by Vincent S. Ancona
Assistant Curator, San Diego Historical Society
“We need this like a hole in the head.”1 Those were the words uttered in 1971 by San Diego’s mayor, Frank Curran, when confronted with a proposal for the city of San Diego to host the upcoming Republican National Convention. Despite the mayor’s misgivings, the Republican National Committee selected San Diego as the site for its 1972 Convention. But the words of Frank Curran would prove to be prophetic. Problems beset both the city and the convention planners from the start, and the situation worsened as the convention neared. The frustration and discontent felt at both ends of the convention planning process finally erupted in May of 1972, a mere three months before the convention, when the Republican National Committee announced that it was pulling out of San Diego and moving the convention to Miami.
The most interesting aspect of the 1972 Republican Convention fiasco is not that the convention left, but rather the political process that brought it to San Diego in the first place. As with most political events of this nature, San Diegans were apathetic to the idea of hosting the convention. Some felt that it would be a boon to the county’s convention and tourist industry. Others feared it would lead to more development and create a greater demand on the area’s limited resources.
Consequently, the task of bringing the convention to San Diego fell to a small group of local Republican politicians and civic boosters. These individuals were anxious to see San Diego host the convention for the recognition it would bring to their city as well as to themselves. With the national spotlight focused on San Diego, local Republicans naturally expected to promote their own careers. Little did these politicians and civic boosters realize that the behind-the-scenes machinations of the convention were orchestrated by the Republican National Committee and President Nixon’s staff. In the end, the local civic boosters and politicians would serve as the unknowing dupes of the GOP.
Early in 1971, Mayor Curran and City Manager Walter Hahn had dismissed proposals from both local Republicans and local Democrats to submit bids for the parties’ national conventions. According to Curran, himself a Democrat, the parties usually brought in their own people to make all the arrangements and left the host city with only a big mess to clean up. Curran and Hahn argued that San Diego did not have the facilities available to host such large conventions. Local Republicans and Democrats realized that without solid support from the city officials, the chances of bringing a major political convention to town were almost nil. Both parties’ deadlines for the submission of bids to host their conventions came and went without any action taken by the city of San Diego.2
Curran’s refusal ended the idea of San Diego hosting the Republican convention at this point. However, early in May of 1971, Robert Finch, counselor to the president, attended a dedication ceremony at Old Town. Also present at this ceremony was local U.S. Congressman Bob Wilson. Finch intimated to Wilson that San Diego might have a good shot at hosting the GOP convention, though the deadline for submission of bids had passed, if it could raise $800,000 as an incentive for the convention planning committee.
Wilson and Finch, along with Herb Klein, Nixon’s Communications Director, had originally discussed the idea of San Diego as a site for the convention back in January. Now it seemed that the White House, through Finch and Klein, was trying to convince San Diego to reenter the competition. Wilson and his fellow Republicans interpreted this as a direct request from President Nixon for San Diego to host the convention. This call from on high was enough to stir Wilson and his fellow local Republicans into action.
On May 12, at a dinner meeting at the Half Moon Inn on Harbor Island, Wilson told International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) President Harold Geneen about his conversation with Finch. Enthusiastic about the prospect of San Diego hosting the convention, Geneen pledged $400,000, provided Wilson could raise another $400,000 among local sources. This pledge would later become the center of controversy and scandal.3
President Nixon never openly stated that he wanted to see San Diego as the host site for the convention. Publicly, Nixon claimed that any city that the site selection committee came up with would be agreeable to him.4 The evidence appears to show otherwise. Wilson visited the White House to discuss the matter, and he sensed a concern from the White House staff over the opposition San Diego had shown toward hosting the convention. Leon Parma, Wilson’s former administrative assistant and the man chosen to head the local committee to prepare a bid for the convention, stated that “high authority” had indicated it would like to attend the convention in San Diego.5
Despite White House disclaimers, Republicans and the national press believed that it was Nixon who was behind the efforts to get the convention in San Diego. It was easy to see why. San Diego had been a lucky city for Nixon; it supported him in his bid for governor in 1962 and both his bids for the presidency. It was also conveniently close to his home in San Clemente, the “Western White House.” If the convention was held in San Diego, Nixon could keep an eye on the proceedings from his home in San Clemente and then simply fly down by helicopter to accept the nomination. By holding the convention in San Diego, Nixon also would gain an edge in capturing California in the election, always a key state in the presidential race.
