THE WHEELERDEALER

How Bob Strauss Kept the Democrats in Line

One year ago, in July of 1976, delegates of the Democratic Party gathered in New York City to nominate a former Georgia governor to the presidency of the United States. If Jimmy Carter was the star of that show, its producer was the energetic 58-year-old chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Robert Strauss of Dallas. Mr. Strauss is now Mr. Carter’s Special Representative for Trade Negotiations. He was formerly a partner in the Dallas law firm of Akin, Gump, Hauer & Feld.



Robert Schwarz Strauss had dedicated three and a half years of his life to figuring out how the Democratic party could meet in unified convention, quiet convention. He had become Democratic national chairman on December 9, 1972, determined that, while he was in charge, his party would not meet in riot, as it did in Chicago, nominating Hubert H. Humphrey for president in 1968, or in fiasco, as it did in Miami, nominating George McGovern in 1972. “I’m not going to deliver a candidate to the party,” he said that December. “I’m going to deliver a party to the candidate.”

Strauss arrived in New York on June 28, moving into a corner office on the second floor of the Statler Hilton Hotel across Seventh Avenue from Madison Square Garden, the site of the Thirty-seventh Convention of the Democratic Party of the United States. “Medicine depends on what ails you,” he told a friend. “And I know what ails us and what medicine we need. We need a sedative.” If he had his way, the Democrats would be sedated – and Bob Strauss would scream, bully, bluff, charm, crawl, and lie a bit to. make sure of it.

One of Strauss’s calls that first day was to John DeLury, the president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, the union representing the 10,000 men who clean the city’s streets. The crew of out-of-towners delegated to run his Convention by Strauss, a Texan, had figured out after nine months that DeLury, not Mayor Beame or his commissioners, was the man who decided whether 25,000 delegates, alternates, reporters, and assorted guests and dignitaries would see midtown Manhattan as it usually is or would go back home saying it was cleaner than they had heard.

“Hello, John,” said Strauss, who had never met DeLury. “I just wanted to call to gossip with you a bit about politics. About how we can elect ourselves a president of the United States.

“I want you to know that if there’s anything I can ever do for you … I don’t want to be presumptuous – but if you ever need any help, in Washington or anyplace . . .

“Everyone says New York is a dirty, filthy city … I know, I know … I tell them that’s not true, that you have the same problems as everyone else, just more intense. I want to know whether there’s anything I can do for you to see that that thirty-square-block area around Madison Square Garden . .. that they see the cleanest this city can be.

“Okay, John. And after this convention there are some political things I want to talk to you about. And, John, if there’s anything you need from me, tickets for the Convention, passes …”

On Sunday, the day before the Convention’s first session, Strauss’s offices were a cacophony of the pleas and cries of some of the most powerful men and women in the country, all wanting some of those tickets. The chairman tried to stay above most of it, but succeeded only in moving around it, running out of the office of one of his assistants, calling in three directions, “I’m sorry, Congressman . . .” “Tell the governor . . .” “I’ll try, I’ll try . . .” There was a call from the office of Representative Edward Boland saying that he wanted the passes of Torbert Macdonald, another Massachusetts congressman who had died on May 21, that one of Macdonald’s last wishes was that Boland get his convention credentials. It was the second call that day from someone claiming Macdonald’s final patronage.

But when Robert Walters, a writer for Parade magazine, came in and said the popular Sunday supplement was considering a cover story on Strauss, he was immediately handed three “Honored Guest” credentials for each night of the Convention, plus passes for the guarded lounge reserved for VIPs.



When Robert Strauss called the convention to order, he would be repeating for the 37th time a ritual that began in Baltimore on May 21,1832. President Andrew Jackson, who, like his predecessors, had been nominated by state legislatures and congressional caucuses, had called the first Democratic Convention to nominate Martin Van Buren as his running mate for vice-president in that year’s election. Jackson seized on the convention – an idea originated the year before by the small Anti-Masonic party – as a device to dump his vice-president, John C. Calhoun.

Now, 144 years later, the party of Jackson was the oldest political organization in the world, the party that Bob Strauss had promised three and a half years ago to deliver to a candidate. On May 7, he had met with Jimmy Carter in Washington and said: “I’ve known for a long time that I’d have this conversation, but I never thought it would be with you. I am not the head of this party anymore. You are.”

Unintentionally, though, the chairman had given Carter his first big boost toward the party’s nomination. In 1974, Carter, still serving as governor of Georgia, had volunteered to take over as chairman of that year’s Democratic National Campaign Committee, a job traditionally more title than work. But Carter took it very seriously, dispatching some of his most important assistants, including Hamilton Jordan, to Washington, and traveling throughout the country campaigning in almost every state for congressional candidates. In the middle of that effort, Robert Keefe, Strauss’s chief political aide, told him: “Bob, this guy is running for president. He’s using this to get an education on the issues and set up an organization.” Still, Keefe and Strauss figured Carter was a 40-to-l shot at best.

The Georgian, for his part, believed that Strauss’s presidential favorites were his old friends, Senators Henry Jackson and Hubert Humphrey, who had helped make him national chairman in the first place. When the time came, one April night in Atlanta, to decide whether candidate Carter would keep Strauss on for the campaign. Carter snapped: “Why? He was against us.”

“Strauss is the Democratic party, Jimmy, we need him,” someone argued.

Charles Kirbo, an Atlanta attorney who was Carter’s closest friend and a man who liked the chairman, ended the argument by saying, “Bob Strauss will be loyal to whoever pays him.” The wheeling Texas millionaire who actually took no salary from the DNC would have taken that as a compliment.



MONDAY, JULY 12



Bob Strauss always felt he had been forced to come to New York – Miami Beach did not want another political convention and had already scheduled other events in its huge auditorium; New Orleans and Kansas City simply did not have enough hotel rooms; and Los Angeles – the city of angels was ruled out because Democrats were convinced the governor of California was crazy.

Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, Jr., was not crazy at all. He was a clever politician with a talent, at least as impressive as Jimmy Carter’s, for reaching people, especially young ones. Trading smartly on the name and connections of his father – former California Governor Pat Brown – he had barely won election in 1974,but had become phenomenally popularsince. A former Jesuit seminarian whowas inaugurated to the chants of a Sufichoir, Brown captivated Californians bycircumventing liberal-conservative dogmaand by wittily espousing an evolving,cerebral mix of the teachings of SaintIgnatius and Thomas Aquinas, Buddha,the existentialists, and Machiavelli.

So it was within the nature of Brown’s political character that when the DNC Site Selection Committee went to Los Angeles in April, 1975, the Democratic governor casually attacked them as a bunch of big-time spenders looking for luxury hotels. He suggested that delegates should sleep in church basements. Mayor Thomas Bradley of Los Angeles, who was arranging parties at the homes of movie stars like Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood to impress the committee, was embarrassed. Governor Philip Noel of Rhode Island, a member of the committee, was enraged: “I will never vote to go anyplace that Jerry Brown has anything to do with. He accuses us of going to fancy parties – this dude who grew up in a governor’s mansion while my mother was hitting a press in a jewelry factory . . . The little bastard doesn’t have a full seabag.”

“It was New York by default,” said Bob Strauss. “We are afraid of demonstrations and of getting caught up in the image of New York’s financial and labor troubles. We desperately tried to figure out a way to go to New Orleans or Kansas City . . . Miami Beach didn’t want us again. And, then, that little bastard – I couldn’t trust him. Who would go someplace where Jerry Brown controls the National Guard? I had visions of riots and him sitting on a mattress and refusing to call out troops.”

With all of that, and with the sending of Knicks’, Mets’, and Yankees’ uniform shirts to the sons of Site Selection Committee members, New York almost lost. The television networks were arguing so strongly for Los Angeles that Pat Cunningham, the New Yorker who was chairman of the committee, cracked: “You just want to get away from your wives for a few weeks at MaJibu.” On the day of the final vote, August 18, 1975, Governor Noel had two votes – he held a proxy for Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware – and that was the difference. The vote for New York was 11 to 9.

Jerry Brown arrived in New York as a serious presidential candidate, having won 320 or so delegates in a series of spectacular late primary victories. He started too late to stop Carter – the Georgian was a declared candidate before Brown took office on January 1, 1975, and the Californian was forced to wait a while before flashing his ambition. But in the stretch. Brown badly embarrassed the front-runner. He out-Cartered Carter – Brown became the fresh face, the mysterious outsider, and Carter was the Establishment figure trying to consolidate his holdings. Even after Carter had clinched the nomination by winning the Ohio primary on June 8, Brown refused to quit, traveling the country needling the Georgian and picking up a few loose delegates here and there. Now, as usual, no one was sure what the hell Jerry Brown was going to do next.

On Carter’s floor of the American;) and on Strauss’s floor of the Statler Hilton, the fear was that Brown would try to address the Convention and perhaps spark a movement for himself as the vice-presidential candidate. It was a measure of the pull of Brown’s vague rhetoric about a new generation of leadership and planetary realism that both Strauss and Carter’s senior adviser, Charles Kirbo, agreed that everything possible should be done to prevent Jerry Brown from getting near the podium.

“Let’s just wait,” Strauss said. “We’ll keep our hands off. He’s like a pimple on your face. If you touch’em too soon, you get a red blotch. If you wait till the right moment, they just pop.”



It was 8:00 p.m. – time to go to work. Behind the podium, Tom Murray, a 28-year-old sportswriter who had volunteered as a Convention aide to find out how things worked, found out right away. He had his orders, simple: No one was to pass him without a 7-by-3-inch cardboard credential marked “Officer of the Convention” or “Podium.” At 8:00, Bob Strauss, wearing nothing around his neck but a tie, walked out of his Garden office – usually the dressing room of visiting National Basketball Association teams – and walked right by the speechless aide.

At 8:15, the chairman banged his gavel for a minute, calling to order the Thirty-seventh National Convention of the Democratic Party of the United States. The number of gavel strokes was important. A television consultant – Eric Lieber, the producer of the “Sammy Davis Show” – had viewed films of the 1972 Convention and advised Strauss that more than four hours had been spent banging the thing and calling for order in Miami Beach, accomplishing nothing but to remind the television audience that there was disorder. The chairman wanted no disorder and no impression of disorder at his Convention and commanded that, no matter what was happening on the floor, gavel banging was to be restricted to three times a session, no more than a minute at a time.

The chairman stood over 3,353 delegates and half-delegates, the men and women with a total of 3,008 votes who would select candidates for president and vice-president and write, or ratify, the rules and platform of the Democratic party. He looked at two television cameras 60 feet in front of him on a 27-foot-high steel platform in the center of the floor between the Kentucky and Wisconsin delegations.

The men and women below Strauss constituted the majority party of the largest and most powerful democracy in the world, a political organism that traced its heritage through Franklin D. Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson to the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. It was no small thing to be there. They were the majority because they could fairly claim to be America. Their national rival for 120 years, the Republican party, was declining into a parody of the nation and its politics, an aging clustering of white Protestants, small tycoons, and shopkeepers from small places representing, according to polls, 20 percent or less of the American people. The party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt had deteriorated into a reactive core that lived off Democratic mistakes, which were many – so many that the Republicans had controlled the focus of national power, the presidency, for eight years. Whatever else was true of the Democratic party, it was the chosen political vessel of 17-year-old Clare Smith and 84-year-old Averell Harriman whose father’s railroad, the Union Pacific, had raped, and had helped build, the country; of Mazie Woodruff [a black woman from North Carolina] and Albert (“Dapper”) O’Neil of Boston who had come to New York to argue that busing black children into his neighborhood was destroying his city; of George Wallace and Bella Abzug, and Tom Hayden and George Meany.

By nature and history the Democrats were a cantankerous bunch. But Bob Strauss had spent three and a half years carefully binding them inside a webby structure of rules and committees and meetings and agendas. He planned to use them as a studio audience.



