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Houston wasn’t having its usual swelter during the 1992 Republican convention, but the same could not be said for the convention itself. Pat Buchanan, who challenged President Bush in the primaries, delivered a fiery speech that polarized some in the party. The potential impact of Ross Perot remained an unknown. And some delegates talked about trying to persuade Bush to dump Dan Quayle from the ticket. Participants shared their recollections in interviews with National Journal over the past 12 years. Edited excerpts follow.
Pat Buchanan’s campaign chair
Our goal was for Pat to speak at the convention, at prime time. The Bush campaign felt it was in their interest to have us speak. I outlined our conditions to Jim Lake, Bush’s deputy campaign manager, and Charlie Black, Bush’s senior campaign adviser. We went back and forth and met several times. Then they called and offered us a prime-time spot. It was excellent, and I was so excited that I drove directly to Pat’s house to tell him personally. Opening night would be Pat Buchanan and Ronald Reagan in prime time. You can’t do better than that.
George H.W. Bush picked up 10 points that night. Does Pat deserve all the credit? No. But it was a great one-two punch: Pat Buchanan and Ronald Reagan.
The next day, they began to rewrite history. Ronald Reagan was the past. They weren’t going to let Pat Buchanan be the future. Jack Kemp went from one caucus to another over the next several days trashing Pat’s speech. There was no way that Kemp and friends were going to allow that speech to do for Pat what Ronald Reagan’s 1964 Barry Goldwater speech did for him. The press quickly followed suit, and by Wednesday, Pat’s speech was the talk of the convention. Was there a concerted effort crafted in some late-night meeting to go after Pat? No. But they attacked Pat in order to kill the message. It wasn’t personal.
Unsuccessful GOP presidential candidate
The Bush camp wanted three things done in the speech. They wanted the endorsement of President Bush, a tribute to Ronald Reagan, and to go on the attack against [Bill] Clinton, all of which we delivered. So I had written it all myself, and it was cleared by the Bush people. It came off, and during that day, the speech was very well received, both by Mrs. Bush, by Dan Quayle, and by everyone that night. The speech, I felt and I still believe, was extremely effective.
We had that line where I quoted Teddy Kennedy, and the audience naturally booed. And I said, “How many other 60-year-olds do you know who still go to Florida for spring break?” Even Richard Nixon called me up after the speech, laughing at that one.
After the firestorm in the media and the counterattacks from the Clinton people, Bush’s campaign ran away from the social and cultural issues, and they didn’t have any other issues. You had foreign policy, where he had a good record, but nobody cared. Economics, but the perception was that he had been
a disaster on the economy.
But on cultural and social issues and Hillary [Rodham Clinton] and that radicalism, you had the winning issue, if you continued to hammer it—that this election is between Middle America and the radical Left. Nixon and Agnew, and Ronald Reagan, could make those issues clear and sharp. The Bush people were not good at it. You know, they recoil from that stuff at the country club. But what we said was correct.
In 1992, in Houston, which is my hometown, I was anchoring the conventions by then, and I anchored from the floor rather than from the booth, which was the tradition. But I had some trouble from the very conservative element of the party, who were out there on the floor with signs that said “Rather Biased.” The local [CBS] station, KHOU-TV, where I had been news director and anchor before going to CBS, quickly put up some signs up that said “Rather Proud.” I really appreciated it. It was a very kind thing of them to do.
I bought a button machine. A friend of mine said there were going to be 5,000 delegates and 15,000 reporters. That made me see the light: We had to hit
We made “It’s All My Fault. I’m From the Media,” “Media Puke,” and “Bleeding Heart, Pablum-Puking, Pinko, Atheist, Liberal” buttons. A friend of mine, Mark, was in the T-shirt business. We also made “Yeah, I’m From the Media, Screw You.”
We were making the buttons right there. We sold so much at that convention we couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t make buttons fast enough. My wife came in and another friend came in. We were on every morning talk show.
I wanted to do something to help the Republicans. A whole bunch of media people on expense accounts came to my tent to buy my material. The reporters suggested, “It’s Not My Fault. Blame It on My Editor.”
White House press secretary
The closer you are to the president, the less you see of the convention. I was in the hotel writing the speech. Other than a very brief visit to the convention center, I didn’t see much.
In 1984, Reagan was pretty much done with his speech [by the time it was delivered]. In 1992, we were writing right up to the last minute. We were in the Houstonian and we had a mini-White House setup.
Nobody thought about dumping Quayle. By convention time, it was all delegate talk. Any disputes with the media were overblown. I didn’t have anything much to complain about. I think we felt pretty good.
It was so hard to calculate the impact of Ross Perot. And the main difference was that Reagan was not challenged by someone in his own party. The economy was strong in 1984. It was weak in 1992. There was some overconfidence. Nobody believed that a draft-dodging philanderer like Bill Clinton would be elected. I was wrong.
Chairwoman, Republicans for Choice
Our group was organized from conservative and liberal pro-choice people. Lee Atwater said they weren’t real Republicans. Leading up to the convention, we drove a van down to Houston. We wanted to explain to party leaders that times had changed. If it got to the floor, delegates would vote with us.
It had been so long since someone had challenged the platform, nobody knew the format. We literally ran out of time to gather signatures. They moved the platform vote up to Monday, and that only gave us Sunday. At 3 a.m., we were working delegates.
In 1992, the death threats were so real that we had armed security traveling with me. There were letters and phone calls. I did a lot of TV appearances, a lot of press work. We tried to be pro-choice and still emphasize counseling people not to get abortions, but I was being accused of being a traitor to the party.
We told them that the fate of George Bush was in their hands and that we’ll take no responsibility when we lose. We all knew the pro-choice votes were going to walk, and that’s just what they did. They walked on the presidential election. Our intense voters live in the swing districts. It’s frustrating when you’re trying to do things for the party and they look at you as a traitor.
Ross Perot called me three times and asked if we would endorse him. I said we are Republicans for Choice, not independents.