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A Would-be Teenage Spy at the 1976 Republican Convention

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I was and remain to this day, a hardcore Democrat. So it was a curious thing that I found myself, at age 19, attending the 1976 Republican Convention in Kansas City, Mo., and being actively recruited by the Reagan caucus of the Missouri delegation to spy on their Ford counterpart. Yes, you heard it right: political espionage in the mid-1970s by Republicans. You'd think they would have learned their lesson by then.

April 1976, I had just landed a summer job in Kansas City, my hometown, as an intern of the local office of U.S. Senator Stuart Symington (the legendary Democrat who had, until the last minute, been slated to be JFK's running mate), when it hit me that I was going to be just down the street from the opposing party's quadrennial political convention. And although they weren't my peeps, given my newly-chosen college major of government, I realized it could be a very rich educational opportunity if I could just get in the door.

I spoke to one of my professors at Pomona College for ideas, and he suggested I contact the Missouri delegation to see if I could tag along to learn how a delegation functioned. I could write a paper about the experience and receive credit for an independent study. His suggestion worked. The Missouri Delegation Chair was delighted to help, and my admittance tags were soon sent to me.

I will admit now that I did not reveal my true party affiliation or the name of my summer employer. But hey -- I wasn't getting a vote at the convention -- so I didn't weather too much guilt about it. I was just there to learn. I did, however, tell the Symington office where I would be and that I needed an unpaid week off. "Cool", they said. "Come back with some good stories and let us know how Nancy Reagan's facelift looks up close", said the middle-aged female office manager. "Sure thing," I replied, wondering if I should bring binoculars.

I have to say, even though it wasn't my own party, it WAS quite exhilarating to be just feet away from President Gerald Ford, to see legends like Walter Cronkite in person, and, yes, to see Mrs. Reagan. But even with binoculars, I couldn't tell if she had had good work done or not -- as if I'd know at age 19. By the way, now that I recall, my mom had also asked me the same question about her. Go figure.

But the delegation meetings themselves turned out to be a drag. For those of you who recall, it wasn't clear going into the convention which candidate would receive the nomination, President Ford or former Governor Reagan. The Missouri delegation was split just like many other states with a few undecided delegates up for grabs. So a good part of the delegation's time was actually dedicated to the two caucuses -- Ford and Reagan -- having private meetings to strategize about how to win over the undecideds. And frankly, with all the heavy partying going on that week, I just don't think most of the participants were on their game. The vast majority of the time in these meetings was spent deciding stuff like when to let the balloons off during their chants for their candidates and whether or not to call out "We Need Reagan" or "We Want Reagan." I kid you not. Policy briefings of the undecideds? None that I saw; but they did receive lots of competing invitations for some pretty fancy parties where no one seemed too focused on the "issues."

And then I experienced what turned out to be the most memorable moment of the week. It soon became apparent to both the Ford and Reagan groups that this friendly 19-year-old college student was the ONLY one who was actually sitting in on both their meetings. So on Day Two, one of the Reaganites pulled me aside and after complimenting me on my very professional demeanor way beyond my years, subtly asked how the Ford sessions were going? "Fine," was my one word response, not sure where he was going with this. "Why?" I asked. "Well," he said, "our group would be forever grateful if you could fill us in on the details of what they discuss." Flustered, I replied, "You mean you want me to spy for you?" "Well, in a word", he broke into a smile, "Yes." I then told him that that would be a very ungrateful thing for me to do since both camps were being so generous allowing me into all their meetings. "Sorry," I said, "can't do." He was disappointed, but understood. In any case, even if I had told him about the timing of the various balloon releases and so forth, I'm not sure what they could have even done with that information. Maybe brought stick pins?

Regardless, when all was said and done, I did manage to come up with enough material to write my college paper, and I believe I actually got a decent grade on it too. I remember including the bit about my almost Mata Hari role and that my professor was amused.

Many say that political conventions have become an anachronism and that their days are numbered. While I do strongly believe the former, I am also certain that if they could have been that ludicrous 36 years ago and still continue to exist today, they're not going away anytime soon.