited me to his private graveside interment ceremony when he died in 2004. Former Presidents Ford and Bush became friends; both campaigned for me and held fundraisers for my congressional races. Those experiences remained many years in the future, and they were unimaginable to a starry-eyed 14 year-old boy who stepped off a plane in Miami on a humid August morning in 1972.
By the way, that purloined convention seal returns "home" occasionally: I have loaned it to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library to display whenever the archivists request it. I do so without any concerns over legal repercussions—
—The statute of limitations on my podium seal heist expired long ago.
[The above story is adapted from my 2013 book, "And Then I Met… Stories of Growing Up, Meeting Famous People, and Annoying the Hell Out of Them"]
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