JFK holds off LBJ in 1960, and then looms over his successor’s convention four years later
July 28th, 2016,
|Dear readers: This is the second and third part of a three-part series on the 1956, 1960, and 1964 Democratic National Conventions, and John F. Kennedy’s role at each. Click here to read part one.
— The Editors
Part II: Jack Kennedy’s 1960 Convention Triumph
In 2016, some delegates in both parties have hoped the conventions might return to a bygone era, when they were not cut-and-dried, when delegates could revolt and pull surprises and upset frontrunners. There were plenty of Democrats in 1960 who prayed for just such an outcome. John F. Kennedy had won the primaries and run an exceptionally well-organized campaign — but he was a mere 43 years old, he was Roman Catholic in a heavily Protestant nation, and many party elders, including former President Harry Truman and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, were open in their opposition.
Nonetheless, by the summer of 1960, most party insiders believed the Kennedy nomination was a fait accompli. JFK arrived in Los Angeles for the Democratic convention brimming with confidence. He had already chosen his Washington headquarters for the general election and determined his strategy for the fall. His challengers were desperate to stop his nomination.
Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson’s supporters told the press that Kennedy had Addison’s disease and depended on cortisone treatments to stay alive. Robert Kennedy denied the charge, saying that Jack “does not now nor has he ever had an ailment described classically as Addison’s disease.” Bobby was not truthful, and neither were Drs. Eugene Cohen and Janet Travell when they published a report in June describing JFK’s health as “excellent” and his “vitality, endurance and resistance to infection” as “above average.” In reality, Kennedy had nagging health problems, including ulcers, colitis, and severe back pain as well as Addison’s disease. Travell would later discover that Kennedy’s left leg was three-quarters of an inch shorter than his right leg, a defect that had worsened his back pain for years and would force him to wear special shoes during his presidency. John Connally, one of LBJ’s strongest supporters and a fellow Texan, said that he would be delighted “to submit Senator Johnson’s medical record, since his recovery from a 1955 heart attack, and have it compared with that of Senator Kennedy and any other contenders.” The Kennedy campaign refused to take the bait and the controversy was soon lost in the excitement of the convention.
JFK arrived in Los Angeles with 600 delegate votes, 161 short of what he needed to secure the nomination. Although confident of victory, Kennedy refused to take anything for granted. He knew that Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri controlled between 100 and 150 delegates, two-time nominee Adlai Stevenson had somewhere around 50, and the Kansas and Iowa delegations had pledged their 52 votes to their favorite-son candidates, Govs. George Docking and Hershel Loveless.
Kennedy understood that Lyndon Johnson posed the greatest threat to his nomination; even though the Texas senator had waited until the last minute to declare his candidacy — less than a week before the convention — LBJ had already lined up close to 500 votes. Five states were still up for grabs: Pennsylvania, California, New Jersey, Illinois, and Minnesota.
On Monday, July 11, the opening day of the convention, JFK zipped between meetings in a white Cadillac that had a rare car telephone. At each stop, he glad-handed delegates and fielded questions from journalists. Meanwhile, at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, delegates had just settled in for a round of hum-drum party speeches when a huge commotion erupted outside — hundreds of men, women, and children were marching back and forth in front of the arena, waving signs and shouting “We want Stevenson! We want Stevenson!” The demonstration encouraged the California delegation — which previously had been leaning toward JFK — to split its vote the next day between Kennedy and Stevenson.
At the same time, Johnson kept up the pressure on the Kennedy camp, secretly encouraging his supporters to make hay out of the family’s religion and accusing Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., of having harbored pro-Nazi sympathies in the 1930s. Johnson also challenged the young senator to a debate in the week before the convention with their home Texas and Massachusetts delegations as the audience. Kennedy accepted, and confident of his forthcoming convention majority, all but ignored the brickbats Johnson hurled at him. Kennedy even said he was “strongly in support” of Johnson…for Senate majority leader.
Unknown to Johnson or almost anyone else, Kennedy was seriously considering the Texan for the vice presidential nomination. On the opening day of the convention, in a highly unusual intervention by journalists, the newspaper columnist Joseph Alsop and Philip Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, stopped by Kennedy’s suite to urge him to select Johnson as his running mate. Having talked to friends of Johnson, they assured JFK that Johnson would accept the vice presidential nomination if it were offered to him. Kennedy tipped his hand a bit when he readily agreed with their arguments.
