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‘88 national convention: Atlanta’s coming of age

How quickly we forget.

Until I received an email from Judith Webb a few days ago, it probably would not have occurred to me that we had just passed a milestone for Atlanta.

Twenty years ago - July 18 to July 21, 1988 - to be exact, Atlanta hosted the Democratic National Convention at the now-demolished Omni Coliseum. (Denver will have that honor next month).

Judith, a public relations consultant, was marketing director for the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce’s Forward Atlanta campaign. As such, she had a unique perspective on how the convention helped propel our city nationally and internationally.

Please read her email with her musings to a couple of us old-timers. They were too good not to share with the rest of you.

From Judith Webb

Revisionist history has always been big in Atlanta, and current wisdom would suggest that we finally became an international city July 19th, 1996, when the Olympic torch arrived here.

But actually it was 20 years ago today, with Henry Grady’s words ringing in our ears, that Atlanta had its coming out party. Our brave and beautiful city made its global prime time debut with the opening gavel of the 1988 Democratic National Convention, and for a few of us it would forever change how we marked time, and measured success.

By some reckoning, probably half of the people that live in greater Atlanta today weren’t here then. But those who were — well, most of us were well rooted in the red clay and restive times the 1980s had brought to our city. And we knew we’d been handed a gift so precious, so unique, that we frequently held our collective breath, hoping, praying we were worthy of the task.

It wasn’t a small one. Despite our self-confident swagger, we were as insecure as your average 16 year old on a first date. Would we be pretty enough? Smart enough? Could we keep from embarrassing ourselves with our naiveté and our self-promotion hormones in overdrive?

From the AJC to WSB to CNN, from the Atlanta Chamber to ACVB, from the Mayor’s office to Industry and Trade, we went into high gear.

And in so many ways, because of hundreds of physical assets and a thousand intangible ones, we pulled off something extraordinary, and things were never quite the same.

From the city’s leadership to the world media, there was an overwhelming sense that our hosting of the convention was a success. Nothing happened from any standpoint to cast a shadow on the city (Rob Lowe’s escapades, not withstanding). The economic impact turned out to be better than expected. Everything worked mostly. The complaints were mostly related to convention logistics. The Omni was too small (though we know part of the problem was that the podium and stage kept growing) and the hotel rooms were too far out.

But we showed off our city as a modern, efficient metropolis, a great place to live, and work, and do business. And in the days leading up to the gavel, we came together as a true community with a renewed sense of urgency to get some projects underway or off the drawing board — MARTA to the airport; the widening of International Boulevard, just to name two. Delta began air service to Tokyo and Seoul, and Midtown was being birthed, with IBM and AT&T painting a new skyline. There was an interesting effort going on in the background with something called the Georgia Amateur Athletic Foundation that was morphing into the Atlanta Organizing Committee even as the gavel struck.

But it was how we told the bigger story that summer — the story of a city coming of age— that even today makes me so proud. We developed what is still a wonderful video about Atlanta that was rich with imagery and imagination, and distributed more than 14,000 media kits. We trained some 200 PRSA volunteers and deployed 50 students to help out in four round the clock media centers. We answered 51,000 questions (my favorite one still was the earnest call from the Today Show asking if grits was singular or plural) assisted with 2,600 stories (first time we’d hosted a live Today Show and we had huge profiles in National Geographic, the FT, Economist, USA Today and all manner of European and Asian papers). W coordinated more than 550 interviews (OK — Andy Rooney’s interview with me about why there weren’t peach trees on Peachtree Street was a personal favorite). But my real heroes were Andy Young and George Berry, who always made time for talking to the media and always hit their marks.

And all that effort, the coordinated, seamless, do the right thing approach, paid off in spades. For days, you couldn’t turn on a TV newscast, read a newspaper or magazine that did not mention Atlanta, (and yep, for all intents and purposes, the Internet was still an engineer’s wet dream).

