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When the Democratic National Convention Rocked Madison Square Garden
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When the Democratic National Convention Rocked Madison Square Garden

Forty years ago, a young radio reporter covered the "ultimate shmoozefest."

Bella Abzug (in hat, of course), Liz Holtzman (with back to camera) and Geraldine Ferraro, partly obscured on right, at the 1980 Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden. (Steve North)
Bella Abzug (in hat, of course), Liz Holtzman (with back to camera) and Geraldine Ferraro, partly obscured on right, at the 1980 Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden. (Steve North)

“Is Marty here? Does anyone know where Marty is?!”, yelled someone in the Georgia delegation at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. After several more shouts of “Marty, where are you?” in the hubbub of Madison Square Garden, they found the person I was scheduled to interview: Martin Luther King III.

Hearing the incongruous nickname of the son of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was just one of countless memorable moments during my coverage of the four-day event, which began that summer on August 11. As news director of Long Island’s popular and influential rock radio station WLIR, I had gotten my press credentials, then arranged interviews with anyone I thought would be of interest to our hundreds of thousands of young listeners.

A national convention is the ultimate schmooze-fest, which is why this week’s online Democratic Party gathering will be not only unconventional, but a major disappointment to journalists who’ve enjoyed these “see and be seen” proceedings over the years. Sure, it’s nice to watch history in the making in the form of presidential nominations and acceptance speeches. That pales in comparison, however, to noshing on hors d’oeuvres with the likes of Gilda Radner and Simon & Garfunkel at a glitzy fundraising party!

That bash, thrown by then House candidate Mark Green, was held at the top of the Empire State Building on the second night of the convention. I asked Radner why she was involved; the “Saturday Night Live” legend replied, “I’m here because if you see the possibility to effect change, even in a small way, you should take that opportunity.”

President Jimmy Carter accepted the party’s nomination during the 1980 convention in New York City. (Steve North)

Elsewhere on the observation deck, I took a picture of Harry Chapin as the singer and activist outlined his plans for combatting hunger. Nearby, Carrie Fisher and Margot Kidder, fresh off the successes of “Star Wars” and “Superman,” were besieged by autograph seekers. One reporter heard Kidder advise Fisher, who was politely trying to move away from the crowd, to “be more forceful.”

Back on the floor of the arena, the conversations were substantive, at times moving, and periodically prescient. Martin Luther King III, then 22, told me, “Racism is very much alive today. As Daddy used to say, we must learn to live together as brothers, or we will perish together as fools.” When I asked how his martyred father might assess American society, a dozen years after his murder, King said, “I think he would be proud. We’ve made progress, but we have a long way to go. I can’t say what could have happened had he been here, but he certainly would look upon America and say we’ve done well.”

I bumped into Cliff Robertson on the first day. In 1963, the actor had portrayed John F. Kennedy in “PT 109,” a film about the future president’s heroic actions as a Navy officer in World War II. The Oscar winner said, “I’m looking forward to a very exciting week. I’m also hoping it will be an open convention.”

Steve North covered the 1980 Democratic Convention in New York for WLIR, the Long Island rock station. (Steve North)

Robertson was referring to the most controversial aspect of the 1980 assembly: Sen. Ted Kennedy’s failed attempt to wrest the nomination from President Jimmy Carter. After losing that challenge, Kennedy announced his support for the incumbent and ended a rousing speech by saying, “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.”

It was the dramatic pinnacle of the four days, and as the crowd in the Garden roared its approval, I made my way to Bobby Kennedy, Jr., who I’d known since our first interview during his college days. What did he think of his uncle’s speech? “Everyone’s proud of him,” Bobby kvelled. “Teddy said it well, he did it well, and he did it with grace and style”.

Bobby and Ted weren’t the only Kennedys in attendance. I had arranged to interview the youngest and oldest delegates that year; the youngest, incredibly, was a 19-year-old named John Fitzgerald Kennedy. “My father, who’s a distant relative of JFK, met him in 1960 during the campaign, and promised him if his unborn child was a boy, he’d name him John Fitzgerald,” he explained. The New Jersey resident encouraged my young listeners to “get more involved in politics. We need new, fresh ideas.”

The oldest delegate certainly agreed with that sentiment. Margaret Hazard of Rhode Island, 97, told me she was born in 1883, during Chester A. Arthur’s presidency, and had become politically active in 1899 during the William McKinley administration. “I was interested at age 16, I was the only girl in the family, and my father, a wonderful Democrat, took me under his wing, and talked politics to me.” But Hazard couldn’t cast a ballot until 1920, when women got the vote. “I was so proud then,” she remembered with a smile.

Spotting the A-list journalists was an exercise in whiplash. Walking down one hallway, I came across NBC’s Tom Brokaw and the Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein. Several feet away, Dan Rather of CBS was talking into his newfangled headset. And my tenacious WLIR colleague Carol Silva snagged an interview with the dean of them all, Walter Cronkite. This would be the final convention before his planned retirement, and “the most trusted man in America” told Carol, “On a scale of zero to 10, this convention is about a six or seven. My first two conventions in 1952 were pioneering for TV reporting, and then we had 1968, with all the drama there.”

When she asked how he would sum up the meaning of a national convention, Cronkite said simply, “It’s history.”

Geraldine Ferraro would make history four years later as the first woman nominated to a major party ticket; at the 1980 event, I noticed her chatting near fellow pols Bella Abzug, the former Congresswoman for Manhattan and the Bronx, and Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, representing Brooklyn. Also in the high-profile cluster: Gloria Steinem, who commented she hoped Abzug would be the presidential nominee one day, a notion that caused the legislator to laugh, loudly. (Of course, Abzug did everything loudly.)

The oldest delegate was Margaret Hazard, 97, who become politically active in 1899 during the William McKinley administration. (Steve North)

The national and local power brokers of the time were all there: Jesse Jackson, Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, and Arizona’s Rep.  Mo Udall; Mayor Ed Koch, his predecessor Abe Beame, and Ruth Messinger, a convention delegate and at the time a member of the New York City Council. Being a young reporter in the midst of these movers and shakers was exhilarating, as was hearing the tsunami of thunderous applause and cheers after any particularly eloquent speech.

This year’s pandemic-diminished “conventions” will have no massive balloon drop, no funny hats and signs, no colorful, committed demonstrators outside the venue, no hobnobbing in the halls. Maybe that’s a good thing at this critical moment in the American experiment. Perhaps the most essential messages will be heard more clearly without the usual cacophony. Covid-19 has done away with the crowds for now, but as Ted Kennedy said 40 years ago, “the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

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