Armed with the $400,000 ITT pledge and Nixon’s support, Wilson approached the mayor again. Curran formed an ad hoc committee comprised of himself, Councilman Sam Loftin, and Councilman Allen Hitch to study the matter. This committee met with local Republicans leaders and city boosters on four separate occasions during May and June. The ad hoc committee listened to arguments for the convention from such people as California Lt. Governor Ed Reinecke, San Diego Hotel-Motel Association President Martin Blatt, Convention and Visitors Bureau (ConVis) Chairman Lloyd Schunemann and Chamber of Commerce President Eben Dobson. Notably absent from these meetings were representatives from the citizen groups opposed to the convention, primarily anti-development organizations such as Lesser San Diego and Zero Growth San Diego.6
In between these ad hoc committee meetings, local Republicans and civic boosters kept up the pressure on Curran to try to induce him to change his mind about the convention. Gordon Luce, the Vice-Chairman of the California State Republican Committee as well as the president of a group of civic-minded businessmen known as San Diegans, Inc., wrote to Mayor Curran on June 2, stating that San Diegans, Inc. supported the convention unanimously.7 From the San Diego Hotel-Motel Association came a pledge to make available a minimum of 12,500 class “A” hotel rooms for convention purposes, a move that was calculated to allay fears that San Diego could not handle the convention. On June 26, Bob Wilson sent a letter to Curran confirming the $400,000 commitment he had received from ITT, without naming the source of the pledge.8
Curran also received pressure from financier C. Arnholt Smith, San Diego’s most powerful and influential citizen. Smith had risen to prominence as the president of locally-based United States National Bank, and his financial empire included some of San Diego’s major businesses and industries. A close personal friend and major financial supporter of President Nixon, Smith was among the select few who sat up with Nixon watching the results come in on election night in 1968. He was also an important financial backer of Mayor Curran, a fact that was no secret at the time. Sometime in June, Wilson contacted Smith, who in turn spoke to Curran. In a memo dated June 30, 1971, Smith informed Wilson of the results, “After talking with you, I contacted Frank Curran and everything apparently is on track.”9 Wilson answered the memo on July 7, stating, “Thanks for your help with regard to Frank Curran. It really got him on our side.”10
At the city council meeting of June 29, 1971, Curran presented the recommendation of the ad hoc committee and the issue of the convention came to a vote. The committee recommended that the city participate with other local agencies in preparing a bid for the convention. It also suggested that the council authorize an expenditure of up to $600,000 in cash and services to be offered to the Republican National Committee as the city’s portion of the convention bid, provided that an additional $900,000 be raised from other agencies.11
Curran was quick to point out that the $600,000 would come not from property tax revenues, but from revenues from the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT). In addition, Curran insisted that ConVis sign a statement that in the event of a disaster or large-scale riot, additional funds would come from future TOT taxes rather than from the city’s general fund. Since the bulk of ConVis’ funding came from TOT taxes, in the event of a costly disaster ConVis would be financially crippled for several years. Nonetheless, ConVis felt that the exposure that would be gained by hosting the convention outweighed this risk. With this assurance that no property taxes would be used, a representative from the San Diego Taxpayers Association gave a lukewarm endorsement of the convention proposal.12
Curran informed the council that two factors had helped change his mind concerning the convention. The first was the $400,000 pledge that Bob Wilson had received. The second was the fact that the Hotel and Motel Association was willing to guarantee 12,500 rooms for the convention, though this would mean turning down regular summer visitors. The hotel industry claimed that they would actually lose money in the short run, but they still felt the convention would improve the tourism and convention industry overall in San Diego.13
The council also heard arguments from the floor, and not surprisingly several of the same men who had participated in the ad hoc committee meetings spoke in favor of the convention. An equal number of private citizens were present to voice their protests. A few of these citizens opposed the convention because of the fear of widespread rioting such as had occurred during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Most opponents of the convention were against it because they felt that it was detrimental to San Diego as a whole. They argued that the convention would only benefit land developers and the hotel industry, and that the quality of life for the average San Diegan would be diminished by attracting even more people to live in the area. Despite several impassioned pleas from the audience, only one councilmember, Floyd Morrow, voted against the resolution. Morrow declared that if the Republican Party wanted to have their convention in San Diego as badly as the press claimed, then they should be paying the city to come here. Cheers rose up from the audience but to no avail; once the resolution passed, Mayor Curran immediately appointed Leon Parma to chair the newly formed Civic Committee to Invite and Host the 1972 Republican National Convention.14
