Don't Tell the Elephants!


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Yes, we have a spiffy new convention center. Yes, our hotels are top quality and close-in. Yes, there are eating places the equal of those in New York or New Orleans. And yes, San Diego's August climate is almost certain to be more pleasant than any competing city's.

All those advantages may have weighed heavily in nailing the 1996 Republican National Convention for San Diego. But most likely it was our image of steely conservatism that carried the day.

San Diego's no-nonsense reputation rests on more than our political performance over the years. We're conservative through and through. In television's early days this area became a prime test market for advertisers. Still is. The reason? Merchandisers realized that if a new product did well here, it would sell anywhere.

This being so, you may ask, how did the nonconservative Bill Clinton win San Diego in 1992? Don't be fooled. As elsewhere, Clinton's plurality was made possible by the omnipresent Ross Perot --whose San Diego showing was 25.5 percent, nearly 7 points stronger than across the nation.

By definition, conservatives do not much hanker for change. Delegates arriving at Lindbergh Field by air might be interested to know that 47 years have passed since our city funded the first of more than a dozen studies to find a more suitable airport site. Our most celebrated hostelry, Hotel del Coronado, operates the three oldest cage-style Otis elevators still in use anywhere. By public vote we twice rejected water fluoridation to fight tooth decay--a reform only recently forced on us by state law. And San Diego's federal court saw the nation's last slavery trial. (The "slave," a Coronado couple's elderly black maid, worked without pay and reportedly in bondage as of 1948, fourscore and seven years after the firing on Fort Sumter.)

August's visitors might be surprised to learn that the first transcontinental railroad to Southern California terminated in National City, a short hop from where they'll convene. But Temecula Canyon washouts in the mid-1880s caused the rebuilders to lay their tracks into Los Angeles instead--a happenstance that enabled San Diego's proud "Geraniums" to hold sway over the fast-buck "Smokestacks" element for the next 50 years.

The newfangled was not for us. San Diegans happily built the flying machine that was to take Charles Lindbergh to Paris. But Lindy looked elsewhere for the $50,000 it cost him, hitting paydirt in St. Louis. (Which is why the plane wasn't named Spirit of San Diego.)

Movements thought to be subversive have enjoyed predictably short shrift in these parts. Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), demonstrating here against an ordinance banning street-corner speeches, were hosed down on a local corner in 1913 and packed aboard a train for Los Angeles. After a brief Red scare in the wake of World War II, it was revealed that fewer than 100 Communists had surfaced locally--and that nearly half of them were paid agents of the FBI.

Nonetheless, we remain wary. A former mayor drew flak for holding a Soviet arts festival here--even after perestroika, glasnost and the beginnings of communism's collapse in eastern Europe. In Cold War days, complaints prompted the removal of a star from our Civic Center during the Christmas season--it was a red star. And objections from an aging admiral in the late 1940s caused us to delay for some months inscribing the Four Freedoms on a veterans' memorial building in Balboa Park. Freedom of speech and worship, freedom from want and fear--provocative stuff like that.

On the way to becoming a great city, we've had to admit to the sort of minor embarrassments that make conservatives squirm. Two San Diego mayors have faced criminal indictment, one of them along with a majority of his city council. An annual rite designating some leading tycoon "Mr. San Diego" was temporarily shelved after two of these civic icons in quick succession wound up behind bars. Proving that justice is blind, our county grand jury in the mid-1950s sent one of its own members to jail.

There have been personal embarrassments, too. A decade ago some 300 upper-income San Diegans entrusted a total of $82 million to a notorious con artist. He promised earnings as high as 80 percent on funds whisked electronically through worldwide money markets. Until recently, that fellow was getting his mail at Boron Federal Prison Camp, out in the desert.

Through the years, however, nothing could quite match San Diego's civic chagrin over what happened in 1916--something best not mentioned within earshot of the eager Republican throngs who'll jam the city this summer. Our reputation for conservative consistency was seriously jolted that year in a political earthquake felt not only statewide but across the fruited plain.

