Unconventional Coverage

• Presidential nominating conventions aren’t what they used to be: interesting

•  They used to let long-haired freaks walk right up to the podium and place a collect call

•  What it was like covering that big Brian Wilson story no one can forget at the ’84 Dallas Republican confab

• In the heat of the night. . .I’m in a backwoods Georgia jailhouse

Google “unconventional coverage” and you’ll see it’s been a popular phrase used in connection with the reporting of America’s presidential nominating conventions, especially since cable channels like MTV and bloggers began getting officially credentialed for the spectacles.

But it’s not new:

Cincinnati Enquirer, summer, 1976

I cut my teeth – but not my hair – on conventions in 1972, with the help of a favorite journalism professor at BGSU, Emil Dansker. He somehow secured some grant money to send me and a photographer, Mike Feldman, to Miami for the Democratic National Convention. (I had already graduated; I think Mike was still enrolled.)

“. . extra cheese, half pepperoni. . .”

I was to provide phoners to the campus TV station, WBGU-TV, so they needed a photo to put up on screen when I was calling in. Inside the convention hall the day before it was gaveled into session, Mike and I were able to wander up to the podium where I picked up a phone and posed. This was just four years after the chaotic 1968 Chicago Democratic convention, yet security was so casual, no one even shooed us off the podium.

I shot a lot of color film during the week (just for the hell of it), focusing on as many newspeople as politicos.

On our way back from Miami to Ohio in Mike’s car, we had a scary, but funny incident. More on that later.

In 1976, with WEBN-FM in Cincinnati, The GM, Bo Wood, and I traveled to Kansas City  and New York City for that year’s conventions. My act was cleaned up a bit; no more work shirts and bell-bottoms.

Again, I took color photos, which of course were not exactly conducive for showing over the radio.

In 1980, for WMMR Philadelphia, I covered both conventions, but couldn’t tell you one thing about either one. By that time, the “smoke-filled back rooms” where presidential nominations were brokered were a thing of the distant past, and the protests, which peaked in ’68 Chicago, were seldom newsworthy. Conventions were just candidate  showcases and speeches.

After I joined ABC Radio News in 1983, I was sent to several more of these tiresome events. Typical of the only thing approaching news was Brian Wilson getting arrested for going somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be inside the convention hall in 1984. I covered his release and photo-bombed the Philadelphia Daily News:

And in 1988, on the second day of the RNC in New Orleans, George H.W. Bush announced his running mate would be Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana. I was sent scrambling in my rental car to get reaction from Indiana delegates, quartered at a hotel out by the airport. I arrived just after they left by bus for the Superdome downtown.

This about sums up where convention coverage was headed the last time I had to participate:

Tell us about your hat

Oh, yeah, the incident en route back to Ohio from Miami, in 1972. Somewhere in Georgia, in the middle of the night, we got pulled over by a state trooper. Mike, driving, says, “I’ve got a baggie full of pot back there” (in the baggage area created by the folded-down back seat of his GTO . . .with New York license plates.) Before the trooper leaves his car to approach us, I’m feeling around frantically behind the passenger seat, trying to reach Mike’s bag while facing forward and appearing still. (I don’t know what I was going to do with the pot if I found it!).

Trooper says follow me and leaves the interstate for dark, dusty back roads. We pull up outside a tiny city hall and jail in some tiny, backwoods Georgia town. We’re scared out of our wits. He takes us inside and says we’re going to wait for the judge, whom he has called and gotten out of bed to come over. Holy crap. We’re going to jail and they’re going to find the pot in the car. And we’re going to stay in jail.

The judge arrived and, miraculously, just hit us up for a speeding fine, which – even more miraculously – we were able to scrape together from the pockets of our bell-bottoms. The judge and the trooper drove away, leaving us standing next to our contraband-carrying car around 2AM on a warm Georgia night. We were enormously relieved. But not cowed, exactly. Mike had taken photographs of George McGovern as he was winning the nomination in Miami. We took an 8 X 10 print of McGovern, taped it to the front door of the building and wrote on it. “Thanks, guys. When George is president, we’ll put in a good word for you!” Then, with tires squealing and dust flying like the Dukes of Hazzard, we got the hell out of there and didn’t stop driving until we got back to Bowling Green.

Bonus Audio: An on-scene report from a 1984 Gary Hart event on the campaign trail in faraway Brooklyn:


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