On July 1, the County of San Diego took up the issue of the convention. Unlike the city council, the county supervisors were a little more divided over the matter. In particular, Supervisor Jack Walsh opposed spending any of the county funds on the convention. He argued that the county had enough problems to solve, and it could hardly afford to give money away to a political convention. A resolution supporting the convention and offering $200,000 in cash and services narrowly passed with a three to two vote.15
Now that they had the support of both the city and the county, local convention planners rushed to come up with a bid package to submit to the Republican National Committee. The city agreed to provide $600,000 in cash and services. The county agreed to put up $100,000 in cash and $100,000 in goods and services. The State of California pledged $200,000 in services and the local business community, including ConVis, pledged $500,000 in cash (this included the $400,000 ITT pledge) and $21,800 in special services. All totaled, the bid amounted to $1,521,800, of which $900,000 was in cash. The local committee submitted the bid to Senator Robert Dole, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, on July 2, long after the official submission deadline had passed.16
GOP officials quickly flew to San Diego to meet with local convention planners and discuss the options and facilities available for the convention. San Diego’s cash contribution compared favorably to the bids of other cities. Inadequate facilities, however, placed San Diego far down on the list. The Sports Arena, the proposed convention site, required major improvements to meet the needs of media crews. Convention planners also worried that the pledge of 12,500 hotel rooms would not be enough to accommodate all the guests and visitors.
To complicate matters, the national news media picked up on the rumors that Nixon wanted the convention in San Diego. This story was followed up by speculation that GOP Chairman Robert Dole was upset over the “arm-twisting” that the site selection committee was receiving from the president.17 None of this was ever confirmed by the individuals named, but it made for interesting speculation. GOP officials made it clear that San Diego would require more planning and work to make it ready for the convention than any other city considered. Yet, no one in the Republican party denied that it could be done.18
On July 23, after several delays and during a closed-door session, the convention site selection committee, by a vote of 119 to 12, officially named San Diego as the convention site. According to two anonymous members of the site selection committee, both Miami Beach and Chicago originally had more votes than San Diego, but these cities dropped out when they learned that President Nixon preferred San Diego. The only real opposition came from the Florida GOP chairman, L. E. Thomas, who argued that “There are more two-legged nuts per square acre in California than in any other part of this country.”19
The initial reaction in San Diego to the Republican National Committee’s announcement was mixed. If the letters received by Bob Wilson’s office, the local newspapers, and the city and county of San Diego are any indication, it is safe to say that most San Diegans felt that the convention would be of little benefit to them personally. The majority seemed apathetic to idea; some were openly hostile to the convention’s arrival.
Convention foes gave various reasons for their opposition. Some simply did not want the aggravation and nuisance of floods of delegates arriving in their city. Others feared protestors and the possibility of riots. Some saw the convention as another example of a small group of people profiting off the rest of the city. One irate citizen expressed an underlying concern that many San Diegans no doubt shared:
Favorable national T.V. coverage will lure untold thousands of people to migrate to a city that already has many more people than its space and natural air and water resources can adequately support. I see this as a classic example of cheap politicians, for their own glory and the greedy profit of their wealthy supporters, inflicting grievous harm upon their constituents.20
Not all the responses received by Wilson’s office were negative. Many San Diegans thought the convention would prove to be a great boon to the community. Several people wrote to Congressman Bob Wilson’s office for tickets to the convention, or inquired about volunteering for jobs that might allow them to be present on the convention floor. One La Jolla couple informed Wilson that they planned to get out of town while the convention was taking place and they wanted to know if the congressman knew of any “responsible” Republicans who might like to rent their home during their absence.21 Another long-time San Diego resident claimed that he could be of use because he was quite familiar with the San Diego area. In addition he stated, “I know where the girls hang out – both the good girls and the others. I know many personally.” Wilson forwarded this letter on to Parma, with the suggestion that this individual might make a good “ambassador.”22
Despite such charitable gestures, local convention planners realized that the community did not support the idea of holding the convention in San Diego. To help reverse this situation, the convention planning committee enlisted Clayton Brace, vice-president and general manager of KOGO radio station and former president of the Chamber of Commerce, to chair a committee to develop community-wide participation. On August 11, 1971, Brace wrote Wilson, “As you well know, we are faced with the chore of selling this idea to the general citizenry here in San Diego and I think we can do it.”23 Unfortunately, the committee consisted primarily of San Diego’s Republican elite, and failed to include representatives from those elements of the community that opposed the convention.
