The View from the Floor
By Michael Grant
Gordon luce has to hesitate for a moment—these conventions are cued to serious business—before he can call back the highlight of his service as a delegate to a national presidential nominating convention.
“I started out in the 1964 convention as an alternate and was starry-eyed, and only on the periphery,” says San Diego’s Luce, the former banker and longtime Republican stalwart. “And then we went on to Miami in 1968,” says Luce, “and by then, I’d worked up to a balloon blower-upper and dropper-from-the-ceiling.
“There’s a very famous firm in California, called Spencer Roberts, and they were the big political firm of the time. Stu Spencer and I were delegates now, we’d worked our way up from alternates, and I thought we’d be pretty big-time down there in Miami in 1968. And there we were”—Luce chuckles at the vision—“up in the ceiling of this giant convention center in Miami, blowing up balloons.”
Luce laughs again, amused by the scope of his responsibility. “Most of the balloons had already been blown up, but we were in charge of the nets and the release of the balloons at just the right time.”
It’s a sweet vignette, one that would be told by a grandparent, a brushstroke in the grand portrait of the national convention, of energetic, glowing, everyday faces upturned around the darker, brooding circles of power. And in the Luce family, there are countless vignettes. His grandfather, Moses, was a delegate to the 1868 Republican convention that nominated Ulysses S. Grant; his father, Edgar, was a delegate to the 1912 Bull Moose convention that nominated Teddy Roosevelt.
“Insider?” says Democrat Lionel Van Deerlin from across the aisle, with the same amusement as Luce. “Let me tell you how much of an insider I was as a delegate.
“This was in 1964, the first night of the convention in Atlantic City,” says Van Deerlin, who represented his San Diego County district in Congress from 1962 to 1980. “I was strolling the floor with [hotelier] Larry Lawrence, and it was noisy, and chaotic, you know, when suddenly I was sure I heard my name being called on the loudspeaker.
“Larry Lawrence, you know, being the pushy kind that he is, well now, he says, this must mean something and we’ve gotta find out. So he pushes me up toward the front and we begin to get past this line and that, and Larry is saying, ‘Congressman Van Deerlin heard his name on the loudspeaker; what was it about?’
“Well, it turned out I’d been named to an honorary committee of six to escort the keynote speaker to the platform. And I got up there just as they were leaving. I almost missed my moment of non-fame. Nobody bothered to tell me about it.”
Though the national vision will be the official one, channeled through the narrow, carefully edited funnel of television, it is the vignettes that will constitute the breathing body of this summer’s GOP nominating convention at the Convention Center, and the way San Diego will be remembered to grandchildren 30 years from now: not as the name of a nominee, but as a city at a moment in life.
“My own most memorable experience,” says Van Deerlin, “was when I was in college, in 1936. I was at USC, and with another kid from college was on my way on a very low-budget trip to Berlin for the Olympic Games. I decided to see my first political convention on the way.
“They were meeting in Philadelphia, after the first Franklin D. Roosevelt term. We got in by bus late on the first day of the convention, and I went over to the convention hall. This occurred just at the time the Mississippi delegation was walking out in a huff. And some florid-faced woman stormed out the front door. I was the first person she saw. In a dramatic gesture, she came and planted all her tickets in my hand and said, ‘Take these; I wouldn’t go back in there if they paid me.’ So I had tickets to the convention floor for the rest of the week.”
Was it the time of his life?
“Oh, it was as tiresome as it could be,” says Van Deerlin. “There was nothing important to be decided. It was all a managed convention.”
THE FLORID FACE in Carol Alessio’s memory belonged to a young man in a Houston mall.
“I was walking through the Galleria in Houston,” recalls Alessio, who was a delegate to the GOP conventions in New Orleans in 1988 and Houston in ’92. “I had my credentials on, and we had gone shopping,” she says. “And then, out of the blue, I’m surrounded by people, this ... group. I think it was a group called Act Up, or something. Because, you know, you have everybody there, around the convention, wanting to get the media’s attention.
“All of a sudden, these people start surrounding me, and they said they wanted, you know, more AIDS awareness; they were just not happy with the Republicans.”
For a moment, she says, Alessio felt the chill of a physical threat. “They were yelling at me. I don’t know if you remember, they were the ones at Houston, burning stuff all over, just mayhem, little bonfires to get the police and the attention of the press. I thought, What am I gonna do?
“And I said, ‘I just came here to shop!’
“There was this one leader, and he had the F-word on his shirt, in three or four places. You just don’t know; these people are getting really agitated, and I’m sitting there with my eyes wide open, and I say to the leader, ‘I can’t really talk to you and take you seriously when you have this ... F-word written all over your shirt.’
“So he says, ‘I’ll take it off.’ And I say, ‘You don’t really have to take your shirt off.’ Well, he proceeds to take his shirt off. All these people in the Galleria are gathering around, and I’m thinking, What am I gonna do, all these people surrounding me? But of course by then somebody has alerted the police, and they come pouring in. It created quite a stir. As it was ending, I said, ‘Look, as a delegate I’m really not involved in anything; I don’t have anything to do with policy or anything like that.’”
From a delegate’s point of view, Alessio says, a political convention is an all-day peripheral swirl that picks up momentum in the evening, with the appearance at the convention of the heavyweights in politics and the media, and the arrival of the celebrities.
