It was August, 1992. The place, the Houston Astrodome. The occasion, the Republican nominating convention.
First some spacial data; the press gallery inside the enormous dome was to the right of the podium, about 15 feet above the convention floor.
Animosity towards the working press was apparent from the moment I stepped inside. Many of the delegates were sporting large lapel buttons that read, "The Press Lies," and "Media BE FAIR." The conservative campaign against the media had moved from whining to in-your-face insult.
Reporter access to the convention floor was tightly controlled. We were not allowed to simply roam among the delegates at will. Instead we had to ask permission from a GOP keeper before leaving the press gallery. First we had to make an appointment. The reason given was they did not want too many reporters on the floor at once, so they only let only a few go at one time. Even then, we were on short leash 20 minutes, then we had to be back in our appointed place, like library books.
On the floor were squads of young men and women, many in their teens, dressed in red, white and blue straw hates, red vests, white shirts and black pants. I assumed they were some kind of Republican youth group, the kids of GOP officials, or both. To say they were squeaky clean-cut would be an understatement. They looked like they'd just been bused in from the Salt Lake City Mormon temple.
I only mention this because of what those clean-cut kids were up to. After each particularly fiery speech they would march in mass to the foot of the press gallery wall and begin chanting, "Be fair, be fair, be fair."
American reporters laughed it off as a childish bit of political theater. Our European colleagues were not laughing. They looked worried, especially those from Germany, Austria and France.
Everyday at 2 p.m. The DNC would hold their own news conference at a local restaurant two blocks away from the Astrodome to rebut what was being said at the convention. The restaurant's banquet room was just big enough to hold the forty or so reporters who showed up each day to hear the Dems side of the story. Future Clinton Commerce Secretary, Ron Brown and long-time Clinton friend, Betsy White were the daily presenters. One more stage-setting point; the room had ceiling to floor windows facing the street.
Each day, just as Ron or Betsy would begin their remarks, those squeaky-clean young Republicans in their Yankee Doodle Dandy suits would crowd sidewalk outside and begin chanting. Then they'd start pounding on the windows, not hard enough to break them, just hard enough to make it difficult to hear what was being said (which of course was the point, just as it is now at the health care town hall meetings.)
The next day I was on the convention floor, my floor pass time-carriage about to turn into a pumpkin, when I spotted my old friend, Congressman Jim Leach of Iowa. He standing in the aisle outside his state's delegation. The Iowa delegation had been hijacked by Christian right activists and, in their opinion, Jim just wasn't "conservative enough," to deserve a seat.
I was shocked. Jim Leach was exactly the kind of politician every American should want in Washington, regardless of party. He was smart as a whip, and entirely sane and of course, therein lay the rub for those taking over his party.
Back in the Astrodome, and back in my nest above the convention floor, the time arrived for Marilyn Quayle's turn to speak, wife of then VP Dan Quayle. She launched into a fiery anti-feminist diatribe, and the crowed roared. Seated next to me was a young woman reporter from the Scottish newspaper, The Scotsman. She dutifully took notes until Mrs. Quayle began bad-mouthing mothers who "chose careers over family." They young Scottish reporter rose to her feet muttering, "Oh for christsake, give me a f...king break," and stormed off. Things were getting tense.
I got a permission slip for the floor just as Pat Buchanan began his speech. It was the first shot in what would become known as "the culture war." The crowd clearly would have preferred him over the guy who was actually going to get nominated. They roared their approval to every one of Buchanan's now disturbingly familiar xenophobic, homophobic, racist thrusts. I could feel the energy level on the floor hit a kind of psychic red line. And that's when I saw them -- scattered through the crowd, not a majority, but more than a few, right-arm raised, hand flat, palm down, the Nazi salute. There was no mistaking it for anything but what it was.
And I saw no one try to stop them. I heard no one admonish them.
(Molly Ivins later observed that Buchanan's speech, "It was better in the original German.")