Little did the convention planners know that public opinion would be the least of their problems. During the fall of 1971, the city began gearing up for the convention. Besides the types of planning procedures that one would expect for a convention of this size, additional preparations were necessary because San Diego had never staged an event of this magnitude before. The telephone company began installing new phone lines and switching equipment, Lindbergh Field made plans to handle the increased air traffic, additional bus and transportation routes were laid out, and plans were drawn up for the construction of new facilities at the Sports Arena to handle the convention.
One of the first snags to arise was the hotel situation. GOP officials were afraid that the 12,500 rooms that the Hotel/Motel Association had promised would not meet the convention’s needs. A few officials even questioned whether the pledged 12,500 rooms would be available. Not all hotel owners were crazy about the idea of turning down their regular summer visitors to accommodate the convention. These operators argued that the conventioneers would be here for only a week, whereas many regular customers made longer stays. The convention would actually be displacing more visitors than it brought in.
To make the situation even worse, the news media and television networks had reserved large numbers of rooms before San Diego was even chosen as the convention site. Anticipating the shortage of space, media staff had reserved rooms close to the Sports Arena, where the actual convention was to be held. Shortly after the announcement that San Diego was selected as the host city, GOP officials discovered that television and newspaper crews had reserved most of the prime hotel suites in the city. The Republican National Committee denounced this “hotel grab” and most members of the media gave up their reservations in exchange for less desirable room assignments from the convention planning committee.24 Even with this gesture of goodwill on the part of the media, the number of hotel rooms remained a problem. Rooms as far away as Oceanside and Chula Vista would be required.
The obstacles at the Sports Arena proved more difficult to solve. From the standpoint of available seating for the delegates, there was no problem. But the arena lacked adequate working space for news media and television crews. It also did not have enough conference rooms for the various committees that would be meeting during the convention. The ventilation system at the arena was inadequate to clear all the cigarette and cigar smoke that would rise from the floor, and this in turn would affect the quality of the television picture.25
The operator of the sports arena, Peter Graham, also posed a problem for convention planners. Graham, a Canadian, operated the Sports Arena on a lease from the city. He allowed the Republicans to use the arena for four weeks for a fee of $49,000, an amount that he claimed was far less than normally charged. Graham also would grant contractors access to the arena between scheduled events beginning in January to start work on the necessary modifications. Despite this initial agreement, problems quickly arose between Graham and Richard Herman, the chair of the national GOP committee created to handle the convention arrangements.
Graham claimed that the Republicans kept coming back with additional requests that were not in the original contract. They wanted to set up modular trailers in the parking lot to provide office space, they asked Graham to remove an indoor running track that was stored in the basement, and most importantly, they requested additional time before the convention to allow contractors round-the-clock access to the arena. Graham scoffed at the idea of modular trailers when the Republicans told him that an Indiana supplier agreed to provide free trailers if he could set up a two-story display of his product. He argued that the Republicans were in effect trying to use a portion of the arena parking lot as advertising space to pay for the convention costs.26
On the other hand, Herman claimed that Graham was trying to gouge the Republican party by continually demanding more in the way of permanent improvements. According to Leon Parma, Republican officials claimed that Graham was demanding a guarantee of at least $500,000 in permanent improvements to the Sports Arena before he would allow the Republicans to begin making changes, including a new box office for $187,500. Graham also wanted television booths constructed to make them useable as press boxes or VIP boxes after the convention. When the contractors requested access to the arena a week earlier than had been originally planned, Graham charged the GOP an additional $25,000, claiming that he would have to cancel events that he had already scheduled for that time slot.27
There was clearly a personality clash between Herman and Graham that created an air of mistrust. Both men were to blame for this situation. Herman and the GOP initially stalled for five months in making plans for the necessary arena improvements. When they finally got around to coming up with designs, they discovered that many of their original ideas were not feasible. Herman failed to communicate these problems to Graham or anyone else in San Diego. Graham increasingly felt that the largest contribution to the GOP convention was coming out of his pocket and in response he made clear his goal, “to get all I can, and if they don’t like it, I’ll lock the doors and they can go somewhere else.”28
The city of San Diego was helpless to do anything about Graham and the arena controversy. It held no power over the lessee of the arena, and could not require Graham to do anything that he didn’t want to. Newly-elected Mayor of San Diego Pete Wilson offered his services as a mediator to Graham, but he was flatly refused. The GOP also felt that they were at Graham’s mercy. Although they had a contract with Graham, the convention was only a few months away, and any legal action would take months, if not years.