For the most part, it was everything we could have hoped for. The stories talked with some astonishment about the reality of Southern hospitality (remember the Boston Globe reporter who wrote about TRYING to get someone to be rude to him and not being able to make it happen?) The beauty of our city in a forest took a lot of people by surprise as much as the modernness of it. Our thriving business environment got lots of attention — accomplishing one of the key reasons we went after the convention in the first place. And of course the strength and leadership in our African American community got a lot of well-deserved attention.

Some of the coverage reminded us of problems we still needed to address. An effort to move the homeless out from under the viaduct got lots of coverage and led to a white hot spotlight on the vast divide (racial and economic) that was still present then. And, to be fair, is still present now — at least the economic part.

We went on later that fall to be named the US city that could compete for the opportunity to host the 1996 Olympic Games, and with that, a not so subtle shift in our sense of community began. When the torch was lit that July night 8 years later, we weren’t the same city as we had been, and because of events — some beyond our control and some of our own making — it was a very different Atlanta that was showcased to the world.

But for a handful of us, it was 20 years ago today that our brave and beautiful city was - for a moment — the shining city on the hill. And it was really something.

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Comments

By Dick Hodges

July 23, 2008 12:24 PM | Link to this

Another big “hurrah” for Maria Saporta for sharing Judith Webb’s wonderful description and memories of Atlanta 20 years ago at the time of the Democratic National Convention. This AJC reader always applauds those “who were there” for helping keep Atlanta history from undergoing often inaccurate revision. Veterans of Atlanta civic life are grateful to those who “remember” and have partipated personally in events often not remembered at all nor accurately reported when they are remembered. Such historical revisionism is not necessarily intentional. Frequently it’s the result of a failure to check with those with first-hand experience or for those with such experience failing to share their experiences.There are few better ways to help keep the record straight than by hearing from those who participated in creating “the record.” Judith Webb in her message to Maria Saporta has jogged our memories and reminded us of one of the important happenings that was a result of Atlanta’s economic, political and social progress over previous years. Perspective about Atlanta’s past,as well as that of the rest of the world, is a much-needed, but frequently absent, quality in setting the course for the future.

By Michael

July 23, 2008 12:31 PM | Link to this

If Atlanta is international. The rail system does not reflect international city status. What is Atlanta identity?

By ATL Native

July 23, 2008 3:26 PM | Link to this

Judith, great job recounting 1988 and its importance to the city. If only we put the same effort into urban and transportation planning that we did wowing visitors for the DNC, Olympics, Super Bowl, etc., we would have a much more livable city. That is this engineer’s wet dream.

By Allen

July 23, 2008 9:49 PM | Link to this

Judith, great re-cap. The most interesting aspect of our bids for both the Democratic National Convention of ‘88 and the Olympic Games of ‘96 is that they were Atlanta’s first ever for either event and we won both on our first try. I enjoyed the unique fortune of being a part of both bids and can personally attest to the tedious work and sacrifice of many to bring our city into the international spotlight. As with the Olympics, we were a neophyte bidding for a national political convention and we actually bid for BOTH the Democratic and Republican conventions that year … only to learn during the process, that the political parties would not hold their conventions in the same city. The Democrats had a site selection committee of something like 86 people (we entertained them all) and the Republican site selection committee was about 12 people. The capacity of the Omni was a big issue for both parties, yet we were able to overcome that obstacle with some good PR. I will always cherish having been intimately involved with both bids and being a part of Atlanta history. Thank you for rekindling some positive memories. Harry Shuman (The Coca-Cola Company)

By Peggy Gardner

July 24, 2008 8:40 AM | Link to this

I had the pleasure of working in Communications with Judith at the Chamber and clearly recall the perceptions of Atlanta before and after. One of my favorites was another national TV show that wanted to do a story on snake handling as an example of practiced “down there.” So we humored them by driving them way out into the country to the only one we could find (yet another story) and along the way communicated how this wasn’t representative of our fair State. It was a huge task to prepare for all the reporters who descended into Atlanta, all wanting personal attention — and they got it. The Atlanta PR professionals, corporate and agency, did a tremendous job to prepare backgrounds on every possible topic, including the proper spelling of y’all. The decade of 1987 to 1997 was a glorious time for the City — so full of promise and enthusiasm for what could be.

