In the wake of the Republican National Convention in August 1968, New York Times reporter Jack Gould said the television coverage of the meeting “should qualify as cruel and inhuman punishment,” and Los Angeles Times reporter Don Page said the convention “reached its peak of boredom” in the first few hours. Few journalists covering the event thought the meeting in Miami Beach was particularly exciting. Although the press reported before and during the convention on how Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller posed a roadblock to Richard Nixon’s attempt to win the nomination, little of note seemed to take place during the four-day meeting. Only Spiro Agnew’s nomination for vice president seemed to surprise the delegates and the reporters on hand. But that convention showed the direction of American politics for the next generation.
The 1968 Republican National Convention rarely stands out in people’s minds as significant because only a few weeks later the Democratic National Convention in Chicago shocked the nation. The protests in the Chicago streets and the contentious atmosphere in the convention hall left an impression on the American people because they graphically captured recent political and social shifts throughout the nation. Given the American people’s views of the Democratic convention, it is no wonder few remember that the Republicans met in Miami Beach earlier that year. Fewer still know that in the midst of the Republican convention, African Americans in the nearby Liberty City ghetto rioted to show their frustration with the nation’s unfair political, social, and economic systems.
The Republican National Committee chose to hold their convention in Miami Beach for a reason: they thought the atmosphere there would contribute to the party unity they hoped to achieve. An aura of success seemed to pour from every corner of the city, and it had a reputation of tranquility at a time when disorder had become the norm in urban centers across the country. But location alone did not guarantee a successful and peaceful convention. Richard Nixon looked to have the nomination sewed up, but most observers expected contentious discussions over the platform. Proposals for how to respond to violence in the streets threatened to cause problems for the party. Liberals, like New York mayor John Lindsay, condemned conservatives like Nixon for their inability to make a distinction between crime and social unrest. Lindsay wanted the platform to focus on ending the hopelessness that led to violence, while Nixon thought it should focus more on law and order. The platform committee managed to weave the two positions into a seamless though somewhat vague statement promising a “vigorous effort” to deal with poverty and pledging enforce the laws including those that barred racial discrimination.
Republicans also faced the possibility that activists against the Vietnam War or for civil rights might disturb the convention. Miami Beach, however, had another selling feature as a prime location for a tranquil convention. The bridges connecting the beaches to the mainland could be lifted, isolating the delegates from any possible trouble. And, as it turned out, trouble came in Liberty City. During the first few days of August, community leaders peppered the ghetto with handbills announcing a civil rights rally on August 7 outside the Vote Power headquarters featuring speakers Ralph Abernathy (there to protest the convention) and Wilt Chamberlain (there to campaign for Nixon). None of the local organizers bothered to confirm if either man would speak. When both men failed to show up at the appointed time, the crowd grew impatient and turned on a white television cameraman covering the event. The police kept the situation under control until that evening when a white man drove a car through the ghetto with a “Wallace for President” bumper sticker. The crowd forced him to flee on foot and it set his car on fire. The violence led to what the Chicago Daily Defender described as one of “worst racial disorders” in Miami’s history.
As the violence peaked in Liberty City on August 8, few people at the convention knew about it because they were engrossed in the nominating process. When the polling of the delegates began a little after midnight, Nixon watched the results on television in his hotel room. If anyone told him about the problems in Liberty City, he never mentioned it in his memoirs. He was too busy tallying the votes and basking in his possible victory. When he finally rose to the platform to give his acceptance speech Nixon likely had little knowledge of what was happening only a few miles away. After sketching the challenges facing the United States, Nixon pledged to help the forgotten Americans—black and white—to achieve their dreams. He reached out to the “the non-shouters” who worked, saved, paid their taxes, and cared about the future of the nation. Finally, using himself as a model, Nixon emphasized the possibility of personal success for all Americans through hard work and perseverance.
Nixon’s speech had little appeal to the African Americans of Liberty City or even the black people attending the convention, who were particularly disappointed with Spiro Agnew’s nomination for vice president. However, politically speaking, to win in November, Richard Nixon needed not the black or liberal Republican voters, but rather the conservatives. Nixon’s campaign promoting law and order and his vice presidential selection helped win their support. As Gary Wills observed in Nixon Agonistes, after the election, “some people remained forgotten in his speech on Forgotten Americans.” In reality, those people remained forgotten during Nixon’s presidency. While some historians, such as Joan Hoff and Melvin Small, gave Nixon credit for the pace of desegregation and the expansion of affirmative action programs, his civil rights record was far from progressive. Given the trajectory of the Republican Party in the 1970s, Nixon did not need to be. Conservatives held sway in determining the party’s policy outlook.
The forgotten Americans of Nixon’s acceptance speech became the “silent majority” before his first year in office ended. The blissful ignorance of the delegates at convention to the tragedy in Liberty City naturally turned into benign neglect– a phrase coined by domestic policy adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan to suggest the administration’s hands-off approach to civil rights. Though some Republicans did not like the phrase, they certainly did not quibble with the policy. When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, he could openly campaign against such programs as affirmative action.
For as much as the Democratic Convention captured the minds of the people in 1968, the Republican Convention highlighted the direction of American politics in the latter twentieth century. At the same time, the inattention of the delegates to the troubles only a few miles away showed the conservative trajectory of the Republican mindset, which became readily apparent by the late 1970s.