While Graham and Herman argued over the Sports Arena, city officials had another concern on their hands, the threat of protests and riots during the convention. In 1968, violence erupted during protests at the Democratic Convention in Chicago resulting in bloodshed and destruction. A nation-wide television audience watched the riots in horror and disbelief, and Chicago’s image took a severe beating. San Diego’s civic leaders worried that a similar occurrence might happen in their city during the Republican convention. Private citizens were less than enthusiastic about the idea of thousands of young people descending upon their city. As the convention planning process unfolded, the prospect of massive demonstrations clearly became the most important local issue of the convention.
Although San Diego did not have a history of violence and protests, local fears were not unfounded. Yippie leaders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, two of the “Chicago Seven” who led the riots in 1968, told the press they planned to lead a million protestors from all over the country into San Diego for the convention.29 Even before this, much of the general population of San Diego opposed the idea of the convention because it would attract such people. One citizen claimed that the convention would be an open invitation for “violent, nutty anarchists” to descend upon San Diego, and that the rest of the country watching the convention would think that all San Diegans were “long-haired, sissy, commie-freaks.”30
While the threat of riots was a real issue, the city was much more concerned with the logistical problems of housing and controlling the protestors. City and county regulations prohibited overnight camping in public parks and beaches, but local law enforcement agencies knew that they would have a hard time enforcing such laws if they were inundated with protestors. The city searched for a place to establish a huge campground for the protestors, complete with water, bathroom facilities, emergency medical care, and a public address system. This action by the city infuriated San Diegans even more than the expected presence of the protestors. Angry residents wrote to the mayor’s office, the newspapers, and the county board of supervisors demanding to know why “hippies and beat-niks” were going to be provided with camping facilities free of charge, when respectable, tax-paying citizens had to pay for campsites.31
Even more concerned were residents who lived in the areas where the campsites were proposed. The city’s initial plan was to establish “crash pads” near the Santa Clara Recreational Center on Mission Bay for protestors. Citizens living in Mission Beach and Pacific Beach united against the proposal and presented the city council with several petitions opposing the scheme, one containing 763 signatures.32 In response to these complaints, the city considered other sites, such as Balboa and Torrey Pines Parks. Again an outcry came from the citizens, who claimed that public parks were for everyone to enjoy, and that they would be seriously damaged by allowing them to become campgrounds.
The final solution was to establish a campground on Fiesta Island. This way, the protestors would be isolated from the general community, but still close to the center of action. The protestors opposed the plan, claiming that Fiesta Island was a “suicide swamp” because the police could simply block off the one and only access road to the island and hold the demonstrators captive.33 Despite these complaints, plans went ahead for camping facilities in this area.
Part of the problem with dealing with the protestors was that no one really knew what to expect. Jerry Rubin’s claim that one million young people would descend upon the city was obviously intended to frighten the Establishment. Predictions from other sources indicated that 50,000 to 300,000 young people might arrive in San Diego. Local law enforcement officials guessed at 100,000 protestors – a figure frightening enough, considering that only 10,000 had taken part in the melee at Chicago.
