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Gaye LeBaron: Political conventions always a topic of conversation

The Democrats’ virtual adventure was, well, unusual to say the least.|

A quote sometimes attributed to the early 20th century sage Will Rogers — “For pure giggles you can’t beat a political convention” — comes to mind every four years or so. I don’t know that it’s “giggles” this year, but there’s no doubt that Rogers would have something pithy to say about how things are going.

The Democrats’ virtual adventure was, well, unusual to say the least. The pundits (who have been known to be right on occasion) are saying it may be the swan song for this unique American political custom.

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NOW, if journalists really truly write the “rough first draft of history,” as we like to remind readers, this would be a proper moment to revisit the two conventions in our Northern California past.

The first one was the 1964 Republican gathering at the Cow Palace that resulted in the nomination of Barry Goldwater (a salute if you can name his running mate without looking it up).

That was an eventful convention. Delegates booed former vice president Nelson Rockefeller off the podium, watched as guards carried NBC’s John Chancellor off the floor by his elbows, feet kicking, still talking into his live microphone. His colleague David Brinkley, seldom speechless, sat stunned in the broadcast booth. Chancellor had declined to get off the floor to make way for the “Goldwater Girls.”

I was a young reporter lucky to get a chance at such an event as a national convention. These opportunities were usually reserved for the seasoned political writers. But I was married to The Press Democrat’s chief photographer; a title he liked to say was akin to being a full general in a country with no army. Regardless, it did afford his presence at the convention and I got a press credential to tag along, carrying my clipboard for note taking and maybe his film bag as well. So we were right there for a close-up when Ike and Mamie Eisenhower alighted from the limo. For a kid who grew up during World War II, that was a big moment, while the rest of it is blurred in time and faded memory.

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It was 20 years before national politics came so close to home again. And it was the Democrats. The ’84 nominating convention was held in downtown San Francisco’s three-year- old Moscone Center.

It was a stellar cast that would nominate Walter Mondale to try to deny Ronald Reagan a second term. The cast of characters was endless — former President Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart, LA Mayor Tom Bradley, keynote speaker Mario Cuomo.

When the VP nominee, Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman on a ticket ever, made her speech, women were the majority in the hall — many men having been coerced to surrender their floor passes for the night.

As part of The Press Democrat crew that had managed to wangle this dream assignment, I had an assigned seat on the press platform, rubbing elbows with reporters and columnists whose stage was much larger than mine. My assignment was open-ended. My colleague Chris Coursey and I left the serious news coverage to political writer Paul Ingalls and spent our ink supply on what else was happening, both in the hall and outside.

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THE CROWDED streets between the big hotels and the convention hall were unendingly entertaining.

In an email last week Coursey wrote: ”The convention took over SF back then. From Fisherman’s Wharf to GG Park, the buzz was about what was happening SOMA at the Moscone. Outside the convention center the streets were a mix of excitement and danger, carnival and battleground. Street performers were filling their tip jars. Cops were lined up on big horses, ready for protesters who were angry about — ??!! — I can’t remember.”

I can’t remember protests either. It was, by comparison to others (think Chicago, ’68) a peaceful, if fruitless, political event. What I remember is that it was crowded, hectic, expensive — and a ton of fun.

I was hardly checked into the St. Francis Hotel when I met a Sonoma County political type in the lobby. He was chuckling over an encounter on the steps outside.

He found himself, he told me, between “two, really good-looking women, one on each side of me.” One asked him if he wanted some fun. The other, seeing his startled look, added, “That’s right. You’re being solicited.”

That’s what happens, I told him, when you take those country boys to town.

My husband, who came into the city a couple of times to join me for dinner after adjournment, had a less inviting but memorable, encounter with a creative panhandler.

He was neat little feller with a trimmed beard who could have passed for a faculty colleague. He was forthright. “I’ll be honest,” he said, “I’m panhandling.”

Startled by the direct approach, John, a compassionate soul but no spendthrift, dug in his pocket and found nothing smaller than a too-big bill.

“I have no change,” he told him apologetically, and we walked on up Geary Street where within a couple of blocks we were accosted by a USA Today hawker who was insistent that we buy a paper. As John indicated, once again, that he had no change, our panhandler buddy came through the crowd, having gone all the way around the block.

“You know,” he told John with a sad sigh, “You’re going to have to break that bill SOMEtime.” We gave up, went inside and got change, and crossed his palm with some smaller bills. Then we bought a USA Today that we definitely didn’t need or want. It just seemed easier.

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MEANWHILE, Coursey tailed erstwhile candidate/comedian Pat Paulsen through the throngs. Paulsen, the “Smothers Brothers” graduate who actually ran for president in ’68 and ’72 (getting a staggering 1,272 votes — nationwide) was carrying a microphone, interviewing for an SF radio station.

Coursey asked him if he was a Republican or a Democrat. “I’m a loser,” he said. The real-life Paulsen, a successful northern Sonoma County vintner, was sticking his microphone in the face of astonished vendors and cabbies and Coursey tagged along as Paulsen asked silly questions and often got sillier answers. He stopped by Time magazine’s headquarters to ask to see the publisher. (He was referred, politely, to his hotel.) He demanded money from Associated Press’s Washington bureau chief. “You’re always writing stories about me but you’ve never paid me,” he told him. The AP exec suggested he see a lawyer.

Paulsen was obviously having the time of his life, as, I suspect, was Coursey.

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STUDENTS of American politics say that ‘84 may have truly been the end of an era, positing that it was the last time a party’s candidate was really, truly chosen in this manner. The Democrats’ “virtual” convention may be the first of a brand new system or the final act.

Some of us reflected on this among other things as we watched and wondered — and remembered those “glory days” (even in a losing cause, for the host Democrats) of ’84. It is supposed to be an ancient curse, remember, to say, “May you live in interesting times.”

What I heard from former mayor and current supervisor-elect Coursey on Monday evening invited nostalgia.” Being on the floor ,” he wrote, “was a memory I won’t forget. … This year? Well, I’d say you had to be there, but there’s no there there. We live in strange times.

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