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It All Started in Atlantic City: A Half Century of Convention Memories

Masquerading as an Idahoan landed coveted set of tickets

Columnist Walter Shapiro's first political convention was in 1964 when the Democrats nominated President Lyndon Johnson. (AFP/Getty Images file photo)
Columnist Walter Shapiro's first political convention was in 1964 when the Democrats nominated President Lyndon Johnson. (AFP/Getty Images file photo)

American political junkies and those with birthdays on Feb. 29 may be the only people in the world who reckon the years in units of four. This odd way of counting becomes particularly common around the presidential conventions as fragments from past campaigns come racing to the surface.  

My memory has unavoidably become longer than most. And as I begin packing for Cleveland, my mind goes racing back to other convention cites, other presidential nominees and, yes, other phases of my life.  

I can recall conventions that couldn’t camouflage impending defeat with brave speeches. Everyone at the 1984 Democratic convention in San Francisco knew that the cause was doomed against Ronald Reagan. But for a few hours Mario Cuomo’s stirring keynote address gave hope to downcast liberals.  

Even before Clint Eastwood and his empty chair in 2012, prime-time convention speakers hurtled toward the political abyss.  

In 1988 in Atlanta, Bill Clinton’s nominating speech for Michael Dukakis went on so long that wild cheering erupted when the Arkansas governor finally declared, “In conclusion…” And, on the Republican side, Pat Buchanan fired the opening shots of a “culture war” with his fiery rhetoric (appalling the George H.W. Bush reelection campaign) at the 1992 GOP convention in Houston.  

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Other convention disasters are etched in memory: The impossible-to-mask shock on the faces of prominent Republicans after Dan Quayle was unveiled as Bush’s VP pick in New Orleans in 1988. Equally memorable was the impossible-to-mask glee on the faces of many Democrats at the 1996 Chicago convention after Dick Morris abruptly resigned as Clinton’s political Rasputin over a prostitution scandal.  

But never before in my half-century of convention going have large segments of a party been embarrassed by their presidential nominee. Barry Goldwater and George McGovern may have been on the ideological fringes of their parties, but they were honorable senators who were opposed solely because of their views.  

Donald Trump, in contrast, is a would-be nominee whose entire campaign and political persona should make anyone (Republican or Democrat) who cares about issues debates or serious policy proposals cringe. It is that queasiness — the Trump Effect — that will make the Cleveland convention different than any in modern history.  

Despite Trump (or maybe even because of him), there will be teenagers and students simply thrilled to be in Cleveland at all. These are the candidates, the political aides and the campaign reporters of tomorrow. But next week, they will be plotting how to get nosebleed seats at the arena with the awkward corporate name (Quicken Loans) in Cleveland.  

I was one of them once — back in 1964.  

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Lyndon Johnson, for reasons of convenience to the White House, picked the dying New Jersey resort town of Atlantic City for his coronation. This was before the place was trumped up with gold leaf for gambling — and, ultimately, bankruptcy.  

Since Atlantic City was almost as convenient` to my hometown in Connecticut as it was to the White House, I drove down with several high-school friends. We had everything planned out aside from convention tickets. Even though our parents lacked political clout, we were blithely confident that we could get gallery passes from the Connecticut delegation  

The problem was that every adult Democrat in Connecticut had the same idea. When we showed up to claim our tickets, the response was a little politer than “Get lost, kids.”  

In desperation, I realized that maybe states far from Atlantic City might have unused convention tickets. So with 17-year-old bravado, I called the hotel housing the Idaho delegation and asked to speak to the state’s lone Democratic senator, Frank Church.  

Verda Barnes, Church’s long-time chief of staff, answered the phone — and somehow suppressed a fit of giggles as she heard my unlikely sales pitch:  

“I’m a student from Connecticut, but parents are … err … divorced and my father lives in … um … Boise. He loves Boise, my father does. So I see myself as more of an Idaho person than a Connecticut person. And, anyway, well, given I’m from Idaho, do you have any spare convention tickets?”  

Verda Barnes — whom I never actually met or properly thanked — left for me at her hotel four sets of tickets for all four nights of the convention. Thanks to her pity on a desperate teenager and his friends, I was there when the Mississippi Freedom Democrats tried to integrate the state’s segregationist convention delegation and when Hubert Humphrey delivered a memorable stem-winder assailing Barry Goldwater.  

That’s what a convention can be — a memory of a lifetime. And that’s why in a depressing political year, I will find a dollop of hope in all the students who will be flocking to Cleveland to become part of a pageant of democracy.  

May they all find their own Verda Barnes.  

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-unclear was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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