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Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson On Conventions: We Witnessed History

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep in Cleveland, scene of the Republican National Convention. Let's hear from two people who have each attended more than two dozen conventions by both parties.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Sam.

SAM DONALDSON: Cokie, how are you, darling? How are you, Cokie?

ROBERTS: Hi Sam, how are you doing?

DONALDSON: Love being with you here.

INSKEEP: OK. That's Sam Donaldson, longtime reporter for ABC News, with columnist and commentator Cokie Roberts. It's great to talk with you both. So was 1964 the first time either of you were attending conventions?

ROBERTS: Yes.

DONALDSON: It was for me. Cokie was a mere child of 11 in those days.

ROBERTS: I was 20 actually. But I graduated from college.

DONALDSON: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: So what exactly were you doing in 1964? What was it that brought you to the conventions?

DONALDSON: Well, I was working for the local station in Washington, WTOP. And I drew Barry Goldwater.

INSKEEP: OK. So you go to this convention. It's 1964. There had been a number of primaries. But it wasn't quite like it is today. There was some uncertainty about who'd be the nominee, right?

DONALDSON: Well, not really in '64 - but this time, Goldwater was going to be the nominee. Cokie, correct me. I think this was the first convention of the modern Republican hard-right conservatism.

ROBERTS: Absolutely right.

DONALDSON: Before that, it was Nelson Rockefeller, you know, and all that.

ROBERTS: At that convention, Nelson Rockefeller got booed.

INSKEEP: OK. Now we're getting to the essence of this. Cokie Roberts, help us out here. We've mentioned a couple of names. We've mentioned Nelson Rockefeller, Barry Goldwater. Who were they? What was the basic divide in the Republican Party at that moment?

ROBERTS: It was a traditional divide in the Republican Party. It was hardly the first time that you had a conservative-moderate divide. You had had it in 1952 with Robert Taft and Dwight Eisenhower. But it was a different kind of conservative. And that's what Sam is alluding to, meaning that it is the beginning of the modern Republican conservative movement.

And many people in the Republican Party trace their origins to Barry Goldwater and to his conservatism and say that the fact that he went down in flames in 1964 was not a true defeat for the conservative movement. Now, interestingly, a lot of those same people - the ones who are still alive - are saying that they are not for Donald Trump because they don't see him as a true conservative in the Goldwater tradition.

INSKEEP: But let's figure out what's relevant to now. Was this a takeover of the party by some new people who hadn't been as involved or as powerful before?

ROBERTS: Yes.

DONALDSON: Well, it wasn't - and yes, exactly right - because Barry Goldwater had written a little treatise called "The Conscience Of A Conservative," in which he outlined this very hard position. And a lot of people came to him - people who were upset about the Rockefeller-type of Republicans.

INSKEEP: You mean more moderate-type people?

DONALDSON: Just as people today are upset about - you know, I'm getting left behind by globalization and technology and what have you.

ROBERTS: But it was also the beginning of the party moving West and South. The party had been a Northeastern, middle-Western party. And that was a much more moderate party. It was a party that was committed to civil rights. There were more Republican votes percentage-wise for the civil rights bill than Democratic ones in 1964.

And it was a party that was kind of - had a prairie populism, if you will. But then as you moved to the West, it became much more libertarian, much more conservative. And then, of course, as you move South after the civil rights bill, it became much more racist.

INSKEEP: And...

DONALDSON: Well, that's right. Remember that Lyndon Johnson, in signing the Civil Rights Act that did away with the jury segregation, said, I think I've turned the South over to the Republican Party for a generation. Well, he was wrong - not just one generation - forever.

INSKEEP: Or for many, many years, anyway.

DONALDSON: (Laughter) I mean, all the good Democrats down there suddenly became Republicans. And Barry won six states.

ROBERTS: Not all.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Says the daughter of some famous Democrats from the South. But in any case, what's it been like for both of you as reporters going to these conventions?

ROBERTS: The energy and excitement at a convention that is around government - is around American institutions - is something that is really something to be celebratory about. And the goofiness is fun - the silly hats and the horns or whatever they pull out that night.

That's all just got an air of joy about it at a time when there isn't much joy about politics and about government. And I think the other thing is that we - I know Sam and I both feel this way. We are really privileged to have been witnesses to history.

DONALDSON: I feel sorry for reporters today who live in a different climate.

INSKEEP: What's different?

DONALDSON: Access, first of all. For instance, in 1972, Richard Nixon, being renominated to continue his presidency, decided that he would shake hands with every delegate. And so they put ramps up to the podium. And the delegates were told to line up and go up there. Well, I lined up.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

DONALDSON: And one guy at the bottom said, what do you want to do? He recognized I was a reporter. And I said, well, I'd like to shake hands with the president. Well, OK. I got up there, almost to the - I kept saying to the control room, I'm almost there. I'm almost there. And I heard our great anchorman Howard K. Smith say, well - and that's it from the Republican Convention in 1972.

(LAUGHTER)

DONALDSON: Thank you for joining ABC. And I screamed, no, no. And Nixon looked at me. And I didn't want to ask him anything. I said, congratulations, Mr. President.

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

DONALDSON: And I shook his hand (laughter). I was so angry.

ROBERTS: But, you know, there was always a certain amount of danger in all of that access. I mean, my most difficult moment was when Strom Thurmond gave me a huge smooch live on the air.

INSKEEP: Oh my.

DONALDSON: That was dangerous.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: OK. So a little too much access there - a little too much access. So what would you say to people who look at these conventions, with a little dismay, as choreographed television shows - and maybe not even the best television?

ROBERTS: I understand that view. But it is also true that it is a time for the parties to come together on their own and energize their true believers. But also, for many, many people, even though the rest of us have been paying close attention for many months to this election - for many people, the political conventions are their first real introduction to the candidates in a significant way and certainly to the vice presidential candidates.

DONALDSON: Well, most conventions, of course, have been, ultimately, a serious affair. Yes, the funny hats and yes, the things that go on - and people say things. But ultimately, they have been serious. And they produced someone who becomes a president.

This convention has a sort of feeling of, well, P.T. Barnum. I mean, in fact, if P.T. Barnum and Donald Trump lived together at the same time, you'd put your money on one or the other. And you might put it on Trump to produce a spectacle. But serious? - let's see.

INSKEEP: Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts, thanks very much.

DONALDSON: Great pleasure for me, Steve.

ROBERTS: Great to be with you and always wonderful to be with Sam. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.