“The people who are there,” she laughs, “they go crazy over, like, Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
Van Deerlin has seen conventions both as a delegate and as a journalist—or, as he wryly puts it, “I turned from delegate to journalist when 53 percent of the voters in my district decided that I could come home from Washington, which was 1980.
“I’ve been to twice as many conventions for the Union-Tribune as I’ve been to on my own,” Van Deerlin says. “I was at both conventions in 1984 and ’88 for the newspaper. Which side do I prefer? Oh, obviously the press side.
“It’s a fact,” he says. “There hasn’t been a really decisive or interesting convention, from the standpoint of anything actually important being decided, since, I guess, the Republican convention in San Francisco. That was 1964, when they nominated Goldwater over Nelson Rockefeller. That was a helluva convention.”
“That was a unique convention,” Gordon Luce agrees. “A very bitter convention, the most contentious one I attended. Of course, when it’s a renomination of a president, it’s more of just a duty. The delegates go down into the meeting rooms of their hotels for the breakfast meetings and are given their marching orders. This convention in San Diego will be very interesting because it’s not decided. This is wide open. The last three were not, from the Republican side of it.
“You know,” says Luce wistfully, “it’s always been hot at these conventions. We’ve had Dallas, we’ve had Detroit, Kansas City, Miami. We’ve never had a nice, cool convention, as we’ll have in San Diego. It’ll be really a summer scene here that we haven’t been accustomed to. We always stayed in the smoke-filled rooms and the air-conditioned hotels.”
INFREQUENTLY, at these conventions, a celebrity emerges from the masses.
“Sylura Barron,” says Van Deerlin definitively. “She is obviously your best character.”
Sylura Barron, who says she was lured into politics by the New Deal, is a 95-year-old San Diegan with the retention of a historian and the communicative firepower of a teenager. She was the first black woman to be a delegate at a national convention.
“I went to Philadelphia, and they had never seen a black person for a convention, and I was there with Truman’s delegation, the first black ever to hit the streets, black or white or green, Republican or Democrat, and I was a mystery back there for everybody,” says Barron in one of her shorter bursts. This was the 1948 convention that nominated President Harry S Truman for a first full term of his own—a term no one thought he could win.
“July 18, 19-and-48,” Barron says with relish. “You know how they do it at the conventions, they have different places, stations, you know, for the states to sit at the convention. Henry Love, the political writer for The San Diego Union—he was a big Republican—was there to represent the Union. I was seated next to him, seated on the floor in 1948, only black on the floor. That was a Monday. July 18.
“That night there was a big banquet; my husband had his tuxedo. We stayed at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, there in Philadelphia. So we got ready to come down; I’d put on my long, formal dress. Somebody knocked at the door. My husband said, ‘Who is it?’
“And they said, ‘We are the Secret Service people. Is this the Barrons’ room?’ My husband said yes. They said, ‘We’d like to talk to you.’
“My husband opened the door. They said, ‘We’d advise you not to come downstairs for the banquet. We’ll have the food sent up to you-all to your room.’
“There I’m all dressed up now, getting ready to come out. So I said, ‘Why? What’s wrong?’
“They said, ‘Well, the demonstration, Mrs. Barron, that you put on down there today.’ They said that ‘it’s not advisable for you to come down,’ that this wasn’t no Southern state now, this was Philadelphia.”
Mrs. Barron recalls the situation on the convention floor, earlier that day.
“California was the biggest state at that time. I was sitting with Henry Love, right next to him, with the big bear flag hanging up right by my head, there. So I grabbed the flag and I jumped out on the floor, and I wanted to have California be the first state to come in, because, see ... nobody wanted Truman.
“I’ll be frank with you. The Southern states, they wanted to draft Eisenhower. You remember Eisenhower? They did not want to support Truman, because they said that Truman could not be elected as the President of the United States, because a lot of the Southern states did not care for him.
“Well, Eisenhower wasn’t even a registered voter at that time. They didn’t know whether he wanted to be drafted or not, but they just wanted to draft him. So what I did, I jumped up and grabbed the big bear flag, and then I came out and told the band to play ‘California, Here I Come.’ So the band started playing when they were trying to draft Eisenhower, and I got out on the floor and started dancing”—Barron erupts in laughter—“like a fool. I know I’m supposed not to do that, but I just had to be seen.
“I hollered at Louisiana; the Louisiana delegates were sitting on the right-hand side. Well, I was born in Mansfield, Louisiana. So I was hollering to the delegates over there, ‘Come on, Louisiana, and follow me, ’cause I’m one of you, I was born in Mansfield, Louisiana, come on and follow me!’
“So then, when [from the podium] they called California state, somebody had cut the cord, you know, that button you push. I jumped up and run and got out on the floor and said, ‘Come on, California; come on in, come on in!’ And I brought California in after the cord was cut. I really played a fool of myself.
“But anyway, I got all that publicity—I wasn’t looking for publicity. But I was determined I was gonna go for President Truman.”
And so publicity, and possibly politics, at the end of the day brought the Secret Service agents to her door, at which she stood in her long gown ready to go downstairs to the banquet, and they told her she had better not come.
That was the Democratic convention of 1948. Forty-eight years later, another general is the subject of political draft talk, this time on the Republican side. The general has gone on record against a candidacy, draft or otherwise, but his presence will be a theme of the summer of ’96 in San Diego. As Van Deerlin says: “He’ll undoubtedly be asked to speak.”
Michael Grant, a former San Diego Union columnist, teaches journalism at Grossmont College. Author of several books, he also contributes regularly to San Diego Magazine OnLine.