Strauss had thought – as Hubert Humphrey had hoped – that the Convention would be deadlocked, that perhaps six candidates would come to New York with sizable blocs of delegates but that no one would have anywhere near the 1,505 votes needed for the nomination. That seemed to be the logical, predictable result of the democratization of the party’s delegate selection and the proliferation of primary elections and precinct caucuses.

Knowing that control over procedure more often than not translates into control over events, the chairman began formulating a plan – in personal memos he began dictating in November, 1975 – to break such a deadlock. “A smokefilled room with everyone invited in” was his description in one of those memos.

A group of about 50 Democratic leaders representing visible constituencies – organized labor, women, and blacks among them – would have met to recommend a ticket, or optional tickets, to the Convention. Their deliberations, Strauss figured, would have to be televised to give them the legitimacy he wanted. But the caucus of 50 would have acted only on options prepared by a smaller group of 12 – a group that, if recent party history were a guide, Strauss would have controlled. Members of the smaller group listed in Strauss’s memos included: James Rowe, a Strauss adviser and Washington attorney whose party credentials went back to service with Franklin Roosevelt; Joseph Duffey, a liberal activist; Governors Reubin Askew of Florida and Raul Castro of Arizona; Senators Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut; House Majority Leader Thomas (“Tip”) O’Neill of Massachusetts; and Representative Yvonne Burke of California. The deadlock plan had gone far enough that letters calling a meeting of the smaller group had been written, but never sent, in April. About that time, Strauss joked that a group like that might turn to him as the nominee for vice-president – anyway, he said it was a joke.

The deadlock procedure – options-recommendations-action – was a model for the techniques that the chairman had used to gain control of the party and to produce the Convention he wanted, a unity show for television. Dullness was in the eye of the beholder. Again and again, Strauss had channeled party business through a maze of bodies he had appointed – he created 13 commissions, councils, and committees in three years – establishing the options-recommendations-action pattern. In the end, the actual decision-making body – in this case, the Convention itself – had almost no options. The key decision controlling the Convention had been made on October 14, 1975, at a meeting of the full Democratic National Committee, two members from each state, part-timers flown into Washington for one day to consider recommendations by the Executive Committee, a body wholly controlled by Strauss. The DNC that day approved the recommendation that minority., reports of any Convention committee had to be signed by 25 percent of the committee’s total membership, instead of by only 10 percent of the members present – and those minority reports had to be filed within 24 hours of a decision. If the delegates to the Convention did not like the majority reports on rules, credentials, or the party platform, they would have to suspend the rules by a two-thirds vote of all delegates, not just those present and voting.

The delegates had not realized it yet, but they were just about prisoners of two Roberts – Rules of Order and Strauss. ” I decided the day I became chairman that I would pay any price for a 25 percent rule,” Strauss said. “I wasn’t interested in having every little sliver of opinion presented on prime-time television. At 10 percent, the gays and the abortion people and other weirdos could get together and sign each other’s petitions – ’You sign ours, and we’ll sign yours.’ We cured the platform problems and Carter cured the rest.”

Mark Gasarch, a lawyer who had volunteered to be a Convention aide, had ended up with the title “chief,” security credential 1041, walkie-talkie unit 20, and was in command of 72 aides and 11 aide-supervisors. Being no fool, he stationed himself at the entrance to Sections 56, 57, and 58 of the Garden’s Lower Promenade, directly under the CBS anchor booth. That was the most exclusive VIP section, divided by an aisle into the “Bride’s side” and the “Groom’s side” – the side controlled by Bob Strauss and the side controlled by Jimmy Carter. If Gasarch was going to make new friends duing the Convention, they might as well be Carters, Strausses, Kennedys, and such.

VVIP – Very Very Important Person – admission was by “Honored Guest” credential and a 3-by-5-inch card that had to be presented to Gasarch or one of his assistants. But the section was not filled the first night, and Chief Gasarch was sure he knew why: “It’s the New York style – the ’in’ thing was not to be at the Convention, necessarily, but to have a ticket for it, or, and this was the real ’in’ thing, to know there was a ticket available for you if you wanted it, which you didn’t.”

One of the first friends Gasarch made was Helen Strauss, the chairman’s wife. She asked him why, if these were the best seats in the house, she couldn’t hear what was being said on the podium. “Unit 20 to Base. Mrs. Strauss is having touble hearing,” he said into his walkie-talkie. “Could you contact the podium?” Within 20 seconds, Gasarch saw Cliff Cassidy, the chairman of the DNC Security Advisory Committee, dispatching assistants on the podium, one to push the speaker closer to the microphone, another to check what was happening with Norman Leonard and his Garden electricians – then Cassidy threw a quick salute toward Mrs. Strauss across the arena.

The first blocks of the Convention schedule had been filled in in October, nine months before the event – and the very first one penciled in by Chairman Strauss had been: “11:00 P.M., Monday. Keynote – Barbara Jordan (20 minutes).”

On one level, it was revenge. Strauss resented what he felt was three years of harassment from vocal black and feminist leaders as he tried to build a unified, ordered, and solvent Democratic party. They were not going to get the podium and television at his Convention. They might not like Barbara Jordan – in fact, they didn’t – but there was no way they could open their mouths in public about it. Ms. Jordan, 40, U.S. Representative from Houston, Texas, was visibly black and female, so much so that she was constantly being used as a symbol that America worked – if a very large black woman who looked, to many Americans, like a maid, could become a national leader, well . . . But Ms. Jordan felt no obligation to narrow her base to movements. She had been a protege of Lyndon Johnson and she spoke Bob Strauss’s language: “I’m neither a black politician nor a woman politician. Just a politician. A professional politician.”

On another level, it was inspiration. Strauss had picked the most electrifying speaker in his party. With a deep, rolling voice, indefinable accent, and the cadence of her Baptist-preacher father, Ms. Jordan had become a national figure in 1974 with one powerful statement at the House Judiciary Committee hearings on the possible impeachment of President Richard Nixon: “We, the people’ – I felt for many years that somehow George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in ’We, the people’ . . . My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total.”

