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KC curios from the 1976 Republican National Convention, part two

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Kansas City Mayor Sly James is optimistic about landing the 2016 GOP National Convention at the Sprint Center here, but many worry that Kansas City’s deficiencies of downtown hotel space and transportation might steer the GOP toward choosing another city for their convention.

An editorial in today’s The Kansas City Star said “Kansas City deserves top contender status to host the 2016 Republican National Convention, offering a central location, superb attractions and history to buoy its bid. Forty years is a long spell without a return GOP visit, and the city has plenty more to showcase now…”

Following is a glimpse of how GOP convention transpired the last time it came Kansas City—in 1976…

Recently, through a $5 garage-sale purchase, this examiner unearthed a political time capsule: a burlap tote bag from the 1976 Republican National Convention. The tote contained newspaper clippings from the Kansas City Times (then also called The Morning Kansas City Star) and The New York Times, as well as other convention ephemera.

“Welcome to Kansas City, Missouri, ‘Heart of America’ and Home of Wheatena” is inscribed on the tote in red and blue lettering. (In the early 1960s, the Kansas City, Mo.-based Uhlmann Company, owner of the Standard Milling Company, purchased both the Wheatena Corporation and Highspire Flour Mills.) Also on the tote: A red and blue elephant shape is enclosed in a red heart.

Incumbent Gerald Ford, who became president after Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, ran for election in 1976. Ford won the GOP nomination for president only after a bitter and hard-fought primary campaign against former California Governor Ronald Reagan—a battle that lasted through the last days of Republican convention.

Ford was a moderate Republican; Reagan was the leader of the party’s growing conservative wing. Ford beat Reagan but went on to lose the 1976 election to Democrat Jimmy Carter, a former governor of Georgia.

While politics in the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam American era was far from innocent, the civility and bi-partisan efforts of mid-1970s Republicans make them seem kinder and gentler than today’s strident Tea Party tone. Back then—before it had become informed by angry talk radio, Fox News, Wall Street Journal editorials, anti-tax-advocate Grover Norquist and various social agendas of the Christian right—the Republican Party was a more flexible monster, and more willing compromise on issues for the public good.

Though it had been moving increasingly to the right, Republicanism of the 1970s had room for moderates, and even room for liberal-minded pols like New York’s Jacob Javits and Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker. In a surprise move, just before the convention started, Reagan picked Schweiker (who had a moderate-to-liberal voting record in the Senate) as his vice president candidate, to balance the ticket and shore up support among GOP moderates.

One irony of the 1976 convention (especially considering Reagan’s so-called Eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican”): Most of the party infighting happened during the convention. No attempt was made by either camp to conceal the animosity between Ford and Reagan, and many disagreements between the two camps flared up live on network broadcasts of the convention.

Battered by Watergate, Nixon’s resignation and the legacy of the Vietnam War, the Grand Old Party gathered in a glass, steel and concrete edifice called Kemper Arena amid heat, humidity, tension, polyester, cigarette smoke, bouffant hairdos and a visceral contempt between supporters of Ford and Reagan.

The convention tote-bag time capsule reveals some oddities about mid-1970s political life. Following are a few tidbits from newspaper clippings:

•Kansas City’s Crown Center Hotel makes President Ford pay his bill in advance, according to UPI reporters. Same goes for Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.

•Muriel Dobbin of the Baltimore Sun said she was surprised at the freezing temperatures in KC in August. “My lasting impression of Kansas City will be 104 degrees outside and 32 degrees inside. It’s like working in the North Pole.”

•NBC’s John Cochran said he couldn’t get over seeing so many Republicans in the traditional Harry Truman hotel, the Muehlbach.

•It was the first time the Republicans had met in the “cow town” since 1928, when they had nominated the very popular Herbert Hoover, who had gone on to crush Democrat Al Smith in the general election.

•A New York Times story datelined Kansas City, Mo., and headlined “New Yorkers and Hosts Mixing Well” led with: “Slow hotel elevators. Slow restaurant waiters. Slow taxicabs. Slow talk. But everybody here has been wonderful—Kansas City has done itself proud,” said Senator Jacob K. Javits, whose home is in Manhattan in New York City.” The story continued: “Convention delegates from the Big Apple itself had approached the heartland of apple-knocker territory with some suspicion. The hosts were equally concerned about the impression they would on the fast-moving, fast-talking crowds from the big-city east….New Yorkers talk fast. They walk fast, even darting out in the gutter when a sidewalk is crowded—unheard of behavior for leisurely Kansas City.”

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