The 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans got off to a memorable start with George H.W. Bush’s surprise selection of Dan Quayle as his running mate. Here are edited excerpts of remembrances of convention participants gathered over the past 12 years.
Republican Party chairman
The first day, Monday, was a celebration of Ronald Reagan. The next morning, the Reagans went out early to a base outside of New Orleans where Air Force One was waiting, and in came Air Force Two. The two planes went almost nose to nose, and down the steps came George and Barbara Bush. They met and chatted with Ronald and Nancy Reagan on the tarmac, and then the Reagans went up the stairs and flew out to California. It was a symbolic passing of the torch.
I was on an outdoor stage on the river, waiting for the Bushes to arrive. The plan was that as soon as Reagan left, the Bushes and their entourage would get in a car and head up the river to an old paddle-wheel steamer, which would carry them steaming down the river. Planes—the type that Bush had flown during World War II—were flying overhead.
The Bushes got to the boat half an hour late. I don’t know if you’ve been to New Orleans in August, but it is hot and muggy. We had Dixieland bands playing, and people were passing out in the crowd.
Eventually the boat comes around the corner, and the Secret Service moves us around to where we’re going to meet the Bushes and welcome them. The Bushes go [below], to put on their jackets, we assume. Five minutes go by, and they don’t come out. Ten minutes go by. My wife is talking to me with her lips closed, as wives can do, saying, “I’m wearing linen, and my back is sticking. Where are they?” I’m whispering back, “I don’t know.” We’ve got reporters all around who can see everything.
What we didn’t know was that right before Reagan left, Bush had told him that he was going to ask Dan Quayle to be the vice presidential nominee and then he had told his people to get Quayle on the phone. Quayle was told that Bush was going to announce his selection at the ceremony and so he should head down. Now, Quayle was at the Indiana delegation’s hotel, which was a long way around, but I had provided every senator with a car and a driver.
Remember, this was before cell phones. So we’re waiting, and waiting, on stage, and finally Jim Baker comes up to me and says, “Hey, Frankie, it’s Quayle. George Bush wants to announce it here, but we can’t find Quayle.”
If you look at the old films, you can see that I’m on one end of the stage, Baker is on the other, and we’re looking out at a crowd of 20,000 people. There were no aisles. The Quayles couldn’t get through the crowd. It took 20 minutes more for the Secret Service to go around and find the Quayles and escort them up. And that’s when the Bushes came out and Bush announced that he wanted Quayle as the vice president.
If I had known in advance, we would have made an aisle.
Vice presidential nominee
I had a very difficult time getting to the front of the crowd. There must have been 100,000 people there. But George Bush wasn’t going to make an announcement until I got to the stage. The crowd was obviously very enthusiastic. It was 4 p.m., and he had called me at 2 p.m. to notify me of the selection.
My role as vice president was to support George Bush. And I showed a lot of enthusiasm. Somebody in the crowd yelled, “Go get ’em.” So, I said, “Let’s go get ’em.” We were underdogs in the polls, and we were trying to make the fight. After the speech, I was introduced to the Secret Service. I had no trouble leaving the stage.
After I was selected, there was controversy over my service in the National Guard. Nobody had anticipated that. I had told [Bush campaign vetter] Bob Kimmitt that there was nothing there. But it’s hard to prevent people who want to make an issue. The convention was very positive. Facts are a stubborn thing. We were behind before the convention. And when the convention ended, we were ahead, especially because of a dynamic speech by George Bush.
Bush kept his vice presidential selection a secret until he landed on the dock in New Orleans on a riverboat and then announced he was picking Dan Quayle. And within hours, there was a firestorm about some things in Quayle’s background. We discovered that in the due diligence that had been done, in fact, there were some holes. We didn’t know the answers to some things, such as how he got into the National Guard. He honestly didn’t know how he got in the National Guard, whether he got any special treatment or not.
So a smaller team of people, including me, was pulled together by campaign manager Lee Atwater to work around the clock for a couple of days to fill the information gaps and tamp down the political firestorm. The first thing you needed was information and facts. And there were some things Quayle just did absolutely not remember about the National Guard. So, it was a matter of talking to a whole bunch of different people to make sure you knew the fact pattern. Then we had to develop a press strategy on how to handle it.
I knew Quayle, and I liked him. I had no problem with the choice. It just turned out that we didn’t have all the facts we needed about him, especially on this National Guard question. The whole thing put us on defense in the convention week, when you’d like to be on offense. We were probably about 10 or 12 points down going into the convention. We needed a good performance and a really good bounce to get back to even. And you know what? We did.
One of my favorite moments at a Republican convention was in New Orleans with Jim Baker, who was George Bush’s campaign manager. That’s the convention when Bush shocked everyone by picking Dan Quayle to be his running mate. Jim Baker literally came out on the convention floor and found three or four of us out there and announced that Dan Quayle was not his idea. What he actually said was, “This was the president’s personal choice,” but what he really was saying was, “Don’t blame me for this.”
I was chosen because I had been reelected governor with 70 percent of the vote, including a majority of African-Americans. New Jersey was a swing state back then. And I had been friends with Bush for a long time, and he knew that I would do no harm.
It’s an incredibly difficult speech to write. You are dealing with a series of audiences, including television, plus the people in the hall. When you describe where the nation should go, that’s a very serious speech. But the people in front of you want red meat. They are the ones most dedicated to the party.
I was told again and again by a number of people, including Mario Cuomo, that the speech would fall flat if I only spoke to the broader audience. So, I ended up with a bit of a hybrid. The tough lines were not necessarily at the urging of the Bush campaign. Some convention people tried to get involved with the speech. I told them to get somebody else.
I often revise a speech until the last minute, and I had a problem with the teleprompter. It turned out to have an early draft. So I had to use my printed text for a couple of pages. That was a shock. I put in a line that the earlier Democratic convention had “pastel patriotism” [based on its color motifs]. That came from somebody else. I didn’t particularly like it, but the convention loved it.
This article appears in the August 28, 2012 edition of NJ Convention Daily.