Strauss had teamed Ms. Jordan with John Glenn, the Ail-American. Marine hero, first American to orbit the earth, and now a U.S. senator from Ohio, one who had earned some respect in Washington because he did not live by press release alone – John Glenn was on the downside of the fame curve, and it gave him a certain sense of perspective lacking in most politicians. He had worked on his speech for three months – checking out copies of every keynote address for the past 100 years from the Library of Congress – searching for thoughtful, dignified directions. The speech was dignified. And it was a disaster. Glenn was not helped by the fuzzy sound system, which his staff later blamed for his obvious failure, and the noise level on the floor kept rising until he was as alone as he had been in space when he closed with lines like: “We must select new leaders, leaders with a vision, leaders who will set a different tone for this nation, a tone of opportunities sought and seized, a tone of national purpose.”

Even Strauss was norttslening; he was pacing back and forth behind the podium, telling Barbara Jordan – five times – not to be nervous. “Barbara,” he said, “there’ll be no one out in the hall listening to you. Forget them. Let them talk to each other. You’re talking to millions of people on television.”

As the congresswoman was being helped up the stairs – her walking was restricted by calcium deposits on one knee – Strauss said, “Honey, I’ve bet every chip I’ve got on you.”

She turned back and said, “I won’t let you down.”

She didn’t. “There is something different and special about this opening night,” she began. “I am a keynote speaker . . . The past notwithstanding, a Barbara Jordan is before you tonight. This is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred.”

The delegates and guests, for the first time, were quiet. In the NBC anchor booth, spotter Mark Shields said: “They’ll go nuts. Barbara Jordan is a symbol, and she could read the Manhattan phone book to these people and they’d applaud.”

Across the street in the Penn Bar of the Statler Hilton, men and women began clustering around the television set, then demanded that Randy Taylor and his band stop playing until Ms. Jordan finished saying her piece. She did that by quoting Abraham Lincoln: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of Democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference is no Democracy.”

“Oh, Gordon,” said Bob Strauss to his friend and assistant Gordon Wynne, “we just knocked one out of the goddamned ballpark.”



The session ended at 11:28 p.m. – two minutes ahead of schedule, as Bob Strauss happily pointed out again and again behind the podium.

Before he took his private elevator, which cost the Democratic National Committee $4,000 for the week, up to his 17th-floor suite at the Statler Hilton, Strauss kidded about something Howard K. Smith had said in closing ABC’s pre-Convention show: “We’ll be back to report on the fight that’s not going to happen.”

“They’re all saying it’s a dull convention,” Strauss said. Then he put two of his fingers to his mouth, wet them, and rubbed them with his thumb – like a man about to count money.



TUESDAY, JULY 13



Bob Strauss was on the phone with New York State Senator Manfred Ohrenstein, the leader of the Democrats in the state’s upper house: “Listen, you little m-. Stepping on my people is stepping on me, do you understand that? I care more about what comes out of that girl’s ass than about your whole body, you c- ! Don’t you dare come near the Convention. If I find out you’re there, I’ll have your ass in jail!”

Neil Walsh, New York City’s deputy commissioner of public events, who had heard that through the open door of the chairman’s office, said to Vera Murray, Strauss’s executive assistant, “I guess this isn’t a very good time to see him.” Down the second-floor hall of the Statler Hilton, another listener stood pop-eyed. “I don’t talk to people that way,” said Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley.

Strauss had called Ohrenstein when he found one of his secretaries, Sharon Nelson, in tears after a threatening harangue by the legislator who wanted, of course, extra credentials. The New Yorker had hit Miss Nelson just after Representative Thomas (“Tip”) O’Neill of Massachusetts, the House majority leader, had finished screaming at her for more tickets: “You’re deliberately humiliating me. When I think of all the things I’ve done for Bob Strauss and this is what I get in return!”

O’Neill went on the personal “Shit List” compiled by Kitty Halpin, the credentials chief and Strauss’s former personal secretary, and her principal deputy, Rima Parkhurst. Also near the top of the list were the three “horribles” – Senators Harrison Williams of New Jersey, Claibome Pell of Rhode Island, and Vance Hartke of Indiana, who daily and persistently threatened secretaries and volunteers who would not give them other people’s credentials. Williams was rated the worst, probably because he had more pressure on him since it was so easy for his most important constituents to come across the Hudson River from Jersey for a night at the Convention. One of his ploys was to send staffers claiming to be relatives of Democratic National Committee employees. One said he was the cousin of Anthony Jackson, the supervisor of guest credentials, and was given a ticket by a young volunteer who then said, “Hey, Tony, your cousin is outside.” Jackson came out and saw the Senate aide waiting at another credential window, trying to use his name again. The Williams courier was white. Jackson was black – and mad. He walked up to the Senate aide and snatched away the credential.

Kitty Halpin also had a personal list with one name on it – Fred Harris, a former Oklahoma senator and national committee chairman. Miss Halpin had been his secretary and he fired her. “He kicked me out because his wife thought we were sleeping together,” she said. “I’ve never forgiven him.” Tuesday afternoon, Harris asked for extra credentials – he had been given five a day as a one-time presidential candidate – and Miss Halpin sent out an assistant to say, “Miss Halpin says, ’No!’”



At 2:00 p.m., Charles Kirbo came to Strauss’s office and the two of them walked around the corner to the McAlpin Hotel on West 33rd Street. It was not exactly their kind of place – the few guests there were fighting a losing battle against legions of mice and roaches – but it was Jerry Brown’s style. Kirbo and Strauss were meeting with the governor of California – they wanted to see if the pimple was ready to pop.

The McAlpin was scheduled to close down forever on the day after the Convention and had already been deserted by two delegations that originally had chosen it – Oklahoma and Arizona – but Brown chose to hold court among the ruins rather than join the rest of the California delegation uptown at the New York Hilton.

