Every now and then journalists get to see the most serious tasks imaginable in a totally new context, especially when you’re thrust into a front-row seat.
I had a couple of those experiences while working for the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise. I want to share them with you briefly here.
In 1988 and again in 1992 I was privileged to attend two Republican National Committee presidential nominating conventions. Beaumont lies between two major cities — New Orleans to the east and Houston to the west. The GOP nominated Vice President George H.W. Bush as president in 1988 in New Orleans; then the party nominated him again for re-election in 1992 in Houston.
I got to witness all of the hubbub, the whoopin’ and hollerin’ up close both times.
The 1988 convention placed me behind the speaker’s podium inside the Superdome in New Orleans, where I witnessed President Reagan deliver a stirring speech to the faithful crowd. After the president finished his speech — and as the crowd cheered the Gipper — he and his wife, Nancy, turned and walked off the stage and so help me as God is my witness, he looked straight at me as we made eye contact. I have to say that was quite a thrill.
I worked in the same media room with some fine reporters and columnists. One of them is Chris Matthews, who at both conventions was a “mere” columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, which was owned by the same Hearst Corporation that owns the Beaumont Enterprise. I got to know Matthews, I like to say, “before he became ‘Chris Matthews,'” the current star of prime-time cable TV coverage on MSBNC. He and I enjoyed a cup of coffee at the Houston convention, chatted for a few minutes. He wouldn’t remember it, but it happened.
The 1992 gathering in the Houston Astrodome was notable as well for a couple of speeches. Conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan sought to wrest the GOP nomination from President Bush and delivered the frightening speech in which he implored the delegates to “take our country back” from some nefarious evil forces Buchanan thought had hijacked the nation. I also got to hear former President Reagan bring down the house when he mentioned the Democrats’ nominee, Bill Clinton, who Reagan said fancied himself to be another Thomas Jefferson. He responded, “Let me tell you, governor. I knew Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson was a friend of mine, and governor, you’re no Thomas Jefferson.”
The former president’s timing was picture perfect, owing to his well-known skill as a film and TV actor.
The biggest takeaway from both conventions was the sight of serious men and women doing the most serious work imaginable — nominating candidates for president and vice president of the United States — while wearing goofy elephant hats, with vests festooned with buttons and labels and generally carrying on like children at a birthday party.
I simply had to suspend my disbelief as I watched these individuals performing this most serious of tasks.
Yes, it was representative democracy in its raw form. It was a joy to watch and to cover it for the newspaper that employed me.