Few of us remember how San Diego lost the 1972 Republican National Convention to a colorful bribery scandal — sparked by a “Please Destroy This” memo — that sent the White House into a spasm of gay-baiting and assassination plotting.
But the mess was actually one of the most epic disgraces in a San Diego history that’s full of them, a debacle so aggravating that the city tried to make itself feel better by giving itself a new slogan. For better and, on occasion, for worse, “America’s Finest City” is still with us today.
As the Republican National Convention in Cleveland reaches its climax on Thursday, the same day that Comic-Con begins in San Diego, here are five facts about San Diego’s close call with Richard Nixon and the national spotlight.
Mayor: No Convention! Nixon: But It’s My ‘Lucky City’
Nixon loved San Diego. He called it his “Lucky City,” and no wonder: A Republican stronghold during his time, San Diego helped him dominate California each time he ran for Senate, vice president and president.
He liked San Diego so much, in fact, that he preferred to end his campaigns here. So it’s no surprise he wanted to hold the 1972 GOP National Convention, where he’d be nominated to run for a second term, in the sunny city that had been so good to him.
“He felt safe there. It was Nixon country and near Orange County, and as (staff) put it in a memo, ‘there are few Negroes,’” said Mark Feldstein, author of “Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture,” in a 2010 Voice of San Diego interview. “He really was a recluse in a lot of ways. It was close enough to the Western White House in San Clemente that he could helicopter back and forth and sleep in his bed at night.”
But San Diegans weren’t ecstatic about hosting the convention, and city leaders had passed up a chance to bid on it. “We need this like a hole in the head,” declared Mayor Frank Curran in 1971, one of the critics who figured a convention would be more trouble than it’d be worth. Even two GOP mayoral candidates didn’t think it would be a good idea.
But Nixon insisted. So local boosters agreed to raise money despite an outcry from critics “who argued that the convention would only benefit land developers and the hotel industry, and that the quality of life for the average San Diegan would be diminished by attracting even more people to live in the area,” as a 1992 Journal of San Diego History article puts it.
Locations were set — the Sports Arena for convention activities and perhaps the Mission Valley stadium for Nixon’s acceptance speech.
The GOP honchos had approved San Diego despite complaints from a Republican official in Florida, which also wanted it. He’d said: “There are more two-legged nuts per square acre in California than in any other part of this country.”
Memo’s Plea: ‘Please Destroy This’
It’s not wise to say “Please Destroy This” in a document about a bribe. It’s even less wise not to make sure the document is destroyed.
Also less-than-smart: a president ordering his staff to protect a phone company from an investigation — a phone company that just gave your San Diego convention a $400,000 donation.
But that’s just what happened. International Telephone and Telegraph, a phone company, helped bankroll the convention. In return, Nixon made antitrust litigation against the company go away.
This might have been a nothing-burger. After all, doesn’t this kind of thing happen in politics all the time? You scratch my back, I’ll tell our prosecutors to knock off their probe into money laundering at your back-scratching company.
Yes, but there’s a twist. A syndicated columnist named Jack Anderson uncovered a memo from an ITT lobbyist with the awesome name of Dita Beard that laid out the deal and, yes, actually said, “Please destroy this.’”
“Instead of being destroyed, it got published in 1,000 newspapers across the country, shaking the White House to the core,” Feldstein said.
Live From the White House: Gay Baiting and a Murder Plot
The Nixon administration, adept at dirty tricks from the top on down, tried to figure out how to make the pesky columnist stand down.
They wanted to smear Anderson as gay, even though he wasn’t, along with his young assistant, Brit Hume, who wasn’t either. (That’s the Brit Hume who’s now part of Fox News.)
Nixon’s men even spread a rumor about a supposed lesbian relationship between Beard, the ITT lobbyist (who was straight with five kids), and Anderson’s secretary, according to Feldstein.
They went even further. Feldstein’s book discloses a serious assassination plot within the Nixon administration to kill the columnist. A poison expert was even consulted.
“It’s easy to laugh now about how crazy this White House plot sounds,” Feldstein said. “But you’ve got to wonder if the burglary at the Watergate hadn’t been detected and Nixon was re-elected in a landslide — as he was — would Anderson have died mysteriously?”
How About Some More Paranoia, Mr. President?
Anderson survived, but the GOP did run screaming from San Diego and the stink of scandal. Instead of proclaiming the truth, however, they blamed San Diego for a variety of shortcomings and chose in May 1972 to move the summer convention to Miami.
Some San Diegans were thrilled. Others were appalled. “What stung San Diego’s pride the most were the charges that the city failed to live up to its end of the bargain in supplying hotel rooms and cash,” according to the Journal of San Diego History. (The Miami convention was mostly nonviolent, although protests produced tear gas and injuries.)
As for Nixon, he’d resign in disgrace within a couple of years. “The San Diego mess increased his paranoia, his sense of siege and his determination to play offense by breaking into the Watergate,” Feldstein said. “And it set the template on how to cover up these types of scandals when the burglars got caught at the Democratic Party headquarters.”
The GOP, meanwhile, would come to San Diego for its uneventful 1996 national convention.
A Motto for the Ages (and Future Disgraces)
When the Miami convention rolled around in August 1972, a young politician named Pete Wilson was mayor of San Diego. He’d decided to promote local pride and make San Diegans feel better — at least those who didn’t mutter “good riddance” — by declaring an “America’s Finest City Week” celebration.
“Arguably, Wilson’s slogan was born more of mediocrity and failure than of boosteristic jingoism,” an L.A. Times journalist wrote in 1985. A local booster told the reporter that “Wilson came to the fore with a look-at-me slogan — one the city clung to like Shriners to a fez. It was a natural for boosting morale, and consequently, stuck like jam to toast.”
But, according to the Times, Wilson didn’t invent the slogan out of thin air. It seems to have been inspired by Look magazine, which called San Diego “one of America’s finest cities.”
Whatever the case, the motto abides. But it had a rough year in 2005, when municipal scandal sent the mayor into early retirement and produced a less-than-complimentary slogan courtesy of The New York Times: “Enron by the Sea.”
In fact, the city, for a time, dethroned “America’s Finest City” from its own website. “We couldn’t stake that claim anymore,” a spokeswoman told the AP in a stunning display of municipal honesty. “We were taking too many hits.”
Local wits came up with alternate suggestions like “All Major Unmarked Bills Accepted Here” and “Bunglers by the Bay.”
But a new mayor came into office, and we officially became America’s Finest City again — in words if not always in deeds.