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Lujan cast lone vote against Nixon at 1972 convention

April 30, 2019

It was a sweltering August evening in Miami Beach. Republicans escaped the heat by trooping into a convention hall where they would again nominate Richard Nixon for president.

The Watergate scandal had begun two months earlier, in June 1972. But few Americans at that stage knew about Watergate or believed it amounted to anything more than a third-rate burglary.

Even Nixon, so insecure and socially awkward, wasn’t worried about Watergate just yet. This was his night. The conventioneers and most of the country were behind him.

News coverage of his renomination for president would be perfunctory, or at least it seemed that way.

Then New Mexico Congressman Manuel Lujan Jr. created heat inside the convention center.

A total of 1,347 delegates voted for Nixon. Lujan was the only one to break ranks. He supported a rival candidate, casting his vote for Congressman Paul “Pete” McCloskey of California.

Lujan drew jeers for denying Nixon a unanimous renomination. Nixon hated public confrontations. He kept smiling.

For Lujan, being heckled was fallout for doing his duty.

Thousands of words are being written and spoken about Lujan, who died last week at age 90. Many remembered him for his help with obtaining a Social Security check or other government benefit. Even more recall his service as secretary of the interior under President George H.W. Bush.

But whenever I read about Nixon and Watergate, as I often do, I think of Lujan and McCloskey. They were gutsy.

As a young Marine leading a platoon in Korea, McCloskey had received the Navy Cross, the second-highest medal for valor in combat, a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. McCloskey was a decorated veteran who came to hate the war in Vietnam. He was not a fan of Nixon, who had continued America’s entanglement in Southeast Asia through his first term.

McCloskey mounted an impossible campaign against Nixon for the Republican presidential nomination.

As McCloskey traveled the country, he found people in New Mexico who would hear him out. They also questioned whether the fighting and death in Vietnam were moral or with purpose.

Beating the odds, McCloskey qualified for the primary election ballot in New Mexico. Nixon swamped him, but McCloskey received enough votes to automatically obtain the support of one of the state’s 14 delegates to the Republican National Convention.

Politics being a dirty and deceptive business, it would have been easy enough for the delegation to ignore the primary results and put all its votes in Nixon’s column.

Instead, Lujan took a stand. As leader of the New Mexico delegation, he wouldn’t alter the decision of primary voters.

“Although all 14 of New Mexico’s delegates are committed to President Nixon, it is my duty under New Mexico law to cast my one vote for Pete McCloskey,” Lujan told the conventioneers.

Catcalls rained down on him.

New Mexico had been the only state in which any candidate except Nixon won a delegate vote through the primary elections. Lujan respected history on a historic night.

Politicians who are faced with a difficult decision or uncomfortable task often run for cover. Actually, the preferred term for avoiding something unpleasant is “taking a walk.”

Those who don’t want to upset a powerful constituency walk away instead of voting. Later, they will say they had to meet with constituents or they felt ill, though just long enough to miss the fireworks.

Lujan could have done that. But then someone else would have been left to announce New Mexico was awarding one vote to McCloskey.

Many conventioneers said McCloskey put Lujan in a bad spot. If McCloskey would have withdrawn, then Nixon would have had a clean sweep.

“He’s got his right to dissent,” New Mexico delegate Alex Gonzales told reporters at the convention all those years ago. “Everybody listened to him. Nobody shut him off. But his idea of not withdrawing his vote so as not to make it unanimous for Nixon is childish.”

McCloskey wanted to put a spotlight on Vietnam. Lujan wouldn’t tell him to pipe down. Lujan respected a fellow congressman’s view, unpopular though it was in Republican circles.

People like McCloskey and Lujan were in short supply, bucking just about everyone on a pressure-packed stage in front of a national television audience.

Rebels with a cause are still hard to find. Lujan might not agree with them, but he wouldn’t undercut them.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.