The 1972 Democratic and Republican Conventions (Video)
Rarely do you think of Miami Beach as the center of the American political process
Democratic Convention: Miami Beach, FL July 10 to 13, 1972
When you think of Miami Beach as a center of something, that something usually involves fun. A party center, a tourism center, the media center for the super bowl, a drug-trafficking center. But rarely do you think of it as the center of the American political process. After all, a casual stroll down Collins Ave. on a Saturday doesn’t exactly find you rubbing elbows with news junkies and political hounds. But during the summer of 1972, Miami Beach became the third and last city to host both the Democratic and Republican National conventions in the same year. In an otherwise unremarkable and predictable presidential election, the South Florida conventions at least gave campaign workers and journalists something to look forward to.
Except that they were held during the summer.
Coming off the heels of successful hosting of the Republican convention in 1968, Miami was an easy choice for the Democrats. After the fiasco the party had experienced four years earlier in Chicago, they were hoping for a more uneventful, quiet gathering this time around. And since Nixon was the bad guy, the majority of protesting was reserved for his party’s visit in August.
Then Police Chief Rocky Pomerance went through gigantic lengths to make sure the city was safe. His 25-man police force was backed up by FBI agents, secret service agents, FDLE agents and Army intelligence officers. Flamingo Park was designated a “free speech” area, hoping to contain all of the protestors, and a massive chain link fence was constructed across the street from the convention center to contain protestors. So when the Democrats came to town in early July, the Beach was well prepared.
LOOK, IT CAN’T BE ANY WORSE THAN IT WAS LAST TIME
The Democrats chose to hold their convention in early July. Once again, the Miami Beach convention center would play host. But, of course, this was the early seventies, so along with all of the delegates, press and associated politicians, the convention also played host to a good number of “non-delegates.” This, of course, was the polite term for protestors, hippies or anyone else without enough money to pay for a South Beach hotel room who wanted to be a part of the action. In order to avoid having massive amounts of transients lining their streets (or at least no more than usual) Miami Beach officials opened up Flamingo Park to their temporarily-homeless visitors.
Only a short walk from the convention center, the park offered a nice place for visiting hippies to relax, unwind, and engage in whatever other hippie-type behavior they wanted. Yippie (this was how the group was known) leader Abbie Hoffman, who had a sort of pseudo-candidacy going at the time, got along fantastically with city officials, doing photo-ops at the Yippie office and mingling with the beach’s sizable Jewish population. Aside from garnering itself the moniker of “Quaalude Alley,” the encampment at Flamingo Park was uneventful. At least compared to what had happened in Chicago four years earlier. The atmosphere was so pleasant, the Democrats even hired Tammy Wynette and George Jones to do some concerts in the park.
NOMINATING THE SACRIFICIAL LAMB
The convention itself was a bit more interesting. George McGovern had surprised many by almost clinching the Democratic nomination, despite a disputed win in the winner-take-all California primary. He had bucked the traditional party leaders and was thought by many to be the guaranteed nominee heading into the Miami convention. Because he was so radical, though, many in the party leadership sought to undermine his nomination in order to have a better chance of beating Nixon in November. In his book on the 1972 campaign, “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72,” Hunter S. Thompson devotes the majority of his account of the Democratic convention to a very technical explanation of how McGovern’s team eventually usurped their would-be usurpers. I read the section four times and still don’t quite understand it, but in a nutshell McGovern’s delegates purposefully lost a vote so they could win one later. Makes no sense to me either.
McGovern, with his platform of Gay and abortion rights (unheard of for any national politician at the time) got the Democratic nomination on the first vote. While many in the party were none too thrilled with the outcome, the four day event saw few public displays of dissention among the Democrats. The South Dakota senator chose Thomas Eagleton as his running mate, who would leave the ticket shortly afterwards after stories of his hospitalization for mental illness and shock therapy were revealed. Nobody was overly concerned as a loss to Nixon was all but sealed with the nomination of such an intra-party polarizing figure such as McGovern. But at the time, at least, his staffers felt he may have really had a shot.
In a sort of prophetic South Beach fashion, most of the sessions didn’t get started until early evening and some went to almost sunrise. Much like club-goes stumbling out of Mansion or Cameo decades later, delegates would often find themselves returning to their hotel rooms at 6 or 7 a.m., severely disturbing their sleep cycles and burning out many who worked on the campaigns. If Flamingo Park was Quaalude alley, the strip of hotels that housed the conventioneers was caffeine alley. Or maybe some other things.
While the Democrats were able to create some drama within the convention walls, the scene outside was relatively peaceful. After all, since most protestors didn’t want to be coming to Miami twice in six weeks, they opted to save their firepower for the real villain: Richard Nixon.
THE MIAMI CONVENTION THAT ALMOST WASN’T
Republican Convention: Miami Beach, FL August 21 to 23, 1972
The 1972 Republican convention was not originally supposed to be held in Miami, but rather in more summer-friendly (and drivable from Nixon’s summer home) San Diego. But when the GOP could not effectively negotiate with the owner of the San Diego Sports Arena, and a scandal involving a telecommunications company investing in the infrastructure for the convention in exchange for settling an anti-trust suit was brought to light (imagine that, Nixon involved in a scandal) the party decided to move its convention East. And what better place than Miami Beach, who had already set themselves up for two conventions in the previous four years and had the hotel space and phone lines to accommodate them. Not to mention Nixon’s other summer home on Key Biscayne.
Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans came into Miami with no doubt as to who they would nominate. Nor did they have any dissention. This is almost always the case when you are nominating a sitting president. But what the internal workings of the convention lacked in fireworks, the outside more than made up for.