“Nice place,” Strauss said with agrin. That was about as far as the negotiations got between the chairman, Kirbo, the governor, and six-young aides – “the acolytes,” Strauss called them. Brown said that, after Wednesday night’s roll call, he would be willing to make a motion that Jimmy Carter be nominated by acclamation. “We’re going to recognize some well-scrubbed American to do that,” Strauss said, thinking that this was the way Brown wanted to get to the podium and on television, maybe starting a movement for himself as vice president. After the chairman left. Brown, who was usually pretty well scrubbed, asked his campaign manager, Mickey Kantor: “What did that mean?”

Senator Alan Cranston of California was giving the final report of the Credentials Committee at 4:25 p.m. to a half-empty, milling, buzzing hall.

“There was a collision this year between provisions in the rules imposing affirmative action obligations on state parties, and provisions in the rules giving candidates the right to approve their own delegates. The conflict caused bitterness in a number of states, and put several challenges before the Credentials Committee. We must resolve this conflict by 1980.”

Cranston, choosing his words carefully, had committed himself and the party to nothing.

“Four years ago, thirty-two credentials challenges required public evidentiary hearings,” Cranston said. “This year . . . only one public hearing was needed. In contrast to 1972, the committee has stayed out of the courts, and attracted very little publicity. And that’s as it should be.”

That was certainly the way Bob Strauss wanted it. “No matter how I did it, I was going to do the job I hired out to do,” Strauss said. “The image was always on my mind: the Convention was going to be a montage of America – white faces, black faces, old faces, young faces, female faces. America was going to see us on television and see themselves. We were going to look and sound responsible – and get out of that hall by 12:30 each night.”

Bob Strauss promised George Wallace a prime-time television appearance – and he got it. Sort of. The crippled governor waited in his wheelchair at the back of the podium as Strauss came forward to introduce him at 9:21 p.m. – a time deliberately selected so that America would have to choose between a fading politician and the All-Star game on ABC – but first the chairman dramatically pointed out Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the VVIP boxes.

There were cheers across 33rd Street in the NBC control room, connected to the Garden by clusters of 900-foot-long cables. CBS was “out” – their coverage was interrupted for a commercial – so NBC had Jackie and CBS had a Ford Mustang. “Zoom in on her face,” yelled Robert Mulholland, the executive vice-president of NBC News, one of seven men facing 14 flickering television monitors.

Wallace was wheeled on at 9:24. At that moment, the Convention was being watched by less than 20 percent of the national television audience. Most Americans were watching ABC – the All-Star Game was in the fourth inning and Tom Seaver of the New York Mets was pitching to Fred Lynn of the Boston Red Sox, a classic confrontation between a great veteran and a spectacular young hitter.



WEDNESDAY, JULY 14



“Have you heard anything about your priest?” Edward Bennett Williams, the party’s treasurer, said to Robert Strauss in a midafternoon phone call on the third day of the Convention.

“My priest?” said Strauss, who grew up in the only Jewish family in Lockhart, Texas.

“Father Deming,” Williams said – the Reverend Robert N. Deming, rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City, Missouri, who was scheduled to give the benediction at the end of that night’s session. Williams, who was counsel to the National Catholic Council of Bishops, said that a friend at the council had called and told him Deming had been talking to his superior, the bishop of Kansas City, the Reverend Charles Helmsing, about the Democratic platform’s opposition to a constitutional amendment banning abortions. “Deming may be thinking of skipping on you tonight,” Williams said.

A headline flashed in Strauss’s head. On the morning after Jimmy Carter was nominated at Bob Strauss’s Convention, the front page of the New York Daily News would say:



CATHOLICS BOYCOTT DEM CONVENTION



The chairman called in his assistant, Azie Morton, and Convention manager Andy Shea’s assistant, Jackie Falk – the two women had become friendly with Father Deming during the Democrats’ 1974 Mid-Term Conference in Kansas City and suggested that he be given a role at the Convention. Ms. Falk assured Strauss that things were fine, that she had seen Deming at his hotel, the Waldorf Astoria, and they had parted saying that they would see each other at Madison Square Garden when the night’s session began at 8:00 p.m.



Jimmy Carter’s friend Charlie Kirbo got a call from Mickey Kantor, Jerry Brown’s campaign manager. “Let me think out loud with you,” Kantor said. “If Governor Brown wanted to come to the Convention tonight and call for Carter’s nomination by acclamation, what would happen?” Well, Kirbo said, he wasn’t sure, he thought maybe Bob Strauss was working out something different, that Georgia wanted to make that motion for their native son.

The pimple, Kirbo reported later to Strauss, seemed to be about ready to pop.



If Jerry Brown was ready to come around, Strauss was still worried about Fritz Efaw, the young draft evader who was going to have his name placed in nomination for vice-president. Because Efaw was younger than 35, the constitutional minimum for presidents and vice-presidents, Strauss planned to rule the nomination out of order to keep “that weirdo” off the podium.

In the Texas delegation, Jeff Jones, a delegate from that state, and Peter Galbraith, John Kenneth’s son, were collecting signatures on a vice-presidential petition for Louise Ransom, a director of the National Council for Universal and Unconditional Amnesty whose son had been killed in action Vietnam. The Ransom petitions were a back-up for Fritz Efaw’s. If Chairman Strauss ruled Efaw’s nomination out of order because of his age, Mrs. Ransom would be nominated, getting the same 15 minutes of television.

Across the street at the Statler Hilton, Representative John Conyers of Michigan was doing the same thing for his friend, Representative Ronald Dellums of California, whose symbolic nomination was being pushed by some liberals and Black Caucus members who wanted to remind Jimmy Carter that they were still alive.

The congressman figured that he could collect most of the 50 delegate signatures at the cocktail party of Americans for Democratic Action, for years the institutionalized voice of Democratic liberals. “There is no spokesman for the left this year, except for Dellums,” he announced at the ADA party. “Would the delegates here please step up?” There were only three delegates in the room.

Bob Strauss was in his office at the Statler Hilton when he got a call from Azie Morton. “You better get right over here,” she said. She was crying.

Father Deming, the Kansas City priest, was with Mrs. Morton in Strauss’s dressing room office behind the podium. Ed Williams had been right. The priest had a letter saying that he could not give the benediction that night “as a matter of conscience.”

