Nixon Rewound

As Florida's GOP delegates head for New York, it's time to recall Miami Beach, 1972

As he prepares to attend next Monday's Republican National Convention in New York City, Miami delegate Marco Rubio is already anticipating trouble. But not from the more than 250,000 anti-Bush protesters expected to march past the convention's Madison Square Garden site.

"I'm hoping to go to a Marlins game in New York," the Florida state representative quips in a telephone conversation with Kulchur, "but I'll be harassed there for a whole different reason." All joking aside, Rubio is well aware that a mass of activists plan on serving up a very different welcome from the city-sponsored "The Republicans Are Coming -- Be Nice" banners now fluttering atop Manhattan's sidewalks.

"Sure, you have images of some radical anarchist punk throwing a can of something on you -- it stays on your mind," Rubio admits. "But I'm not going to let a bunch of thugs determine what I do or where I go."

Miami Beach police arresting a protester at the 1972 GOP convention
Miami Beach police arresting a protester at the 1972 GOP convention

Rubio's bravado is interrupted by the sounds of his two young daughters squabbling in the background. "Hold on, I've got to keep my kids from killing each other," he chuckles to Kulchur. Then, summoning up the negotiating skills that have made him the state legislature's majority leader, he coos to his children: "Everybody, shhh.... "

Reminded that he'll be attending the convention with his brood in tow, Rubio begins reflecting anew: "Perhaps I should be more worried. If there's some sort of violent 1968-style deal going on in front of Madison Square Garden, I'm not going to endanger my family or myself to go to a political rally."

Indeed Chicago's 1968 Democratic National Convention, with its dramatic images of riot police clubbing antiwar protesters amid thick clouds of tear gas, has been a frequent media trope of late, with many commentators pondering a replay in New York.

Yet a better comparison than 1968's electoral contest, when the Democrats bitterly split over the Vietnam War, would be the summer of 1972's opposing presidential convocations, both of which unfolded right here in Miami Beach. Then as now, the broad spectrum of the Left desperately united behind a single candidate, with an Anybody But Nixon fervor standing in for today's Dubya-focused enmity. Even the Weather Underground, which only two months earlier had exploded a bomb at the Pentagon to protest the mining of North Vietnam's Haiphong harbor, was quietly backing Democratic standard-bearer George McGovern, informing supporters that his victory might enable them to "go home again."

Accordingly, just as with this past July's Democratic gathering in Boston, most demonstrators gave McGovern a free pass, choosing to hold their fire -- and their bail money -- for the subsequent Republican fete.

Then as now, there was more than enough hysteria to go around. Fearing mayhem "on an even greater scale than Chicago," Nixon White House Special Assistant Jeb Stuart Magruder wrote in his 1974 memoir that "we had a vision of an armada of thousands of wild-eyed hippies swimming across the inlet and overrunning our defenses."

Meanwhile, echoing the present-day leftists who insist on seeing Iraq's insurgents as "resistance fighters," Tom Hayden's Reunion autobiography recalls fellow antiwar leader Rennie Davis in Miami giddily declaring that "the Vietcong were Jesus Christ." Groups such as the Vietnam Veterans Against the War counseled constructive actions, but in the end thousands of protesters seemed more intent on expressing their rage -- regardless of how it was received by the public.

In local TV news footage assembled by the Louis Wolfson II Florida Moving Image Archive, and screened as part of its Rewind/Fast Forward Film Festival last month, Miami police can be seen ringing the Beach's convention center with buses like so many nineteenth-century Conestoga wagons circling to fend off an Indian attack. And as Republican delegates made a mad dash inside, Rennie Davis's crowd gleefully hurled eggs at them, smashed windows, and played cat-and-mouse games up and down Collins Avenue with tear-gas-firing officers.

Inside the convention center, however, it was business as usual, with Nixon ably delivering his stock law-and-order themes. And after the dueling footage aired across the country, the results were predictable. Come November, McGovern lost the election in the greatest landslide in American history, taking only a single state.

With that lesson in mind, New York magazine recently ran Father to Son: What I've Learned About Rage, a conversation between storied Sixties figure Norman Mailer and his son, John Buffalo Mailer, an executive editor at High Times magazine now champing at the bit to join in the Republican convention protests.

"If I were a voice in top Republican circles, I might be offering this advice: 'What we need for New York is a large-scale riot,'" mused the elder Mailer. "I don't have a great deal of hope that most of the people involved are really thinking of this election so much as expressing the need to vent, to gain some self-therapy."

Mailer's son argued back that a powerful new anticorporate movement would coalesce in the streets around Madison Square Garden. "You do get a sense that the spiritual revolution may be awakening," he insisted. Daddy Dearest's rejoinder? "All right, but if we lose the election, it's going to be a very expensive spiritual education."

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