The GOP convention was utterly forgettable except 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 official plotline was that the party bosses were threatening to derail the likely - but far from assured - nomination of anti-war and anti-establishment candidate Sen. George McGovern, even after the South Dakotan had won the most primaries. The "McGoos," as the left-leaning McGovern acolytes were called, beat back the challenge - but what a show!
"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 right there 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.
The tiny 9-inch black-and-white TV set in my bedroom flickered until 4 a.m., when the exhausted networks finally got to 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 for Yippie Jerry Rubin, newsman Roger Mudd and even Mao Zedong. Poor McGovern wound up giving his acceptance speech at 2:45 a.m. because of the whacked-out VP balloting.
It was crazy. It was messy. It was weirdly beautiful. It was democracy.
And so they made sure it never happened again. After Nixon trounced McGovern that November, leaders of both parties took extraordinary steps to guarantee that TV viewers would never again 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."
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 to extreme lengths to shut 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 - in which the candidate actually claims the nomination, a onetime 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 that they're the kind of guys 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 Paulites 10 minutes to talk about their crazy gold standard.
What a long, strange trip in the decades since reporters saw Hunter S. 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.
Contact Will Bunch at 215-854-2957 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @Will_Bunch, or read his blog, Attytood.com.