These days, most folks think of me as a liberal or progressive. But I have not always been that way.
It was mid-August 1992, and the weather in Houston was unusually mild. The highs for the week were expected to be in the 70s instead of the typical upper 90s (which felt more like triple digits when you added in the Gulf Coast’s notorious humidity). Many a visitor in town probably said a quick prayer of thanks for the nicer weather, praising God that they weren’t melting while shuttling from their air-conditioned hotel to the air-conditioned Astrodome and back.
Yes, many out-of-towners had come to the Astrodome – thousands of politicians, their aides, delegates, members of the news media, and vendors of kitschy politi-junk (pins, hats, elephant ears, you name it). They had come from all over the world to my hometown of H-Town, descending on the stadium of my beloved Houston Astros for the 1992 Republican National Convention. That summer, I was back home from college after finishing my junior year as a government major at the University of Texas at Austin. And one day during that unseasonably cooler stretch of August, I was a volunteer at that very convention.
It’s striking to me, as I look back on that time 24 years ago, how much has changed – in both the Republican Party and in me. But there wasn’t much time for reflection as my fellow volunteers and I, hundreds of us, took our positions as the sun was rising over Day Two of the convention. We were strangers coming together in a common cause: to re-elect George H. W. Bush (that’s right, the dad) as President of the United States.
My post was actually a rather plum position: I was an usher in the Astrodome’s ground-level hallways, just yards away from the convention floor where all the televised action was taking place. “Usher” was a definite misnomer; I was really a member of the security team, checking security credentials as people hurried about the business of politicking or delegating or news mediating. But it soon morphed into an exercise in political stargazing for me and my fellow “ushers.” Our conversations went something like this:
Hey, isn’t that John Sununu, President Bush’s former chief of staff? Hi, Mr. Sununu, I need to see your ID … and can you autograph mine?
Hi, I need to check your credential. You have a delivery for concessions? Right over there.
Your pass, please? You’re good!
We can go and peek in on the convention floor? I’m already there ….
Bob Schieffer! Talking with Senator Phil Gramm!
Look up there! It’s Bernard Shaw in the CNN booth. Well, that’s the back of his head. It must be his, ‘cause he’s the only Black anchor they have, right? Welp, time to go back.
What, we need to move away from our post? But we’re security. Oh, Barbara Bush is coming, and she has her own security. Got it.
There she is! Well, there’s her black, kevlar-armored limo, Ground Force One or Two or something. No, I can’t see her, either.
Look, it’s … nuts, what’s her name? Argh, too late. (It had been Cokie Roberts.)
Excuse me, sir, we need to check your pass, even though it’s obvious that you’re my favorite news anchor, Peter Jennings. Since you’re Canadian and really agreeable, would you mind signing my credential?
Um, that guy looks mad. Oh, it’s Pat Buchanan.
Oh my, did you see that? Barbara Bush just went zipping down the hall in a golf cart! And she was driving!
Wow, we’re done? That went by so fast! What, we can go wander around the convention floor now that the morning session is over? Yes!
Hmm, who are all those media folks talking to? That looks like … Strom Thurmond. I wonder if his hair coloring is natural or dyed?
Wow, the President’s box! That looks like – it is! That’s George W. Bush, the President’s son. He co-owns the Texas Rangers, and some say he’ll run for governor some day. Excuse me, Mr. Bush? Would you mind signing my pass, and my friend’s too? Thank you!
Oops. We just interrupted George W.’s interview! But he didn’t miss a beat, did he? Kept right on talking to the reporter while signing our creds. What a guy!
Well, it’s good to have ushered with you, Susan from New Jersey. What, you have a pass to tonight’s session that you can’t use? The session that’s gonna be on TV? The session featuring my hero, JACK KEMP?!?
Jack Kemp. Some of you may remember that in 1996, he was the Republican nominee for Vice President. But at the time of the ‘92 campaign, he was President George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Before that, he himself had run for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination, losing in the primaries to then-Vice President Bush. That followed nearly two decades as a member of the House of Representatives from Buffalo, New York. And that long congressional career had been preceded by his years as a pro football quarterback, most notably for the AFL Buffalo Bills.
Perhaps the thing I most appreciated about Jack Kemp was his determination to return the GOP to being the party of Lincoln. Kemp frequently talked in those days about the racial injustice he witnessed up close in the 1960s when on the road as a football player. His African American teammates, with whom he enjoyed getting together for joint family dinners, could not stay in the same hotel as he did; in some stadiums, their spouses could not even sit together. He had a vision for a Republican Party that was inclusive.
It wasn’t just Jack Kemp who hoped for this. Lee Atwater, who managed President Bush’s 1988 campaign, had famously spoken of enlarging the GOP into a “big tent.”
Imagine that – the GOP, party of Lincoln. Inclusive. Welcoming.
In 24 years, how very much has changed.
Part 2 of this column is coming soon.