The city government was also unsure what to expect in the way of violence. For the most part, San Diego had always maintained a tradition of non-violent protests. Locally, the “Movement” was led by college students and young people who tried to call the public’s attention to social issues that were not being addressed by the Establishment. Welfare, the war in Vietnam, women and minority rights, and worker’s rights were the main issues that local protestors confronted. Several local underground newspapers existed during the late 60s and early 70s and these often challenged the San Diego power elite, questioning the ethics and dealings of men such as C. Arnholt Smith, San Diego Union publisher James Copley, and local politicians. San Diego’s ruling power structure was riddled with corruption at this time and the underground newspapers proved to be a thorn in the side of the establishment, if nothing else.
The local elements of the Movement saw the convention as an opportunity to strengthen support for their causes both locally and nationally. They were anxious to avoid the violence that had marked the demonstrations in Chicago. However, local protestors failed to reach agreement among themselves, as well as with national protest leaders, about just what sorts of activities should be planned for the convention. Shortly after the announcement of the convention, a large group of San Diego radicals organized the Convention Coalition. According to Bill Ritter, the Coalition’s spokesman, the group stressed non-violence. These activists argued that San Diego was their home too, and that any violence that resulted from the convention would only hurt the objectives of the Movement in San Diego. Ritter stated, “We don’t want another Chicago…It’s our city too. We plan to live here. We don’t want to create a storm, live a three-day ‘trip’ and suffer the consequences.”34
A second local organization, the Community Congress, was to deal with providing services such as housing and medical care to convention visitors. Both groups felt that leadership of all protest activities should come from the local community rather than outsiders. They disagreed on exactly who should provide that leadership and what the scope of the Movement’s activities should be during the convention. The Community Congress wanted to schedule conferences and educational programs during the convention, whereas the Convention Coalition sought a more active role in effecting change through rallies, music, “guerrilla” theater productions, and teach-ins. The Congress called their program the “August Project,” while the Coalition called theirs “Expose ’72.” Planning and communication between the two groups was clearly a weakness of the Movement.35
National protest leaders such as Jerry Rubin seemed to have a different agenda. Rubin initially made wild claims about the numbers of young people that would come to San Diego and what might result if the police attempted to interfere. Local activists were appalled at Rubin’s words, and more so at the fact that he seemed to be setting himself up as the undisputed leader of the protest movement. Rubin met with local activists in San Diego over this issue, and the Convention Coalition as well as the Community Congress stressed that they should be in charge of coordinating activities, not Rubin or the Chicago Seven. Rubin supposedly agreed to this, although he labeled some of the more passive activities planned by the Congress as “bullshit.”36
Despite the protestor’s disavowal of violence, San Diego police undertook intensive preparations to deal with the activists. The city of San Diego applied for a $920,287 grant from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration of the Justice Department. This money was to be used to train police in riot control and crowd handling, and to purchase riot equipment, gas masks, batons, plastic handcuffs, face shields, and tear gas.37 Local police and sheriff forces also arranged with law enforcement agencies of neighboring counties, the Highway Patrol, and the National Guard to assist with any emergency that might develop.
All the precautions taken by the convention planners, however, could not have prepared the Republicans for the events of March 1972. On February 29, the newspapers carried a story by syndicated columnist Jack Anderson about the $400,000 ITT pledge for the convention. Anderson had uncovered an inter-office memo from an ITT lobbyist that linked the $400,000 pledge to a favorable ruling from the Justice Department in an anti-trust lawsuit. Anderson accused the Nixon administration of settling the anti-trust suit with ITT out of court in exchange for the $400,000 pledge. A senate investigation committee launched a probe into ITT’s dealings with the Justice Department and soon the matter developed into a full-blown scandal.38
For the convention planners in San Diego, the scandal caused two problems. First, it put the Republican Party in an extremely bad light, one that might reflect upon the city during the convention. More significantly, the Republican party decided to accept only a token pledge of $25,000 from ITT for the convention. This meant that San Diego businessmen had to scramble to raise the remaining amount. C. Arnholt Smith led the campaign among local businesses to come up with the additional funds, but before was accomplished, another problem erupted.39
On March 24, an article appeared in Life magazine entitled “Tampering with Justice in San Diego.” This article not only mentioned the ITT scandal, but accused the Nixon administration of directly obstructing justice to cover up the corrupt business practices of the president’s associates and supporters in San Diego, men such as C. Arnholt Smith and John Alessio. The Life article brought to the surface what the local underground newspapers had been claiming for months; San Diego was riddled with a trail of corruption that led all the way up to President Nixon himself.40
Following the disclosure of these scandals, the problems with the Sports Arena, the hotel situation, and demonstrators dramatically escalated, at least in the eyes of Richard Herman and other GOP Convention officials. The San Diego Union began carrying almost daily reports of the seemingly insurmountable problems that GOP officials were having with the convention. In April, a confidential letter from a Republican official to Herman suggesting that the convention be moved to another city was “leaked” to the press. 40a The letter stated such overwhelming problems as labor, money, and construction. Herman initially denied that the convention was to leave San Diego. Despite this, rumors that the Republicans were negotiating with Miami as a new convention site persisted throughout the city during the month of April.
