Monday, May 3, 2004

Gardens familiar political venue

In the '60s, rally crowds outdrew sporting events

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Politics ahead of sports

In its heyday - and before stricter fire codes limited the building's occupancy - political events packed the Cincinnati Gardens with more people than any sporting event. The top events in the history of the Gardens:

• Richard Nixon/Henry Cabot Lodge campaign rally, Oct. 25, 1960 - 19,000

• Barry Goldwater campaign rally, Sept. 29, 1964 - 16,025

• Richard Nixon campaign rally, Oct. 21, 1968 - 16,000

• Professional wrestling, March 7, 1959 - 15,299

• UC vs. Dayton basketball, March 4, 1958 - 15,011

• Festival of Faith religious service, Oct. 28, 1956 - 14,500

• Xavier vs. Dayton basketball, Feb. 19, 1956 - 14,283

• Professional wrestling, May 16, 1953 - 14,164

Source: Cincinnati Mighty Ducks Media Guide

The Bush-Cheney campaign hopes to pack Cincinnati Gardens full of Republican supporters Tuesday, but they'll have a tough time breaking the venue's all-time attendance record held by Richard Nixon.

President Bush will be the third presidential candidate to campaign at the 55-year-old Gardens. Nixon did it twice, in 1960 and 1968, and Barry Goldwater came in 1964.

But Bush will be the first sitting president to visit the Bond Hill arena, whose history includes concerts by Elvis Presley and the Beatles, and almost every indoor sporting event imaginable: basketball, hockey, wrestling, boxing, tennis, swimming and roller derby.

In the '60s, Republicans favored the Gardens to the Democrats' Fountain Square because it was viewed as a suburban location, said John Perin of Blue Ash, the unofficial historian of the Gardens.

"It's a key spot, in a very strong Republican stronghold," Perin said. With folding chairs on the arena floor - and in an era before the 1979 Who concert tragedy sparked changes in fire codes - campaigns could cram almost twice as many people as its current legal capacity of 10,200.

About 6,000 tickets have been issued for the Bush rally.

Foreign policy has dominated the Gardens' political history. Nixon's 1960 running mate, former U.N. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, proclaimed there, "Foreign affairs underlies everything else."

Nixon came to Cincinnati just two weeks before the close 1960 election to criticize Democrat John F. Kennedy as being weak on Taiwan, Cuba and the arms race.

In 1964, Goldwater blasted President Lyndon Johnson for being "soft on communism" and having "a foreign policy of drift, deception and defeat."

Nixon shifted to domestic policy when he campaigned at the Gardens in 1968. The headline in the next day's Enquirer: "Nixon Pledges Personal War Against Crime."

The previous presidential trips were all late in the campaign, in September and October. Still, the Gardens crowds were friendly to the Republican candidates, with no protests reported in the press. Only as it left town did the Goldwater motorcade encounter a group of students outside Withrow High School, holding signs saying, "L.B.J. - All the Way!"

Nixon carried Ohio both times. Goldwater lost.


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