“Who’s making you do this?” said Strauss, Who was convinced that the 42-year-old priest was being pressured by the Council of Bishops, which was already on record as opposing the Democratic platform’s abortion plank. Father Deming said that he did not want to discuss his reasons, that it was a personal matter.

Azie Morton and Jackie Falk were crying in the comer of the room. Ed Williams came in at one point and for a while the priest, who said very little, was confronted by two of the most persuasive men in the country.

“Would you pray for a rapist who was a murderer if he was dying?” Strauss asked.

“Yes.”

“Are you telling me that a rapist and murderer is better than the Democratic party? Pray for us. That’s all we’re asking. You can denounce us,” the chairman continued. “The podium’s yours for as long as you want it. You act as if your only options are to support our platform or to cut and run. You can do whatever you want to do.

“If you cut and run and if there’s a bad story, you could affect this campaign and possibly the future of this country. Is that what you want to do?”

It went on for more than an hour. Finally, Strauss had to go outside to open the third session of the Convention. “Don’t make a mistake like this,” he said, fairly sure that he had convinced Father Deming. “Promise me one thing, that before you make a final decision, you’ll let me know.”



As Strauss mounted the podium, NBC was televising an interview with Father Robert Drinan, a Massachusetts congressman who was a Roman Catholic priest, a Jesuit. He was saying that the Democrats did have some problems with Catholic voters in his area, not so much because of abortion, but because they were “perplexed” by Jimmy Carter’s evangelical style of Christianity. “It’s a communications gap,” Drinan said. “They don’t understand a southern gentleman who talks about a second birth.” Whatever it was, there was great concern about it within the Carter campaign. More than 29 million American Catholics were registered to vote – 70 per cent of them in 12 large states with enough electoral votes (271) to choose a president – and Catholic voters normally go Democratic by about two-to-one. But not always – Richard Nixon carried a majority of Catholic voters against George McGovem in 1972. Carter obviously did not want a repeat, and he did not want to have a mirror image of the problem that John F. Kennedy faced in 1960 when many Protestant voters found his Catholicism cause for fear.



Edward Bennett Williams and Andy Shea searched hotels and restaurants for Father Deming. They had no luck and just before ten o’clock, Williams went onto the Convention floor looking for Congressman Drinan, the Jesuit priest from Massachusetts.

Chairman Strauss decided to call Jimmy Carter, who was watching the Convention on television in his Americana suite. “We could get a very, very bad story out of this,” he said. Carter told him not to worry, all he could do was his best.

“We may need a priest,” Williams told Drinan.

“Well, I have a friend who teaches at Xavier High School. That’s near here someplace, but it’s summertime,” Father Drinan said. He went behind the podium with Williams, looking for a telephone. His friend, in fact, was not there, said the priest who answered the phone in the rectory on East 23rd Street, Leo Daley.

The vote when the roll call was completed was: Carter – 2,2381/2; Udall – 3291/2; Brown – 300 1/2; Wallace – 57; McCormack – 22; Church – 19; Jackson – 10; Humphrey – 10; Harris – 9; MiltonShapp – 2; Robert Byrd – 1; Cesar Chavez – 1; Leon Jaworski – 1; Barbara Jordan – 1; Edward Kennedy – 1; JenningsRandolph – 1; Fred Stover – 1; and 3 1/2 abstentions.

The California delegation microphone was switched on for Jerry Brown’s moment at 11:34 – one of the reasons Strauss wanted Brown on the floor was that the chairman also could have switched that mike off if he didn’t like what the young governor was saying. Brown made it brief, calling for unity, for victory, and then switching “California’s 278 votes” to Carter. What about the other 2? California had 280 votes. “They’re floating in the hall someplace,” he said.



The next day’s New York Post reported Jimmy Carter’s nomination in a long story that ended: “The Rev. Robert N. Deming of Kansas City, Mo., delivered the closing prayer.”

But he didn’t. Father Deming was neither seen nor heard from after he escaped from Robert Strauss’s office behind the podium. The benediction was actually given by the Reverend Leo J. Daley of Xavier High School, the priest who happened to pick up the phone when Congressman Drinan called during the middle of the session.



THURSDAY, JULY 15



The only thing on the agenda of the final afternoon session was: “Report on Rules – Part II.” It was a time for delegates to give their credentials to alternates, or to friends who wanted to sit on the floor even if nothing was happening.

But something was happening. “Rules – Part II” was where Chairman Strauss intended to make his system of controlling Democratic conventions as permanent as anything can be in American politics. And like any good Texas Friday-night poker player, he was using his own cards. His ace in the hole was that, under current rules, all procedural votes referred back to a single sentence in the “Rules Report” section on credentials: “A majority of the Convention eligible to vote shall constitute acceptance of any such motion.”

What that meant was that 1,505 votes – a majority of all delegates – would be needed to carry any of the minority reports being considered. A dull afternoon session late in the Convention was the best way to keep delegates away. And many stayed away – packing, shopping, catching up on sleep – making it as difficult as possible to get enough votes to pass minority reports that would destroy the Strauss system. The chairman’s plan worked – barely.

Minority Reports Number 4 and Number 6 were the dangerous ones. Number 4 would have amended the rules to require that two-thirds of the delegates to the party’s 1978 Mid-Term Conference be elected locally – instead of leaving delegate selection procedures, and control, with the Democratic National Committee. Number 6 would have reduced the percentage of committee members necessary to bring minority reports before the 1980 convention from Strauss’s beloved 25 percent to only 15 percent.

“You can’t live with these changes,” Strauss told Carter. “The liberals and the weirdos will use them to eat you alive. They’ll use the Mid-Term Conference to attack your administration and you’ll be at their mercy at the next Convention.” The candidate agreed, pledging the support of his delegate-communication trailer operation and his floor captains to fight the minority reports. The only problem was that the Carter trailer-floor system was more impressive as a prop for touring television correspondents than it was for lining up delegate votes. Peter Emerson, the Carter aide who conducted the television tours, said: “We’re not sure we can do it, so we won’t push too hard. We’re afraid to try and publicly fail. Luckily, there’s no real organized opposition – we don’t think.”