Mayor Wilson, and the rest of the local convention planners began to sense that the convention was slipping away. Wilson grew impatient with the GOP and the way it was dragging its feet about moving forward with the convention. During the last week of April, the mayor called a halt to the city’s preparations until the Republican Party made up its mind whether it planned to stay in San Diego. On May 5, the Republican National Committee made official what nearly everyone suspected. By a unanimous vote, the convention was to be moved to Florida. Members of the National Committee cited conflicting reasons for why the convention was moved. Problems with the Sports Arena, the possibility of riots, and the city’s failure to come up with the necessary hotel rooms and cash incentives were given as reasons for moving the convention.41
The city’s initial reaction to the GOP’s announcement was one of jubilation. Most citizens were happy to see the convention go, claiming that they did not want it in San Diego in the first place. Many hotel owners were also pleased by this turn of events, and they welcomed back their regular summer visitors. City officials were not so elated. Not only had they lost what they saw as a wonderful chance to put San Diego on the map and further their own political careers, but they were embarrassed and humiliated by their own party.
To save face, local convention planners began pointing the finger at Peter Graham, laying the blame upon the Sports Arena operator for driving the Republicans out with his greed. Mayor Wilson, Leon Parma, Congressman Bob Wilson and many others claimed that Graham’s greed was the only reason for losing the convention.42 What stung San Diego’s pride the most were the charges that the city failed to live up to its end of the bargain in supplying hotel rooms and cash. The mayor claimed that all the commitments made by the city to the GOP could have been met. Though the ITT pledge had been wiped out by the scandal, local businessmen were well on their way to making up the difference. Martin Blatt, of the Hotel and Motel Association, claimed that the 12,500 rooms were available and that the GOP didn’t even need all of these.43
Although Herman and Graham continued to clash over the Sports Arena during April, the architect and contractors in charge of the renovations claimed that the work was ahead of schedule, and that everything would have been in place in time for the convention.44 To many San Diegans, the reason that the Republicans left San Diego seemed obvious; the Nixon administration wanted to avoid any further embarrassment over the ITT and Life magazine scandals – a fact confirmed two years later, when released transcripts of White House tape recordings proved that Nixon himself had given the order for the convention to be moved to Miami to avoid further scandal over the ITT incident.45
Although the convention fiasco rocked San Diego for a short time, it was really only a chapter in one of the city’s most regrettable and corrupt periods. Republican optimists were quick to point out that some good did result from the ordeal. For one, the police department had received the most advanced forms of riot and crowd control training available. This put them several years ahead of other major cities. Local activists claimed that the Movement had been greatly strengthened, and one underground newspaper even gave the protestors credit for driving the convention out of town. Perhaps the most significant effect of the convention was that it encouraged a general change in the city’s philosophy about growth. The convention marked a turning point in which people seriously began to question the benefits of continued growth and concentrated more carefully on improving what already existed.
The GOP used San Diego as a whipping boy to cover up the indiscretions of the Nixon administration. Although Nixon and his staff were primarily responsible for bringing the convention to San Diego and then yanking it away, local Republican leaders and civic boosters shared much of the blame for the fiasco. The personal publicity that these men hoped to gain from the convention overshadowed their ability to see that they were being used as mere pawns in a much larger political game. As a result, they ignored the wishes of the bulk of their constituents and pandered to the convention and tourist industry.
