Posts Tagged ‘1976 GOP convention’

Me and Betty Ford

Monday, August 27th, 2012

By Jeffrey Page

For some reason unknown to me now or then, The Times Herald-Record sent me to Kansas City to cover the Republican National Convention of 1976. I wasn’t much of a political reporter, but the editors were interested in feature stories about local delegates and party leaders.

And off I went to the heartland.

The 1976 convention was exciting. After all, here was Gerald Ford, a man who was appointed vice president after Spiro Agnew had to resign and who then became president when Richard Nixon quit. And here was Ronald Reagan mounting a serious challenge to Ford, the never-elected incumbent. And here was Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina carping that Reagan’s vice presidential choice, Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, wasn’t conservative enough. There was talk of William F. Buckley’s mounting a challenge to Schweiker.

And finally, with Ford’s nomination, there was Reagan’s concession speech in which he paraphrased St. Matthew and referred to America as “a shining city on a hill.” It was that single line in that single speech that brought the house down and which would identify Reagan for the rest of his life. Conservatives fell in love with him after being out in the cold since the Goldwater rebellion of 1964.

Now in Kansas City, the GOP made news, I wrote features. And then Republicans seemed to come this-close to nominating me for president of the United States.

I think it was the second night of the convention. I was in the press tent a few hundred yards from the Kemper Arena, where the convention’s public business was conducted. The Kemper was a huge venue, holding about 20,000 people. I had been on the phone with an editor in Middletown and missed the last bus over to the arena. With my credentials dangling from my neck I hoofed it to the Kemper.

I was drenched with perspiration – Kansas City is not pleasant in summer – and I looked like I’d had a bad night at McNulty’s Saloon. I found an open door and walked in. If there were security guards on duty that night, they were practicing the art of invisibility.

So now I was in the arena but wasn’t sure of how to get to the press area, which I knew was not far from the rostrum, where speeches were delivered, promises were made, Jimmy Carter was dismissed, and where Reagan would come close to snatching the nomination from Ford.

I walked the perimeter of the arena and finally came to an inclined corridor leading to arena itself. I walked up the stairs and just as I reached the third or fourth step from the top, all the lights in the Kemper Arena went out. I couldn’t see a thing. The darkness didn’t stop the delegates. They just kept cheering, yelling, whistling and applauding. A voice on the PA system was saying something but I couldn’t make it out.

From across the arena a single spotlight shone up and down and side to side, like it was searching for something. Then it landed on me and stopped and 20,000 people in the Kemper started cheering even louder. I mean cheering with passion. The band played some music; I forget what it was.

I began feeling a little panicky in just that one light and with everybody cheering me. The sweat rolled down my face and chest. My shirt was soaked. I looked like hell. And still they cheered. Then I did what I knew might seem like a joke; I looked behind me, thinking the person they were expecting would be there. Or that security guards were finally arriving to drag me off to jail. But they never showed up.

So I did what had to be done.

I waved.

Nothing big. Not like Eisenhower used to do with both arms up, but just a modest little wrist shake to acknowledge the delegates’ worshipful feelings toward me. I thought about the old Frank Capra movie “Meet John Doe,” and wondered about an unknown (me) assuming leadership of a major political party. Of course Doe had to do it by threatening to commit suicide; I was not ready for that.

I would like to tell you that I also thought about who I would pick for my running mate and what I would deal with in my first 100 days, but I had no such thoughts. I simply stood there, dumbstruck and not having a clue about what to do next.

I waved again. The house lights came on and I understood what had happened. In a major breach of security, I had walked up a corridor to the point on the circumference of the arena where friends, family members and guests of Republican VIPs were seated.

They weren’t cheering me. They were cheering Betty Ford, who had been introduced by the guy in the PA system and was being seated at the moment I climbed those stairs.

Betty waved. The delegates forgot me and responded to her. They loved Betty Ford. Didn’t we all?

But I was severely annoyed. This meant that no matter what happened on Election Day, I wouldn’t be able to appoint John Lennon as my secretary of state.