The Best Of The 16 Presidential Nominating Conventions I've Covered

Mar 3, 2018

Part 2 of a two-part Tales from the Trail:

Sometimes, I don't believe it either.

I've had a career covering politics where I have gone to 16 presidential nominating conventions, Democratic and Republican.

More than any one human being should have to bear.

I shouldn't complain, though, even in jest. I've visited some great American cities, seen a few baseball games in some ball parks I might never have gotten to, and, from time to time, actually witnessed American history being made.

And told the story.

Obviously, if you have been to 16 of these things, some you remember more fondly that others.

Last week, I wrote about the three worst conventions I've covered – the worst because they were either logistical nightmares, impossible working conditions, or a hostile environment.

Sometimes all three at once.

All three were Republican conventions – Cleveland in 2016, Tampa in 2012, and Houston in 1992.

But unless you think I have something against Republican conventions, two of the three best conventions were also Republican. Read on, and you will find out:

1988, Republican National Convention, New Orleans:

I think I probably had most of you convinced at New Orleans.

How could you not enjoy spending a week in that wild, wonderful city, even if you had to do some considerable work and even though, in mid-August, the heat and humidity was off the charts?

Why else would I convince the Cincinnati Enquirer, my employer at the time, that I just had to show up two days before the four-day convention at what was then known as the Louisiana Superdome?

Because Bourbon Street beckoned.

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

I was staying at the home of the Ohio delegation, the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, which was good because it was within walking distance of the Superdome. No need for crowded shuttle buses.

That was good, but what was even better was that the hotel on New Orleans' Riverwalk was within walking distance of the French Quarter. That's where just about all of the early arrivers – delegates, media, party officials, hangers-on –  gravitated before the gavel came down on the first session Monday morning.

And most of the late arrivers too.

With a few of my fellow reporters, we spent Saturday and Sunday nights roaming the Quarter, popping in and out of the jazz clubs, knocking back a hurricane or two at Pat O'Brien's.

And, for me, best of all, hearing my favorite Dixieland group, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, playing at Preservation Hall itself!  Heaven on Earth!

And, by the way, this convention produced actual news, which is more than I can say for the vast majority of the conventions I've covered.

It started when the Republican nominee for president, Vice President George H.W. Bush, hauled the Bush clan onto the deck of a riverboat docked just outside of the Ohio delegation's riverfront hotel and introduced his running mate, young Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana, who came bounding out onto the deck doing a Happy Dance and hugging every Bush in sight. 

It was only few hours later that the news stories about Quayle's background began to spread through the convention.

There was the story about whether young Quayle of Huntington, Indiana, in 1969, had used his family's influence to get into the Indiana National Guard, where his chances of being sent to Vietnam were practically nil.

And there was the story of his golf trip to Florida, some years earlier, along with two other members of the U.S. House and the rather notorious "lobbyist," Paula Parkinson, who claimed to have affairs with powerful men on Capitol Hill. No one ever proved any hanky-panky had taken place on that golf trip; and Quayle vehemently denied that it had.

Nonetheless, it was giving Bush heartburn and thousands of reporters something to write about almost non-stop for three days.

It was a true media frenzy.

Although, at the end of the day, in the wee hours of the morning, the Quayle saga did not keep a sizeable portion of the media mob from wandering out of the Superdome and back to the French Quarter.

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

2008, Democratic National Convention, Denver:

There were a lot of reasons to like this convention.

There was history being made – Barack Obama, before a wildly enthusiastic full-house crowd at Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium, accepted the Democratic presidential nomination, thus becoming the first African-American to be a major party's nominee for president.

Regardless of your personal politics, you had to be impressed by that. And by the excitement Obama caused throughout the delegation hotels and on the streets of the Mile High City for that week in late August, 2008.

It was electric.

The only thing to top it in my experience as a reporter was the 2 million-plus crowd that showed up on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. about five months later to cheer Obama as he took the oath of office and became the nation's 44th president.

I was with the Ohio delegation in Denver, of course, and we had a decent hotel assignment – an expensive boutique hotel on Curtis Street downtown. This place had a comedy theme – Looney Tunes playing in a continuous loop on flat screen TVs in the lobby, audio speakers in every elevator with comics telling jokes. My room was very nice – although it was sort of odd having a framed photo of the Three Stooges next to my bed.