Shortly after the Republicans announced that they were moving to Miami, Mayor Wilson began the task of repairing the city’s ego as well as his political image. Wilson proclaimed the week of August 21, the week that the convention was to have taken place, as “America’s Finest City Week.” Accordingly, civic leaders planned events during the week to celebrate the “delight that is San Diego in the summertime,” as Wilson put it, as well as nurse the city’s damaged pride.46 “America’s Finest City Week” continues to be celebrated annually, with little mention of the origins of the tradition. In light of San Diego’s recent bid for the 1992 Republican Convention (which was lost to Dallas) perhaps this is just as well.
1. Harold Keen, “The City Dumped,” San Diego Magazine June 1972: 82.
4. San Diego Union, 24 July 1971.
5. Statement of Leon Parma, taken from a tape recording of the city council meeting of June 29, 1971, Office of the City Clerk, city of San Diego. Hereafter referred to as city council meeting of June 29, 1971.
7. Letter from Gordon Luce to Bob Wilson, dated 2 June 1971, Box 82, Bob Wilson Collection, Special Collections Department, San Diego State University. Hereafter referred to as the Bob Wilson Collection.
8. Letter from Bob Wilson to Frank Curran, dated 26 June 1971, Box 82, Bob Wilson Collection.
9. Letter from C. Arnholt Smith to Bob Wilson, dated June 30, 1971, Box 82, Bob Wilson Collection.
10. Copy of a letter from Bob Wilson to C. Arnholt Smith, dated 7 July 1971, Box 82, Bob Wilson Collection.
11. City Council meeting of 29 June 1971.
12. The Transient Occupancy Tax is a hotel/motel room tax. Revenues from this tax help fund ConVis, museums and other cultural institutions.
13. City Council meeting of 29 June 1971.
14. Resolution #203023, passed at the City Council meeting of 29 June 1971.
15. The county’s resolution was passed on 1 July 1971. Supervisors Walsh and Bear voted against the resolution while Supervisors Boney, Scheidle, and Craven voted in favor of it.
16. Copy of bid from Civic Committee to Invite and Host the 1972 Republican National Convention to Senator Robert Dole, dated 2 July 1971, Box 82, Bob Wilson Collection. The original deadline for submission of bids was April 1. This was later changed to June 15.
17. San Diego Union, 24 July 1971.
18. San Diego Tribune, 14 July 1971.
19. San Diego Union, 24 July 1971.
20. Letter to Congressman Bob Wilson, dated September 25, 1971, Box 82, Bob Wilson Collection.
21. Letter Bob Wilson, dated 23 November 1971, Box 82, Bob Wilson Collection.
22. Letter to Bob Wilson, dated 21 September 1971, Box 82, Bob Wilson Collection.
23. Letter from Clayton Brace to Bob Wilson, dated August 11, 1971, Box 82, Bob Wilson Collection.
24. San Diego Union, 3 October 1971.
25. Keen, “The City Dumped”, 83.
27. Ibid., 84.
29. San Diego Tribune, 24 November 1971.
30. Statement of George Jacks to the City Council, City Council meeting of 29 June 1971.
31. The Bob Wilson Collection, the City Clerk of San Diego, and the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors all have files containing several letters of complaint from individual citizens.
32. A copy of this petition is on file with the City Clerk, under the file heading, “Republican National Convention – Housing, Camping, Sleeping Arrangements – November 1971.”
33. Harold Keen, “Preventing Another Chicago”, San Diego Magazine January 1972: 50.
34. San Diego Union, 3 February 1972.
36. Keen, “Preventing Another Chicago”, 50b.
37. Ibid., 50.
38. San Diego Union, 20 March 1972.
39. Keen, “The City Dumped”, 86.
40. Denny Walsh and Tom Flaherty, “Tampering with Justice in San Diego”, Life, 24 March 1972.
41. San Diego Union, 7 May 1972.
42. Ibid., 22 April 1972.
43. Keen, “The City Dumped”, 86.
45. San Diego Tribune, 2 May 1985.
46. San Diego Union, 6 May 1972.
Vincent S. Ancona is the Assistant Curator for Special Collections at the San Diego History Center. He received his B.A. degree in English and history from Harvard University in 1989, and is currently studying for an M.A. degree in history at San Diego State University. His interests include repairing and restoring antique watches and clocks, and he is the author of an article on railroad timekeeping and the San Diego and Arizona Railway.