Even without opposition, the Carterites lost the vote on Number 4, the Mid-Term Conference, by 1,240 to 1,128. The chair then ruled that the required 1,505 votes had not been reached. The motion failed – DNC control was saved by the delegates who weren’t there.



Fritz Mondale was okay with almost everybody. The vice-presidential roll call ended with 2,817 votes for the Minnesotan, 20 for Representative Dellums, 12 for Gary Benoit, 11 for Fritz Efaw, and 148 for persons known and unknown, including Hunter Thompson.

The most exciting moment in the roll call, though, had nothing to do with candidates. When Dorothy Bush called, “Texas!” the state’s delegates jumped up with a card display that read: TEXAS LOVES NEW YORK CITY!

It was a fix. Bob Strauss immediately popped to the microphone with Mayor Abraham Beame and the Texans began to sing, “We love you. New York.” Beame responded, “Thank you, Texans; thank you, everyone.”

It took a half-hour to get the podium ready for the entrance of the nominees, as chairs were set up for the Carter and Mondale families and staffs, and Bob Tisch, the chairman of Loews, hustled back and forth emptying ashtrays and wastebaskets. All the delegates could see was Bob Strauss and Jerry Rafshoon waving their arms at each other in front of the microphones – both men were animated talkers, and what looked like two Rome traffic cops was just Carter’s media man explaining to the party chairman what was going to happen with the lights. The crowd amused itself by batting a couple of red, white, and blue beach balls back and forth in the air, a time-killing trick the Convention planners borrowed from rock concerts.

“What’s going on? How do we get to the podium?” asked Betty Rainwater, a former Atlanta schoolteacher who had become Carter’s assistant press secretary.

“I don’t know,” said Griff Ellison, a-nother press assistant. “I’ve never been to one of these things before.” Not many of the Carter people had. When Jim Gammill, the young Convention coordinator, came to New York in May for his first meeting with DNC officials, he had stood outside the door for several moments, finally taking a deep breath and saying to himself: “What the hell? Here comes the Carter campaign.”

Mondale came on at 9:50, absorbing five rousing minutes of political adrenalin from the cheering crowd. Bob Strauss was on his knees behind Mondale whispering, then shouting, “Look left! Look left!” – the still photographers’ section was to the left of the podium, and the nominee was not giving them a full-face victory wave.

“For well over a century,” Mondale declared, “our nation has been divided North against South and South against North . . . But tonight we stand together . . . Our days of discontent are over.” He went on for 22 minutes, a vigorous recital of the glories and programs of the Democratic party, but getting his best reaction, an animal roar, with Pat Anderson’s line about the sins of the opposition: “We have just lived through the greatest political scandal in American history and are now led by a president who pardoned the person who did it.”

The networks switched back and forth between the podium and enthusiastic delegates, Strauss’s American montage. “That looks pretty good,” Carter said in his trailer, and Jerry Rafshoon decided that dimming the lights was not such a great idea after all. He called Al Vecchione, the DNC’s television consultant, on the platform and told him to forget the whole thing. The Carter people had a new idea: the lights would stay up, but Carter would enter the hall from the back, the man of the people coming from the people.

Carter was introduced by a film, a 14-minute piece of masterful propaganda delivered free to 35 million Americans by CBS, NBC, and ABC. Rod Goodwin, an associate of Rafshoon’s, put together the Lincolnesque story of a determined barefoot boy from the peanut fields of Plains, Georgia, working his way to a presidential nomination. It was strongest where Carter himself was weakest, using humor and celluloid self-mockery – flashes of political cartoon after cartoon satirizing the man’s smile, drive, and self-confidence – to make Jimmy Carter a more likableman than he was. Goodwin poked his headinto the trailer where the candidate wasseeing the film for the first time and said:”Just kidding, Governor. Don’t hold thecartoons against me.”

Jimmy Carter came into the hall just before 10:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time – the exact time had been put in the Convention schedule ten months before, asymbol of Strauss’s determination to catchEast Coast television audiences beforethey went to bed and West Coast audiencesat 7:30 p.m., after they were home fromthe freeways. He moved past the Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Utah delegations, touching hands along the way. It was very impressive. In the press section above the Carter march, Richard Cohen, a Washington Post columnist who had had trouble finding things to write about all week, watched the film image dissolve into the man and said:’’ Son-of-a-bitch! It really is a great story.”



The moment Jimmy Carter finished his acceptance speech. Bob Strauss bounced up to the microphone and began a long final cheer of unity, his unity, calling name after name and waving Democrats to the podium: “Senator Scoop Jackson . . . Congressman Morris Udall . . . Senator Frank Church . . . Governor Jerry Brown . . . Governor George Wallace . . . Senator Ed Muskie . . . Senator John Glenn . . . Mayor Richard Daley . . . Senator Hubert H. Humphrey . . . Governor Hugh Carey of New York . . . Governor Raul Castro . . . Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas . . . Mayor Abe Beame of New York . . . Mayor Henry Maier of Milwaukee . . . Governor Reubin Askew, you’ve been called. Where is Reubin Askew, my good friend? …”

Sam Donaldson, a loud and enterprising ABC floor correspondent, went up the stairs behind Askew. Donaldson hadn’t been introduced, but the sight of Jimmy Carter waving and smiling up there was too much for him – no one was talking to the candidate and Donaldson was the kind of reporter who abhorred auditory vacuums. He fought his way through the grinning politicians, stuck his microphone in Carter’s face, and asked, “Well, did you think you had a snowball’s chance at first?”

“I thought I’d win, yes.”

“You have that cartoon in your den, though?” Donaldson said.

“Well, it’s a great cartoon. It was in the Athens, Georgia, newspaper. They don’t like me at all in that newspaper, so they drew a cartoon with me walking in the road carrying a Carter-for-president sign and the devil walking into hell with a snowball. And this guy is standing there and said, ’I’m betting on the snowball.’”

The CBS and NBC control rooms were going absolutely crazy. “Where’s Bradley?” screamed Don Hewitt, the CBS floor producer. “For Christ’s sake, get up there! Get up there!”