There were shuttle buses at the hotel to take delegates, delegation guests and the media to the nearby Pepsi Center, home of the NBA's Denver Nuggets and the site of the convention itself.

I used the shuttles a few times, but they were slow and always stuck in traffic.

I found an alternative means of transportation – the pedicab.

On Day Two of the four-day convention, I found a young 20-something fellow, sitting on the seat of his pedicab. I asked him if he could get me down to the security checkpoint by the Pepsi Center; I needed to get to my workspace in one of the huge media tents set up outside the convention site.

Sure, hop on!

As he started picking up speed to get me to the Pepsi Center, I learned that his name was Darrin and that he was a huge baseball fan – his team was the Colorado Rockies, of course.

Anyone who knows me know that my true love in life is baseball; and Reds' baseball in particular. I told Darrin that I had come into town a couple of days early because the Reds were at Coors Field playing the Rockies; and I had never seen the ball park.

We started talking about what a great ball park Coors is, how the ball jumps out of the place in the thin atmosphere, how it can add two or three points to a pitcher's earned run average.

And we whipped through several other baseball topics before he pulled up in front of the security checkpoint.

I paid Darrin and gave him a very generous tip.

Thanks, man, that's really nice of you, he said. There's some deadbeats around town this week. Here, take my card….it's got my cell phone. If you ever need a ride, just call this number and I'll be there.

This could work out very well, I thought – having my own pedicab driver for the convention. I was very glad I met Darrin.

I called him after the evening session was over and he came down to pick me up to take me back to the hotel. And, the next day, around noon, he was outside the Ohio hotel, waiting to take me back to the media workspace.

It really paid off on Thursday night, when they moved the convention down to Invesco Field (now known as Sports Authority Field) so that tens of thousands of Denver area Obama fans could be there for the acceptance speech.

I was writing the lead story for the Enquirer that night on the acceptance speech. I had spent part of the afternoon putting together some background material so I wouldn't be starting from scratch at Invesco. I knew the deadline pressure was going to be intense enough that night.

I was in a make-shift press area outside in the stands, hammering away at my laptop as Obama spoke. The speech was over; the celebration was going on; and suddenly I realized that with time running out, I had lost my WiFi signal and couldn't get it back.

If I could only get back to the media tents, I was certain I could get a signal. But it would take too long to walk over there. What to do?

Call Darrin, of course.

I got him on his cell phone; he was nearby the Invesco security checkpoint.

I really need you now, man; can you get me over to the media tent?

No sweat, man. Come on out.

I battled my way through the crowd and got outside the security perimeter. There was Darrin, waiting.

I hopped on as he doubled-time it about a mile to the checkpoint by the media tents.

I gave him a wad of money. I mean a huge tip.

You earned this, pal.

I rushed into the Gannett workspace, hooked up my laptop, got a strong signal from my WiFi stick, and shot that baby straight to Cincinnati, just in the nick of time.

I don't like to brag, but I really do think it was the best deadline writing I have ever done. But it would have been all for naught if not for Darrin.

The moral of the story:

Always make friends with the Darrins of the world. In the end, you will need them a lot more than they need you.

1996, Republican National Convention, San Diego:

A week in San Diego? On the Cincinnati Enquirer's dime?

Need I say more?

I don't think there was a single Republican from any of the 50 states and territories who went to San Diego that week believing their nominee for president, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, had even a remote chance of defeating the incumbent Democrat, Bill Clinton, in November.

Not even Bob Dole.

But everybody showed up anyway. It was San Diego. The City of Perfect Weather, 365 days a year.

The Ohio people were staying in a resort hotel in the middle of town that had a Hawaiian theme. It was a little weird, but it was nice and more than a few delegates spent their days hanging out by the pool instead of attending afternoon sessions.

Every day of the convention, there was a group from the Buckeye State who would load onto a bus and take the short trip to Tijuana to shop and eat and drink and come back in time for the night session of the convention.

One day, a busload of nerdier delegates and alternates took a bus ride up the coast to Yorba Linda, to visit the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace. I did go along on that one; being the politics geek that I am.

But for the most part, Republicans in San Diego did everything possible to avoid dealing with the business of the convention – which was pretty dismal – and stay outdoors in the sunshine and the ocean breezes.

A tip to the political parties: Don't hold any more conventions in San Diego. You will find that your delegates have a short attention span.