That time, the governors didn’t make it to Santa Fe

July 15, 2018

As Santa Fe prepares for this week’s National Governors Association meeting, my mind wanders back to another governor’s conference supposed to take place in Santa Fe nearly 50 years ago.

It was May 1970. The late David F. Cargo, a Republican, was governor then. Finishing up his second term on the fourth floor (gubernatorial terms were only two years instead of four back then), Cargo had successfully pitched Santa Fe as the location of the Republican Governors Association’s spring meeting that year. This was a big feather in the cap of Cargo, who at the time was running for a U.S. Senate seat.

I was looking forward to helping out at the meeting. At the time, I was a junior in high school and president of the local chapter of Teen Age Republicans (yes, I was a teenage Republican). Our group was going to be gophers at the confab. Though there wasn’t anything nearly as thrilling as the burning of Zozobra’s cousin, Tío Coco, on that conference’s agenda, as a budding young political junkie, I was excited that the governors were coming to Santa Fe.

Religiously following any news about the conference, I remember feeling disappointed when a week or so before the big show, the two most prominent Republican governors in the country at the time — Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Ronald Reagan of California — announced they wouldn’t be attending.

That should have been seen as an omen. Reagan and Rockefeller would not be the only cancellations.

What happened? Tin soldiers and Nixon coming. Basically the world blew up.

On April 30, President Richard Nixon — who had won the White House pledging he had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War — authorized U.S. troops to invade Vietnam’s neighbor, Cambodia. Instead of ending the war, Nixon was expanding it. College campuses across America erupted in angry anti-war protests. On May 4 — just four days before the GOP governors meeting — the Ohio National Guard opened fire on protesters and others at Kent State University, killing four students, some of whom weren’t even part of the demonstration there.

Student demonstrations intensified across the land.

And one by one, Republican governors canceled their flights to Santa Fe.

I was at La Fonda on the morning of Friday, May 8, ready for the conference, or what was left of it, to start. Gov. Cargo entered the room reserved for a press briefing, accompanied by four other governors. There, a visibly shaken Cargo announced that the conference was being canceled so that the governors could deal with the unrest in their respective states.

“It’s something none of us have any control over,” Cargo said that day. The White House had asked for the conference to be canned. A story in The New Mexican spoke of a bipartisan “tidal wave of sympathy,” mostly for Cargo, that followed the news of the cancellation. But that sympathy didn’t last long. This was the beginning of a bad period for Cargo.

On the same day the GOP governors meeting was canceled, all hell was breaking loose at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

The New Mexico National Guard — called in to help state police clear the Student Union Building, which had been occupied for several days by demonstrators protesting Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia — used bayonets on protesters, and on journalists and other bystanders.

When local reporters called Cargo for comment that day, a press aide said he was on a fishing trip.

Thus began the charge that Cargo was out fishing while the UNM campus ran with blood.

“I caught it from both sides,” Cargo said in 2000. “The country was so divided, left and right. There weren’t very many of us in the middle.”

Ironically, the governor didn’t even get to fish that day.

Cargo was friends with ABC newsman Bill Lawrence, who had come to Santa Fe for the conference. Lawrence, Cargo told me in an interview in 2000, persuaded him to go fishing with him and Mike Wallace in Chama. However, before they got to their fishing spot, Lawrence began having chest pains. “We turned around and took Bill back to St. Vincent Hospital,” Cargo said.

Lawrence would die in 1972. Lonesome Dave’s political career would die much sooner.

Less than a month after the fishing fiasco, Cargo lost the GOP Senate nomination to a conservative challenger named Anderson Carter. Cargo’s political career never really recovered.

Though he was vilified by some because of the UNM stabbings, one of the victims, years later, said Cargo actually was something of a hero.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Cargo saved lives,” John Dressman of Santa Fe said in 2000. “We named him in the lawsuit at first, but then, during depositions, we learned that Cargo had ordered [the National Guard] not to have bullets with them when they came to campus. So we dropped him from the suit. It had only been four days, but Cargo had learned the lesson of Kent State.”

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