To set the scene: Democrat Woodrow Wilson, an obscure Princeton academic, had come from nowhere in 1912 to win his party's nomination on the 46th convention ballot. He went on to the White House--as Clinton would do 80 years later--with less than 45 percent of the total votes. His presidency resulted from a split in Republican ranks between incumbent William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose challenge.

Wilson seemed ripe for a comeuppance in 1916. Their division mainly healed, Republicans nominated New York's imposing ex-governor, Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes.

In his prime at 54, this bearded contender had a profile that seemed destined to be chiseled on silver coins. And a record to match. Hughes' cleanup of utilities and insurance fraud had led to two gubernatorial terms. (For the first of those he defeated the megalomaniac publisher William Randolph Hearst.) Hughes established one of the nation's first utility regulatory commissions. President Taft named him to the Supreme Court in 1910.

Wilson endured a rocky first term. Having pushed for child-labor and antitrust laws, fair-trade standards and a graduated income tax, the incumbent president was no favorite of business and industry. He'd been frustrated by bandido Pancho Villa's raids along the Mexican border and by public anxiety that America would be drawn into World War I, already two years under way in Europe.

Moreover, the president's personal life had set Washington tongues wagging. Widowed 18 months into his term, Wilson failed to observe what many thought a proper period of mourning before marrying the vivacious widow Edith Bolling Galt, 17 years younger than himself.

As Election Day neared, both sides were counting up the probable division of electoral votes. California, then numbering 13 in the Electoral College and with women voting for the first time, was assumed to be safely Republican. A gap of three time zones made our state's returns the last to come in on election night. But GOP leaders felt that if the tabulation came down to California, with Hughes needing fewer than 13 to win, the Republicans were in.

San Diego had remained something of a boom town, peopled mainly by Midwesterners. Though still short of its first 100,000 population, the city was viewed as a reliable southern anchor for statewide conservatism. As for our local politics, no casino slots ever seemed fixed with greater certainty. A better than 3-to-2 Republican edge in county registration was reflected in a dutifully beholden civic officialdom. An unchallenged power elite called the tune. For example, the 1916 county fair (our fairs back then were held in early fall) was made a daily sounding board for the Republican ticket.

A drum-beater for the Grand Old Party, and for Hughes, was the San Diego Union. The newspaper's lead editorial on election eve called upon loyal voters to sustain the reputation of California's strongest Republican county.

"The race may be so close that a great Republican majority from this stronghold will ensure California for Hughes," the Union asserted. "Make San Diego the banner Republican county by rolling up a great majority that may be needed to offset an unforeseen Wilson vote elsewhere."

Maybe they overdid it. Because here is where the tale turns ugly for defenders of the faith. Voting elsewhere in the land went swimmingly. States falling into the Republican column put Hughes precisely where his backers had hoped. They had reached 254 in the Electoral College, just 10 behind Wilson at 264. California's 13 would make Hughes the winner by history's narrowest margin.

Republicans apparently had retaken the White House. The courtly Hughes did what's expected of a winner--he thanked one and all who had helped in his campaign, then retired for the night in New York's storied Astor Hotel.

Out on the West Coast, the count went much as expected--until early-morning reports filtered in from San Diego. And then, consternation. Surely this couldn't be. A garbled transmission, perhaps?

But no. Instead of the Republican cascade experts had expected and for which the Union had sounded its trumpet call, the candidates ran virtually even in San Diego. The tally: Hughes, 16,894; Wilson, 16,784. They were separated by just 110 votes. And Wilson had won the state by less than 3,000.

In its stunning reversal of form, San Diego--staidly conservative, rock-ribbed Republican San Diego--had assured a second term for one of only two Democrats to occupy the White House in more than a half-century.

The story has been widely told of a New York newspaperman bearing the California returns to Hughes' hotel suite, shortly before dawn. The candidate's son opened the door and said, "The president is sleeping. He cannot be disturbed."

The reporter's reply became the stuff of legend: "Well, when he wakes up, tell him he ain't president."

Lionel Van Deerlin, a nine-term congressman who represented San Diego from 1962 to 1980, is a widely published columnist and commentator and the much-respected senior sage of local politics. As a lifelong Democrat, he may be uniquely qualified to write about San Diego's deep Republican roots

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