Unlike the Democratic Convention later that month, the Republican Convention that was held in August of 1968 in Miami was a dull affair. Richard Nixon was nominated with no real surprises and as a result, it has been almost overlooked in historical accounts as a fairly insignificant event. Nevertheless, Vidal wrote an essay titled “The Twenty-Ninth Republican Convention” and Mailer discussed it in the first part of his novel Miami and the Siege of Chicago. Both of their descriptions express a sense of exhaustion and boredom, as it is evident that Nixon will win and most of this is a mere formality. It was especially uninteresting compared to the 1964 convention, where Barry Goldwater had been nominated, which turned out to be a mistake, but also a lesson for Republicans. It made them “modest about power” (Miami 57), because they were no longer sure they could handle it. This led to important changes within the party however, which Mailer especially reflects on, observing “the rearrangement of some intellectual luggage” (Miami 59), something that would in hindsight mark a transformation that gave shape to the Republican party as we know it today.
‘Rockefeller was the perfect candidate for the liberal consensus.’
Rockefeller: a candidate for the consensus
The convention was a predictable affair, as neither Ronald Reagan nor Nelson Rockefeller stood any realistic chance of winning. Rockefeller is described as a likable candidate who entered the race too late to be a serious competitor and in Vidal’s words “had absolutely no chance of being nominated” (844). Mailer even goes so far as to call him an ideal candidate for the liberal consensus, suggesting that he would be able to “unite the country right down that liberal center which had given birth to a Great Society, a war in Vietnam, and a permanent state of police alert in the cities in the summer” (Miami 31), in doing so also criticizing the liberal consensus. By sketching Rockefeller as the perfect fit for these ideals, Mailer draws attention to the larger political failures of the nineteen-fifties, demonstrating his discontent with influential American politicians, detesting liberal attitudes as much as conservative ones.
Nixon: the wild card
The most interesting person at the convention was easily Richard Nixon (Mailer Miami 44), at the very least because Nixon is harder to analyze and not predictable like everything and everyone else. This is why both Vidal and Mailer focus on him in their accounts, exploring the New Nixon and his somewhat remarkable return to the national stage. Few had expected this comeback after his defeat in the 1960 presidential election and his defeat in the race for governor of California in 1964, which many thought was the end of his political career. Vidal attributes his comeback “to two murders in five years” (841), most likely referring to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy. Mailer also goes into the way Nixon spent the intermediate period building up support, which gave him a significant advantage among delegates.
Reagan and the rise of television
The convention was therefore not a very exciting event politically, but Vidal suggests that the media attempted to create excitement, a new development that politicians would have to get used to. This is why Reagan was such an interesting figure in 1968, because even though he had no chance of winning, both Vidal and Mailer picked up on his ability to appeal to cameras and the advantage that would give him. Mailer even suggests he and his wife look like actors playing the role of politicians (Miami 25), something that became all the more important as conventions became increasingly televised. Mailer remarks that reporters spent a lot of time at the convention following the news on television rather than on the convention floor itself and suggests conventions may come to be replaced by television events altogether in the future (Miami 64), which is also why demonstrations alone can no longer change the outcome. Given these developments, it is not surprising that Vidal’s account in “The Twenty-Ninth Republican Convention” reads like a television review (Dick 133), as the politicians present at the convention are no longer just politicians, but rather actors in a political television event. Related to this was a decline in traditional religious symbols, which Deloria picked up on in particular. In a prayer during the convention, “the transition from religion to politics and back went virtually unnoticed by television viewers” (Deloria We Talk 204), indicating both a change in the party and in the audiences of the convention.
Although the other writers were not present at the Republican Convention in 1968 and did not engage with it the way Vidal or Mailer did, they nevertheless had plenty to say about the Republican candidate, both during the election and over the course of his administration in the years that followed.
- To what extent has television changed the nature of politics and the process of selecting candidates, and how has it hurt or helped candidates?
- How useful are conventions in determining the ideological balance between the two parties and changes in that balance?