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Double duty for a scribe in ’72: baby-sitting at the RNC

The day I got the surprise assignment to cover the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Fla., the publisher of the Worthington Daily Globe gave me a second duty: Look after Randy.

“His mother is worried about him,” explained the publisher, Jim Vance. “I told her you’d keep an eye on him.”

By happenstance, 17-year-old Randy Landis of Worthington, Minn., was an official delegate to the 1972 convention. It was never verified, but he might have been the youngest delegate in American political history – up to that time, at least.

The 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution standardizing the voting age at 18 had been ratified the previous year and Republicans in Minnesota’s old 6th District had selected Landis as an alternate – partly, no doubt, to claim a bit of notoriety, since he would turn 18 before the November election. But then the official delegate, a woman from Windom, withdrew for reasons I’ve forgotten, and Landis got the right to cast a ballot for Republicans in southwest Minnesota.

Randy got into the habit of introducing himself this way: “I’m Randy Landis, the youngest delegate to the Republican National Convention.” I got really tired of hearing that.

I’ve never forgotten about Randy Landis, that earnest and obviously ambitious young man who clearly had big dreams of a political career. My friends in Worthington couldn’t locate him or other members of his family. Randy would be in his 50s today – and that fact makes me realize that he was less than a decade younger than I was, though at the time he seemed like a kid and I thought I was a hot-shot reporter. Time humbles us all.

Back in the day
But Randy wasn’t the reason I had been sent to Miami Beach. At that time, the Daily Globe had a policy of sending a reporter to each of the political conventions every four years. Earlier that summer, the paper’s city editor, Bob Cashel, had been sent to Miami Beach to cover the hugely disorganized Democratic convention that had nominated Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota. The hapless candidate had delivered his acceptance speech well after midnight.

Both conventions were in the same city that year. Cashel came back to tell me to prepare for a chaotic experience with lots of sweaty, boisterous convention-goers. Dress casually, he said, and be prepared to stay up all night for the better part of a week.

There was another reason the Globe’s publisher decided to send his newest, 26-year-old reporter: My older brother lived in Pompano Beach, not far from Miami, which meant there wouldn’t be any hotel bills to pay. In fact, I never had to buy a meal, either. Free food was everywhere, as well as free booze.

It was not, however, a convention with any real drama, and in terms of organization, it was the polar opposite of the circus the Democrats had floundered through a few weeks earlier. The formality for the Republicans was the re-nomination of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew for “Four More Years!”

“Four More Years!” was a cry heard often that week – usually in staged events that involved buses filled with preppy-looking young Nixon rooters that seemed to turn up whenever a TV camera was in the vicinity. The kids would stream off the buses, do their chants and then load up for the next destination.

True, the economy had tanked so badly the previous year that Nixon had imposed wage and price controls. And the unpopular war in Vietnam was still going on, despite Nixon’s promise during the 1968 campaign that his “secret plan” would end it.

It didn’t, of course, but Nixon was on the way to ending the draft, and that – along with weariness and despair – had taken the steam out of war protests. The “hippies,” as they were called, were encamped farther south and there was talk of a demonstration on the last night when the president was scheduled to give his acceptance speech.

It was all a done deal, then as in now. The re-election seemed certain, too. My liberal friends insisted that voters would “come to their senses” and vote for McGovern. Well, there’s nothing like idealism.

My job as a “homer” (for “home-town press”) was to write color stories about the convention and its Minnesota participants. Television networks were still doing gavel-to-gavel coverage, and the Globe would run national news and analysis from the wire services. In a sense, I was there to write travel features – and the more off-beat the better.

Rudy Boschwitz in flip-flops

On my first day, I showed up for a reception at the hotel where the Minnesota delegation was staying wearing a T-shirt, sandals and the khaki pants from one of my old Army uniforms. The delegates were dressed like bankers attending a night at a symphony ball, some of them in tuxes and gowns. I felt out of place – to put in mildly – until Rudy Boschwitz, then a Republican national committeeman, showed up in a bathing suit, T-shirt and flip-flops.

The convention itself was a tidy affair. I had been issued general press credentials, which allowed me to wander around the exterior corridors of the convention hall and sit in the press gallery, which was usually deserted. In order to talk to delegates, I had to either ambush them when they were going to the bathroom or call a paging desk and request that a runner go out on the convention floor and deliver a request for an interview.

Cell phones didn’t exist then, of course, but the press gallery had rows and rows of platform tables, with telephones every six feet or so. I soon discovered that I could call anywhere in the country, or the world. For free. So I did.

Members of the press tended to congregate in a lounge set up inside the convention center, where there was an endless buffet table, an open beer tap and monitors to watch network coverage of the convention. All free. Some reporters may have spent the whole convention there.

Security was unobtrusive – except for the time I was shadowed when I ventured into the press gallery to watch Pat Boone’s appearance. He wore the white bucks made famous in “Love Letters in the Sand,” as I recall. While watching Boone from my solitary perch, I noticed a guy in a dull suit staring at me intently. He shadowed me until I went back to the press lounge where I belonged.

A maverick from Minnesota

On another occasion, a maverick delegate from Minnesota – I don’t remember her name – tried to amend the party platform with a statement about the war. She tried to introduce the amendment from the floor, but they didn’t turn on her microphone and the existing platform was adopted by acclamation.

On the night of Nixon’s acceptance speech, I decided to stay outside on the street for a few minutes to see if a protest demonstration might erupt. It did, but it wasn’t much. The police in those days used big machines that generated huge clouds of tear gas – which was an indiscriminate way of controlling crowds, but pretty effective. As a former military policeman, I was intimately familiar with tear gas, but this time it made me nauseous – too many finger sandwiches in the press lounge, maybe – and I eventually gave up and went back to my brother’s house in Pompano Beach, where I watched the acceptance speech on TV.

The next day, the Globe’s publisher called and instructed me to find something for Randy to do until his plane left later in the day. So I picked him up at the delegate hotel and took him deep-sea fishing. On the way to the boat, Randy talked delightedly about meeting the president’s family the previous night.

After the acceptance speech, a set of stairs had been placed against the dais and delegates were invited to walk through a reception line with Nixon’s family. I imagined Randy walking along and repeating, “I’m Randy Landis, the youngest delegate to the Republican National Convention.”

That would be “I’m Randy Landis …” to Julie, Trish, Pat and the great man himself.

I asked Randy if Nixon had said anything to him.

“Yes he did,” Randy said, looking starry-eyed. “He said, ‘God bless you.’ “

I envisioned Nixon saying that, his jowls quivering beneath his famous 5-o’clock shadow.

We got in line at the boat’s ticket stand and I saw that we would be fishing with a whole crowd of retired senior citizens from up north, mostly New Yorkers. Randy paid his money and before the gnarly old fisherman could give him his ticket, he said, “I was the youngest delegate to the Republican National Convention.”

The burnished old fisherman regarded Randy in silence for a moment, then said, “Don’t mean (expletive) to me, sonny.”

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