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From Miami Beach to Tampa, 40 Years of Fear and Loathing Democracy

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The last time they held the political conventions in Florida was 1972. It was the summer that I turned 13 years old, and I was falling in love for the first time.

With politics, that is.

Forty years ago, Miami Beach -- a half-day's swamp drive across the sweltering Sunshine State from the hockey-rink home of the 2012 Republican convention -- was the pulsating heart of U.S. politics. Terrified by the violence and unrest of the 1968 Democratic confab in Chicago, both parties saw the beachside city, with its gated, spread-out rococo resorts, hippie-friendly police chief and distance from the hubs of campus protest, as the last safe place in America.

Indeed, the GOP convention was utterly forgettable but for the sight of Sammy Davis Jr. hugging the awkward President Richard Nixon. But the Democratic gathering in mid-July was a completely different affair.

The hook was that the party bosses were threatening to derail the likely -- but far from assured -- nomination of the anti-war, anti-establishment candidate Sen. George McGovern, even though the South Dakotan had won the most primaries. The "McGoos," as the left-leaning McGovern acolytes were known, beat back the challenge -- but what sideshows!

"The streets of '68 are the aisles of '72!" shouted gleeful reformers, as recounted by author Rick Perlstein in his epic tale of the era's politics, Nixonland. Battles over the party platform and issues like women's rights and abortion were waged not behind closed doors but on the podium, where America heard a delegate plead for gay rights for the first time. The cast of characters in Miami Beach included Abbie Hoffman, Shirley MacLaine, Arthur Miller... and George Wallace, all of it recorded, in a purple haze, by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

It was impossible for me to avert my adolescent eyes. The tiny 9-inch black and white TV set in my bedroom flickered until 4 in the morning, when the delegates stopped squabbling long enough for the networks to finally play the "Star Spangled Banner" and cut to the test pattern. On the final night, a roll call for vice president lasted for hours as votes were cast not just for McGovern's doomed choice Thomas Eagleton but Yippie Jerry Rubin, newsman Roger Mudd, even Mao Zedong.

It was crazy. It was messy. It was weirdly beautiful. It was democracy.

And so they made sure it never happened again. When Nixon trounced McGovern -- who'd given his acceptance speech at 2:45 in the morning, because of the whacked-out VP balloting -- in November, leaders of both parties took extraordinary steps to guarantee that TV viewers would never see dissent, a.k.a. free speech, a.k.a. democracy. Platform fights were moved out of prime time and into what Mitt Romney would call "quiet rooms."

The notion of debating policy in the public forum of a convention became a quaint relic of the era before television and before the Vince Lombardiazation of American politics, before winning wasn't everything but the only thing.

I've thought about 1972 a lot this week, especially when I saw that Romney's forces down in Tampa were using the excuse of Tropical Storm Isaac to go extreme lengths to keep down challenges from a small band of a couple of hundred delegates supporting libertarian Ron Paul -- who hasn't fully endorsed the ex-Massachusetts governor.

The Republican Party has already imposed a rule that a candidate's name can't even be placed in nomination without a majority of delegates in five states (Paul has but three). Now, Team Romney wants to move up by one day the roll call of the states -- where the candidate actually claims the nomination, a one-time highlight that's going the way of the manual typewriter -- because it's afraid Paul's small band of backers will raise a ruckus.

The funny thing is that conventions are where candidates are supposed to show voters they're the kind of guy who can stand up to the Iranians or the Chinese or the American enemy du jour. Yet here is Mitt Romney, practically cowering under a table at the idea of giving the Paulities 10 minutes to talk about the gold standard or their fence to keep Americans from fleeing to Mexico.

How sad.

It's been a long, strange trip in the decades since reporters saw Hunter Thompson peeling out from the driveway of his Miami Beach hotel in his red convertible, a six-pack of beer in the front seat. Democracy was in his rear-view mirror.