‘It Was Riotous’: An Oral History of the GOP’s Last Open Convention

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tags: election 2016, GOP, Open Convention



Adam Wren is a contributing editor at Indianapolis Monthly. 

A Republican Party tearing at the seams amid an open convention. Candidates desperately wrangling and wooing delegates. Backroom battles over changes to the rules and the platform. John Kasich on the floor, haggling individual delegates for last minute votes. Many of the contested convention scenarios Republican candidates are bracing for ahead of Cleveland this summer already happened—even down to the Kasich cameo—over four muggy days in August 40 years ago at the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri.

We tend to think of modern party conventions as staid, choreographed affairs, but not the 1976 convention, which was an electric party confab that drew gavel-to-gavel coverage on the networks. That year, Republicans entered the convention torn between incumbent Gerald Ford and conservative crusader Ronald Reagan—and the 20 attendees interviewed for this article, from then-Senator Bob Dole to Reagan adviser John Sears to Trump consigliere Roger Stone, remember a turbulent series of events, some never-before-reported.

“It was riotous,” says Craig Shirley, the author and historian who chronicled Reagan’s 1976 campaign in his book. “It went on for hours, and there were melees in the hall.” 

Back-to-back-eruptions greeted the candidates’ wives. A Ford delegate who broke her leg in the chaos was kept from the hospital for fear that her replacement would vote for Reagan; she suffered in a brace made from convention programs until the voting was over. Meanwhile, in a back room, Henry Kissinger was “raising hell” over a change to the platform, threatening to resign and demanding a roll call of delegates who were drunk as they deliberated.

The convention even began with an optical nightmare: On Monday morning, at the start of the proceedings, a 55-foot-tall inflatable elephant meant to welcome the delegates took flight in downtown Kansas City only to drift into nearby nylon wiring, ripping its stomach apart. It was an apt metaphor for what was happening to the party that year. ...




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