It probably would have been more convenient for Ron Kovic, of “Born of the Fourth of July” fame, and his band of Vietnam Veterans Against War if the GOP had considerately held its convention in California. It would have made for a much shorter trip. As it was, Kovic as well as thousands of others made the trek across the South to Miami Beach and, like at the Democratic convention, set themselves up in Flamingo Park. But this group was not nearly as peaceful.
A SINISTER REPUBLICAN PLOT OR JUST SOME BAD ACID?
It did not help matters that some members of VVAW had been arrested prior to the convention for planning to blow up several buildings around Miami during the convention. This group, known as The Gainesville Eight (after the city in which they planned their attacks) were under the impression that the Republicans were planning to kill someone and blame it on anti-war protestors, then subsequently block all roads and bridges off of South Beach so the local police could inflict mayhem upon the peace-loving hippies in the street. The Gainesville Eight’s objective was to cause disturbances elsewhere, thus diverting law enforcement personnel away from the beach, and preventing the presumed hippie-slaughter that they had expected. Yes, kids, bad acid DOES make you paranoid.
The VVAW group arrived in South Florida August 19th and the following morning marched south down Biscayne Boulevard and across the 79th street causeway to the Beach. Their march was peaceful, as were most of the thousands of protestors that first day. Some barricaded the Fontainebleau, others protested outside the convention center, while still others demonstrated in the park. According to police records from that day, though, nothing out of the ordinary was going on.
The next day, the VVAW went to march on Miami Beach Senior High, which, since school was out, was now home to some 750 National Guard troops. Upon arriving at the school, the protestors mounted the roof and hung an American flag upside down. Fortunately, no Guardsmen were injured during this show of distress.
And what political event in Miami would be complete without a demonstration from our Cuban-American residents, demanding something be done about Castro. Yes, even during Vietnam this was the pressing issue of the day in Dade County. This time the Orange Bowl served as their rallying spot and busses brought the demonstrators from Little Havana to what was then Burdines on 17th Street. They marched, as well as the VVAW, some women’s liberation marchers and the ever-present Yippies. But despite the various group in attendance, still little violence persisted.
THE HEAT FINALLY GETS TO THE HIPPIES
But South Florida August heat and angry people can only be contained for so long. On the morning of August 22nd, demonstrators began the morning by blocking the Fontainebleau, burning the American flag and blocking traffic. And if there is one thing no Miamian will tolerate, even in 1972, it is blocking traffic. Many anti-war protestors began trashing the area then known as Downtown Miami Beach, near 16th and Washington. They broke windows, tore down signs, and once again, blocked traffic. The Yippies began jumping on cars and turning over Dumpsters. And so, nice as the Beach cops had tried to be, they began arresting people.
By 2 p.m., police has amassed two busloads of arrestees, and requested more vehicles for the troublemaking protestors. As President Nixon arrived at MIA, protestors were trying to force the front gate at the convention center, and some began laying in the street in one of the more-popular Vietnam era protests. Demonstrators continued to harass delegates, even the late-night marchers led by Jane Fonda. Again, police were not amused. By the end of the day, they had made 212 arrests.
By the last day of the convention, when Nixon was to accept his nomination and bring on Maryland’s Spiro Agnew as his running mate, the demonstrators knew this was their last chance to make a statement, If trashing downtown Miami Beach had not been enough, the VVAW group began soaking paper in gasoline, preparing to light vehicles on fire. They had even brought their own gas masks with them, perhaps having learned their lesson from the 1968 fiasco. Demonstrators surrounded cars, busses, delegates or anyone else they found objectionable and began to hurl abuse their way. This abuse consisted of foul language, rocks, pipes, saliva or pretty much anything they could find to cause a general disturbance. By this time, Beach cops had had enough and let the gas loose.
GASSING ANDREA MITCHELL
As all hell broke loose on South Beach, pepper gas began to fill the air. The media was not immune from the gassing, as Andrea Mitchell, now of MSNBC, got the full effect at her first convention and was sprayed in the eyes. Hunter S. Thompson was not immune from the gas either, as he spent the better part of the last day blinded by the effects. Thompson notes in his book that the Miami Beach police saw him staggering around searching for some water to wash out his eyes, and seemed grateful they had not taken that opportunity to beat him to a pulp. “That was the difference between Chicago and Miami,” he said. “If the cops in Chicago had found me crawling around in somebody’s front yard, wearing a ‘press’ tag and blind from too much gas, they’d have broken half my ribs and hauled me away in handcuffs for ‘resisting arrest.’” I’m not sure what Beach cops Hunter here is talking about, but it is apparent to me that he never made the mistake of getting smart with a bouncer at Opium.
But by the next day the gas had settled, the unruly protestors were either making their new residence at the friendly confines of DCJ or on their way back to California. The Beach, for the time being, was back to normal.
And so it has been ever since. Perhaps it was the humidity, or the constant daily rainfall, or maybe other cities just put up better bids, but neither party has come back to Dade County ever since. We were the last city to host both conventions in one year, and perhaps that was out city’s last political hurrah. Considering the volatility at the time, and the size of tiny Miami Beach’s police force, the potential for disaster was a lot larger than it eventually was. And in an unremarkable 1972 campaign, that culminated in Nixon beating McGovern my a margin only smaller than Ronald Reagan’s second victory, a few days in South Beach may have been the highlight for many who participated.
1972 Democratic Convention Video
Silent super 8 camera footage of the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami Beach, FL. Security was tight even then.
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