By The URBAN GURU

July 24, 2008 11:33 AM | Link to this

This detailed account of prehaps one of 20th Century Atlanta’s seminal events raises some interesting questions, not the least of which is: what happened to the drive and energy that propelled us then?

In the context of today’s challenges and opportunities, that type of leadership is sorely missed. From the Federal government to the community level there is not the same sense of positive energy that enabled all of Atlanta to achieve those lofty goals and, for the most part, share in their benefits. Prehaps a change will occur that will allow us to build on those halcyon days and rise up from our current malaise.

By BPJ

July 24, 2008 4:00 PM | Link to this

I remember the 1988 convention well. One of the things we did to welcome our guests was to have a party for each delegation, in a private home, the Sunday evening before the convention began. I hosted the Delaware delegation (one of the smallest) in my Brookwood Hills bungalow; the larger delegations wound up at Buckhead mansions. This personal touch helped demonstrate Southern hospitality, and give our guests a sense of the city.

I wouldn’t bemoan so much the Atlanta of today. The city’s population has been going up steadily since 1988, and is now over half a million, the most it’s ever been. Since 1988, the High has doubled in size, and the Carlos has grown from modest beginnings into a major university museum. Many of Atlanta’s best theatre companies were just getting started then (think of Horizon, Actor’s Express, and the two Shakespeare companies). GSU was still mostly a “commuter school”, walled off from its surroundings; today it contributes greatly to the liveliness of Downtown - as Ga. Tech now does to Midtown.

Midtown was mostly parking lots then; walking along Peachtree Street was an unusual activity compared to today. Piedmont Park has improved greatly since then, and the embarrassing area near the convention (where the “protest area” was located) is now Centennial Olympic Park. The aquarium didn’t exist, nor did the History Center Museum, and the zoo was just starting to remake itself. The Margaret Mitchell House was truly a “dump”, and the Botanical Garden was less than it now is (no orchid house, etc.). Other Atlanta institutions have grown considerably since 1988: Emory, CNN, and the airport, to name a few.

MARTA has opened several stations since 1988. Like a lot of people, I’m not satisfied with the state of transit here, but let’s put responsibility for that where it belongs: first, on reduced federal aid to cities; second, on the Georgia legislature’s shortsighted hostility to Atlanta; and third, on the refusal of neighboring counties to join MARTA (or to advocate an absorption of MARTA into GRTA, or similar idea).

I prefer living in today’s Atlanta over the one of 1988. On a final note, one of the biggest improvements is in the restaurants! (Which reminds me, the ‘88 Convention was when I first learned how easy it was to get a reservation at a popular intown restaurant when a high-profile event has scared a lot of people away.)

By ooo

July 24, 2008 9:46 PM | Link to this

I lived here then, I live here now. I am a democrat. Who the heck cares? Unless you are a rich and well connected person, you don’t ever stand a chance at ever being involved with these coronations. Why waste space talking about 20 year old conventions!

By BPJ

July 25, 2008 1:43 PM | Link to this

Like the 1895 Expo and the 1996 Olympics, the 1988 Convention was a landmark in the city’s history, and raised national and international awareness of our city. And there were events open to a wide audience.

By Alpha Dog

July 27, 2008 12:15 PM | Link to this

Great article! That was a wonderful time to be in Atlanta. However, I wonder if Ms. Webb and Ms. Saporata’s failure to mention who the Democrats nominated that summer was intentional? Of course it was the ill-fated Mike Dukakis.

By Lisa T

July 31, 2008 1:57 PM | Link to this

I surely wasn’t (and still am not) rich or well-connected, but was still one of hundreds of volunteers who found time to donate to the event. I was a driver, and despite spending most of my time in the cavernous motor pool room at the Civic Center, with very few assignments, I was very excited to be a part of the team that pulled off the convention. My team were given temporary passes to enter the Omni for about an hour just to get a taste of the event. It was so energizing that I volunteered for the Games as soon as they were announced, and was with ACOG as a volunteer, then employee for 6 years. I’m sure there are many others who have continued the Convention’s volunteer legacy by re-upping for the many national and international events that have continued to find their way to Georgia since 1988!

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