Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Looking Back: 1968 GOP Convention, Miami Beach

Gus Miller
In January 1968, I was a 19-year-old journalism student when I got a part-time job working for Gus Miller in public relations at the Republican National Committee. As the convention neared, Gus pulled strings to make me his assistant as press room director. He thought it would be a good experience for me. In doing so, I was told that I was the youngest employee in the history of the GOP (and a woman, to boot) to be a paid staffer at a national convention.

I wasn't the first person Gus mentored, nor the first woman. There were so many of us college students that we became known as "Gus Miller's Brownies." One of Gus' proteges was Jackie Bouvier (Kennedy) who reported to him after graduating from George Washington University in 1951 and being hired as The Inquiring Photographer for The Washington Times-Herald.

Gus was city editor of The Times-Herald until it was sold in 1954 to The Washington Post. He was well-respected among the Washington press corps, and Republican and Democratic politicians alike. He'd sometimes smile and reminisce about the early 1950s when he'd throw a  football in the corridors of the Senate office building with Sen. Jack Kennedy and a staff member named Ted Riordan.

Gus was a natural choice to manage the press room, and I was an eager young journalist, never without my Instamatic camera. Enjoy this photographic diary of the 1968 GOP Convention:

California Gov. Ronald Reagan (above) arriving at the Fontainebleau Hotel. Reagan and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller planned to unite their forces in a "stop-Nixon" movement at the convention. The strategy fell apart when neither man could agree to support the other.

Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen successfully united the various factions of the Republican Party by granting younger Republicans more representation in the Senate leadership and better committee appointments.

David Brinkley and Chet Huntley (The Huntley-Brinkley Report) anchored convention coverage for NBC from a booth overlooking the convention floor.

Washington's "Hostess with the Mostest" Perle Mesta and actor Hugh O'Brien ("Wyatt Earp").

Los Angeles Lakers' Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain signing autographs outside the Fontainbleau Hotel. Chamberlain was a supporter of Nixon's and helped tout the President's ideas on "black capitalism” and entrepreneurism.

Showing displeasure with the invasion of Republicans, this cashier in the Fontainebleau's coffee shop wore a handmade button everyday that read, "Arthur Goldberg for President." Goldberg was a former Supreme Court Justice, and Ambassador to the United Nations at the time.


Ruth Miller (blue dress) greeted visitors near the elevator at the Fontainebleau Hotel. Mrs. Miller was among several seniors working at the RNC that Gus affectionately referred to as "grave dodgers. . .like me."

Gus invited me to hold the gavels which were under his guard before the convention convened on Aug. 5, 1968.

Our office was "Convention Central" with reporters streaming in and out all day to chew the fat with Gus. Finally, he asked RNC artist, Bill Fleishell, to write "The Elephant Not the Yak is the Symbol of the GOP!" on a stock poster of an elephant. Photographer John Littleton heard about the sign and couldn't resist taking this photo. Next day, someone told me it was on page B1 of The Christian Science Monitor.

Gus ran a taut ship that included shooing away reporters when they'd ask me to go out with them. One night a UPI reporter invited me to join him and some other reporters in the cocktail lounge. "Get outta here!" Gus ordered, pointing to the door, "She's gotta work!" When I expressed my displeasure with his interference, he reminded me that I was underage. As a consolation, Gus sent me back to my hotel room with what was left of a Chivas Regal bottle he told me to share with my roommate.


On the last day of the convention, I was working as reporters waited for an announcement of the vice presidential nominee. Suddenly, there was a chorus, "Spiro Agnew! Who's he?" "He's the governor of Maryland" I told them, a native of the seventh state to join the Union. Nixon had chosen Agnew in order to secure the southern vote in November. 

The day after the convention we began packing up as a hurricane headed our way. Gus and Fred Morrison, director of public relations, and Fred's secretary invited me to join them for a leisurely lunch to celebrate a "job well done." The afterglow was short lived. After we returned to Washington, Nixon's media advisors, Ken Reitz and Harry Treleavan, fired Fred and other veteran journalists on our staff, including a former president of the National Press Club, and replaced them with advertising men. Gus was the only one who didn't get fired. Instead, he was demoted to a room in the sub-basement outside the mail room/print shop. These "Mad Men" times were chronicled in Joe McGinniss's best-selling book, "The Selling of the President 1968." It marked the end of substance and the beginning of an era where politicians would be packaged and sold like toothpaste. 

Four years later, I returned for the 1972 GOP Convention in Miami Beach, this time as a secretary in the speechwriting department of the Nixon White House. I was part of a team that approved, and reworked, speeches prior to delivery before the convention floor -- and a nationwide television audience. Mort Laughlin, creator of "All in the Family," was hired to write jokes for our department. This effort to manipulate and broadcast a unified, engaging message to the nation was thought by many at the time to be controversial, even scandalous.