Strauss was going on and on – “Mr. Edward Bennett Williams . . . Governor George Busbee of Georgia” – Jim Teague, the hall manager, was standing at the back of the podium wondering how much weight the temporary floor could really hold. He was not anxious to find out, but his boss kept going – “Senator Cranston . . . Have we missed anybody? Mr. Pat Cunningham of New York . . . “

The applause stopped. There were boos for the man who brought the Convention to New York, the indicted chairman who walked the Garden alone. Ed Bradley, CBS’s Carter correspondent, had fought his way up to Carter and Donaldson, and finally stuck his microphone toward the nominee. In the CBS control room nothing came out – Bradley’s mike was dead, “Grab the podium mike!” Hewitt yelled. “Grab the podium mike.” Bradley turned around and reached in front of Strauss to pull the CBS speakers’ mike from its socket, but ABC’s Donaldson was till in command. “Governor, have you ever had a finer night than this?”

“No, this is the best night, I think, of my life. Perhaps with the possible exception of that night when I married my wife 30 years ago. But I can’t think of anything in my life that’s been this gratifying. To walk in, this is the first time I’ve seen the hall. I’ve been watching it from a television screen and you don’t get that, you don’t get the mammoth nature of it…”

“Mr. Arthur Krim, Mr. Lou Archer, Mr. Sheldon Cohen, Mrs. Dorothy Bush,” Strauss called. “Our wonderful Convention manager, Mr. Andy Shea . . . And my wife, Helen Strauss … Mrs. Coretta King . . . The wonderful, the very wonderful Carter staff who led it so far, Mr. Hamilton Jordan, Mr. Jerry Rafshoon, Mr. Jody Powell, Mr. Pat Caddell, not to mention Mr. Charles Kirbo . . . And Joe Fitzpatrick of Virginia . . . Senator Joe Biden

When Strauss stopped, grinning almost ecstatically, Lindy Boggs, the Convention chairperson, came back to the microphone: ” It is a distinct honor for me to recognize the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr., of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia.”

Daddy King began in a startling, rolling black basso:

“I would like very much that we would cease walking, talking, in fact, not a word be uttered, unless that word is uttered to God.” And there was silence – if God were black and folks, he sounded like this. “Surely the Lord is in this place. Surely the Lord sent Jimmy Carter to come on out and bring America back where she belongs.

“I’m willing, you are, too. but as I close in prayer, let me tell you, we must close ranks now. If there’s any misunderstanding anywhere, if you haven’t got a forgiving heart, get on your knees. It’s time for prayer.

“As I listened to both our leaders. I took a trip up to heaven, and I heard those who sleep, who said so much and did so much, and they simply wanted me to tell you, they’re still in business, they just moved upstairs.

“You know, let us not forget, this is our Father’s world, and we’re His children. Back of this cosmic world, God is there operating every moment, on time, and never too late to sing a promise, never.

“I’ve been doing this sixty-odd years, I’ve had my trials, my tribulations, my ups and downs, my losses, but I’m determined I’m not going to let nothing get me down.

“I’m going on and see what the end is going to be to all of this.

“The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up the light of His countenance upon you and give you peace, now and always.

“Amen.”



Strauss signaled Peter Duchin, and the orchestra began playing “We Shall Overcome!” Tom Hayden of New York Telephone signaled his men to move onto the floor and get the 220 red-and-white phones in delegations before they became souvenirs. Steve Alper, the unit manager of the television-audio Pool, was already climbing over chairs gathering up the 56 delegation microphones before they went the same way. In the loge sections, alternates were using fingernail clippers to try to loosen the screws holding the sleeves of the state standards to the floor. The letters DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION were ripped from the front of the podium before Secret Service agents could get there to protect them – for Strauss, who wanted them for himself.

Within eight hours of the closing gavel, interviewers working for Louis Harris Associates would be on many of the streets of America – one of the things they would find out in questioning 1,500 voters for the Harris Poll was how well Robert Strauss had done the job he was hired out to do. Polling was anything but an exact science, but that was probably not as important as the fact that the leaders of the country, politicians, based their decisions again and again on the numbers collected by Harris, the other dominant national pollster, George Gallup, and survey researchers for hire like Pat Caddell.

On that basis, the last two Democratic National Conventions had been exciting disasters. In 1968, pre-Convention polling had shown Hubert Humphrey trailing Republican Richard Nixon by 6 percentage points – post-Convention, Humphrey was behind by 15 points. In 1972, pre-Convention polling had shown George McGovem trailing Nixon by 12 points – post-Convention, McGovern was behind by 23 points. As far as Strauss was concerned, those numbers defined the impact of the last two Democratic Conventions.

In the Harris poll before Strauss’s Convention, Jimmy Carter was ahead of President Gerald Ford by 13 percentage points. The polling conducted by Harris between July 16 and 19 gave Carter a phenomenal lead of 39 points.

By 3:30 a.m. two bulldozers were roaming the floor of Madison Square Garden breaking up the wooden floor that had been built over the arena’s concrete. Above them, workmen smashed in the windows of the network anchor booths – it was cheaper to destroy the $15,000 pieces of glass than to try to get them out of the building.

Bob Strauss was trying to tell his driver where he had seen a 24-hour delicatessen, one of the glories of New York City in the small hours. He had spent a couple of hours at a joint party of the New York and Texas delegations at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center, leaving with his wife, their three children, and friends. “It’ll just take a couple of minutes,” he said as they drove back to the Statler Hilton. “I’m that hungry. I want a tongue sandwich more than anything in the world.”

He got it – going into the deli, organizing his troops, and placing the order for everyone. Back on the 17th floor of the Statler Hilton, he distributed the sandwiches and said one of the best goodnights of his life.

“Three and a half years, Helen, and it was all worth it. A hundred million people saw it, my Convention,” he said, sitting down. “Let’s have that tongue sandwich.”

“I only have the Swiss cheese I ordered. Do you want half of that?”

“Helen, I don’t like Swiss cheese.”

Newsletter

Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.

Comments