News & Politics

The Republican Convention Disaster

The Democratic Convention is heading to Chicago in August and you can be sure that the media is going to have a replay field-day comparing 1996 to the disastrous 1968 convention when anti-war protesters faced the wrath of Mayor Daley's riot police, and Hubert Humphry realized the Vietnam war was now his albatross to wear. But when the Republicans show up in San Diego, who's going to recall the 1972 convention disaster that almost was? Or remember how the Nixon administration's flirtation with the far-right advanced the cause of terrorism.
With the Democrats heading to Chicago for their convention this August you can expect lots of media replays of the disastrous 1968 convention when anti-war protesters faced the wrath of Mayor Daley's riot police, and Hubert Humphry realized the Vietnam war was now his albatross to wear. But when the Republicans show up in San Diego who's going to recall the 1972 convention disaster that almost was? Or remember how the Nixon administration's flirtation with the far-right advanced the cause of terrorism.San Diego was supposed to be Richard Nixon's "Lucky City," a Navy town with a world famous zoo and a new mayor named Pete Wilson. Local boosters saw the planned Republican convention as the biggest thing to happen to San Diego since the Pan-American Expo. Then suddenly, in May of '72, less than 90 days before the opening gavel, Republican National Committee Chair Bob Dole announced the convention would be relocating to Miami.At the time the media pointed to two possible reasons for the party's sudden change of heart. One was the embarrassment caused by Dita Beard, an ITT lobbyist who'd written a secret memo (leaked to Jack Anderson) that the way to get the Department of Justice to drop an antitrust investigation was for ITT to contribute $400,000 to the convention. San Diego's new ITT Sheraton was to be Nixon's headquarters during the convention.The other reason cited was fear that more than a quarter million young anti-war demonstrators would descend on the city when the Republicans arrived in August. Certainly those organizing the protests were confident that a combination of anti-war, anti-Nixon sentiment among young people and the lure of a summer week on the beaches of southern California would guarantee a massive turnout. An internal Justice Department study claimed that the San Diego Police were not well trained in the handling of large demonstrations and predicted a high probability of violence.Violence was in fact taking place months before the convention was scheduled to arrive, inspired both by an FBI directed right-wing terror network and Nixon's own White House Plumbers.In the 1960s the Minutemen was a right-wing paramilitary outfit that believed the U.S. government was overrun by communist infiltrators and that an underground patriot army had to be formed to fight a guerilla war against the reds. When they began to carry out bank robberies to finance their activities they were infiltrated and broken up by the FBI. In 1970 veterans of the Minutemen met secretly in Arizona to form a new paramilitary outfit called the Secret Army Organization. San Diego, with some 30 members, soon emerged as the most active SAO chapter in the nation under the leadership of an unemployed contractor named Jerry Lynn Davis and a fireman named Howard Berry Godfrey. Godfrey was also an FBI informant.Godfrey, it turned out, had been working for the FBI as a Minuteman informant since 1967 when he'd been arrested for brandishing a gun during a traffic dispute and possession of explosives the police found when they went to search his home. As an SAO State Commander he recruited new members from the Mormon church in which he and several of his FBI handlers were active. As the SAO's intelligence officer he also provided the terrorist group with FBI funds and information on San Diego's anti-war organizers.In late 1971 and early 1972 activists organizing protests at the upcoming Republican convention became the target of death threats, tear-gas attacks, vandalism and firebombings. On the night of January 6, 1972, Godfrey and fellow SAO member George "Mickey" Hoover cruised past the home of one of the activists in the Ocean Beach section of the city. Hoover fired two shots from a stolen 9-millimeter pistol into the house, seriously wounding a young woman named Paula Tharp. The next day Godfrey gave the weapon to his FBI control agent Steve Christiansen who hid it under his couch for the next six months.Meanwhile the Republicans were getting nervous about the local intelligence they were receiving. On February 18, 1972, the day Nixon left for his historic trip to China, Godfrey published a poster of Nixon reading, "Wanted for Treason" accusing the President and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger of conspiring with the Red Chinese to betray the United States. The SAO distributed the poster in 15 cities (the FBI reimbursed Godfrey for the printing costs). The SAO which had by now begun warehousing rifles, mortar rounds, land-mines and explosives in garages around the city discussed how they might take turns mortaring the protesters outside and the Republicans inside the Convention Center. Meanwhile White House plumber G. Gordon Liddy was simultaneously developing his own plans involving the kidnapping of anti-war leaders in San Diego. In May the Republican National Committee, worried about growing security issues, pulled the plug on San Diego as the site for their convention.A month later William Yakopec, an SAO member who'd been recruited into the group by the FBI's Godfrey, bombed the Guild, a local porno theater. The bomb blew out the screen, showering debris on theater patrons including a deputy city attorney and two vice cops. Soon more than a dozen SAO members had been rounded up and jailed. At that point the SAO began plotting to assassinate San Diego's police chief, local ATF agents and other government officials they thought had gone over to the side of the communists.Godfrey's testimony helped send several of his confederates to prison. Jerry Lynn Davis and other SAOers then began talking to local reporters about meetings at the "Gunsmoke Ranch" a shooting range outside San Diego, where Godfrey had introduced them to a man named Donald Simms, who Davis later identified as Donald Segretti, Liddy's White House operative. Segretti and the SAO apparently discussed plans to kidnap activists to Mexico where they would be killed and their bodies dumped.The FBI directed Agent Christiensen not to answer grand jury questions relating to the Paula Tharp shooting and the gun he'd hidden, then pensioned him off to Utah. Godfrey, who they shielded from any criminal charges, was given a job as a California arson investigator. Eighteen years later he was arrested for planting and then disarming pipe-bombs in the small rural town where he worked (and where he'd just broken up with his girlfriend). This time he was sentenced to 90 days psychiatric observation.Interviewed at a Soldier of Fortune convention in October, 1995 convicted Watergate burglar turned radio talk-show host G. Gordon Liddy told San Diego magazine, that as far as targeting anti-war activists, "I would have grabbed them doped 'em up, taken them to Mexico and then released them none the worse for wear after the convention was over." Or perhaps, as he's suggested on his radio show in regards to ATF agents, he would have encouraged the SAO to, "shoot for the head."Oddly, the Republican Party arriving in a San Diego this summer is not so different from the one that failed to make the show 24 years ago. San Diego's ex-Mayor, now Governor Pete Wilson, will greet his fellow delegates with warm welcomes and harsh attacks on affirmative action and illegal immigrants. Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan will be there to carry the banner for the Party's hard right, while 1972 party chairman, now presidential candidate, Bob Dole will exemplify the thwarted "by any means necessary" ambitions of his old friend and dead mentor Dick Nixon.And with presidential candidate Buchanan, New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, Idaho representative Helen Chenoweth and other party notables openly expressing support for today's armed right-wing militias and anti-federal paranoids it's fair to ask if the forgotten lesson of '72, of attempting to manipulate the paramilitary-right to advance your own political agenda, hasn't again created something of a Frankenstein monster for the GOP, and if we won't be hearing the footfalls of that creature in the darker recesses of this year's convention hall.
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