In the final run-up to Election Day, crazy stuff can happen. Or things can be made to look like crazy stuff happened.
Events often move like quicksilver as campaigns near the wire, while the sorting of facts about what really went down may take years to resolve. Or not.
There’s still plenty of room for conjecture about one of the strangest events in American political history, which took place 44 years ago just a few miles north of Monterey County.
At a noon rally on Halloween Day in 1970, then-President Richard Nixon took the stage at a Phoenix, Ariz., airport as several supporters held a large banner a few feet away that said, “We don’t want to know the way to San Jose.”
The message wasn’t a knock on the catchy 1968 song by Dionne Warwick or the still provincial Santa Clara County capital that would blossom within a decade into the civic center of Silicon Valley.
It referred to something that had happened two nights earlier — Oct. 29, 1970 — just outside the San Jose Civic Auditorium during a furious round of Nixon appearances to bolster the GOP’s flagging support before the 1970 midterm election.
If you think America is polarized today, think again. The turbulence of 1970 makes today’s deep divisions seem like hairline cracks in fairly new concrete. 1970 was the year of the secret war in Cambodia, the killings of four protesters at Kent State and an estimated 1,000 domestic bombings.
Such was the backdrop for what took place in San Jose. In what remains a unique happening in American presidential history, the president’s departing motorcade, including the car that carried Nixon and then California Gov. Ronald Reagan, was pelted by rocks and eggs thrown from a crowd of about 1,000 there to protest a potpourri of causes, from the Vietnam War and the plight of California farmworkers to the immediate fates of aerospace workers in Mountain View.
A few moments before the rock-and-egg shower, Nixon had climbed onto the hood of his limousine, standing with feet apart and thrusting both arms toward the heavens as he flashed the V for peace sign with both hands. The crowd went crazy, and there ensued a few minutes of disorder that concerned the heck out of hundreds of San Jose cops and Secret Service agents trying to protect the officials.
“That’s what they hate to see,” Nixon was reported to gleefully tell an aide as he got back in the bullet-proof limo.
Both the president and Gov. Reagan, who would win his second term a few nights later, flashed more “peace signs” from their seats as the motorcade parted the angry protesters.
Reactions to accounts of the near-riot, which to the chagrin of San Jose officialdom flew out on the national and international wires, were predictably divided.
Nixon and his attack dog Vice President Spiro Agnew wasted no time in milking the spectacle for political capital. In his Phoenix speech, the president called upon America’s silent majority to stand up “against appeasement of the rock throwers and obscenity shouters.” At an Illinois rally, Agnew declared it was “time to sweep that kind of garbage out of society.”
The president’s political foes viewed the incident with suspicion, seeing it as being overblown or another Nixon dirty trick.
A wire service reporter, years later, called the San Jose confrontation and White House’s political profiteering “a con so crafty it even fooled the Secret Service.”
In the face of immediate criticism and pesky questions from the press, the White House allowed a few reporters to inspect the dings on the presidential limousine on Nov. 3.
Top Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman, in his posthumous 1994 insider account of the White House, allowed how the Rumble at the Civic was blown up as “a huge incident … We worked hard to crank it up.”
A few months later, a Santa Clara County judge, in dismissing the 1970 grand jury that investigated the mini-riot, offered his perspective, saying the affair was a “tempest in a teapot and was blown all out of proportion.” The judge said “certain people know why that was done.”
But the San Jose fracas, described by Nixon speechwriter William Safire as “the most serious mob attack on a national leader in American history,” may well have had a deeper impact than simply supplying the White House with pungent, 11th-hour rhetoric against its foes in November 1970.
In his 1975 book Before the Fall, Safire said Nixon’s tactics for his 1972 re-election campaign were sealed the weekend after the San Jose confrontation. And everyone knows what happened with that campaign.
The answer to the vexing historical question, Why Watergate? could open with a few bars of that Dionne Warwick tune. It may well have started in San Jose.
There should be a plaque about it all in front of the historic, city-owned auditorium, which was rechristened City National Civic last year after its corporate sponsor.
The events center website tells the tale today drained of all its historic drama. It notes, in passing, the venue has played host to political figures, “such as the 1970 visit from then-President Richard Nixon that made national headlines when he was confronted by Anti-War protesters.”