On Wednesday, the excitement of the convention reached a fever pitch when Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota put Adlai Stevenson’s name into nomination. “Do not reject this man who has made us all proud to be called Democrats,” proclaimed McCarthy. “Do not leave this prophet without honor in his own party.” Stevenson’s supporters marched through the hall singing, clapping, and chanting, “We want Stevenson! We want Stevenson!” Watching the scene from the comfort of a posh Beverly Hills estate, JFK told his father not to worry because, “Stevenson has everything but delegates.” The Kennedy high command had made a science of delegate counting and was supremely confident. A bit later, Kennedy won the nomination on the first ballot with the support of 763 delegates — precisely two more votes than he needed.
The decision on the running mate was next. Kennedy’s short list included Symington, Johnson, Humphrey, Minnesota Governor Orville Freeman, and Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington state. Kennedy knew that having LBJ on the ticket would help him greatly in the South and that, if he were elected, Johnson’s magnificent legislative skills might assist him in enacting his program. The possibility of taking the second spot was broached with LBJ, and sure enough, he was receptive.
LBJ aide Bill Moyers (later a longtime PBS fixture) was with Johnson the day JFK offered him the vice presidency, sleeping in the bathroom of the Johnsons’ hotel suite when he heard the phone ring. “I thought I would get to the phone first in the hotel room,” he recalls, “but Lady Bird picked it up. And I heard her as I came in the door saying ‘Lyndon, it’s Jack . . . Senator Kennedy.’ LBJ woke up, listened to the voice, hung up and said, ‘He wants to come see me.’ And Lady Bird said, ‘I hope you won’t do it.’” Moyers opened the door for Kennedy when he arrived a short time later, but he retreated to his assigned bathroom while the two politicians talked. Although he could not hear anything that was said, Moyers is convinced that JFK knew exactly what he was doing and had no qualms about choosing Johnson as a running mate. “When [Kennedy] left that room, I was sure that he had communicated to Johnson that he really wanted him to run, and that LBJ was going to do it.”
Johnson thought his nomination was a done deal as word spread. Then JFK had second thoughts the very same day: What if his choice, a conservative Southerner, caused a split in the party? RFK and aides Kenny O’Donnell and Ralph Dungan protested the possible choice. In order to line up liberal votes, they had promised to keep LBJ off the ticket. JFK also got an earful from labor leaders, who were angry with Johnson for supporting legislation they considered harmful to the union cause.
Kennedy dispatched Bobby to warn Johnson about the brewing revolt inside the party. Bobby offered Johnson the party chairmanship as an alternative, but LBJ, blinded by tears, steadfastly refused. He wanted the vice presidency; Johnson was willing to give up real power in the Senate in order to “get in line” for the presidency. “Well, then that’s fine,” replied an unhappy Bobby. “He wants you to be vice president if you want to be vice president” — not exactly the enthusiastic embrace a prospective ticket-mate usually gets. Johnson never forgave Bobby for trying to bump him off the ticket, and this episode was apparently the beginning of their long mutual loathing.
Whatever the internal turmoil behind Johnson’s selection as the vice presidential nominee, it turned out to be a big key to a close victory in the fall. A Northern Yankee, Kennedy could not have been elected without Southern electoral votes that Johnson added in Texas and probably other closely contested states below the Mason-Dixon Line. The implications of JFK’s decision would reverberate well beyond the election, of course. American history would have taken a different path, for good or ill, if one of the other possibilities had joined the ticket. Either Richard Nixon would have become president eight years before he actually did, or a Democratic president very unlike LBJ would have succeeded an assassinated Kennedy (assuming the murder would still have occurred). This alternate universe is fascinating to contemplate but unknowable.
The world we do know proceeded from Johnson’s selection to JFK’s acceptance speech at the convention. At Bobby Kennedy’s suggestion, the Los Angeles Coliseum was chosen as the site of the address instead of the convention hall, since the 100,000-seat stadium could hold more people and would inject additional excitement into the closing hours. RFK was sold on the idea by a 29-year-old Los Angeles councilwoman, Rosalind Wyman, who had been instrumental in bringing the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles. When the younger Kennedy expressed concerns about filling the stadium, Wyman suggested that they close off half the structure, and Bobby agreed. As campaign manager, RFK always looked for ways to enhance his brother’s image, and the coliseum speech was novel. What Bobby did not consider were the security implications. By selecting an open-air facility in front of thousands of unscreened people, Sen. Kennedy would be vulnerable to attack by anyone who secured a ticket. The campaign made JFK even more vulnerable by having the candidate ride through the stadium in an open convertible. This was a very different era, when security concerns were secondary to political needs, and campaigns rarely considered “the unthinkable.”
Fortunately, the address proceeded without incident. JFK impressed the stadium crowd as well as a much larger audience watching on TV with a dynamic presentation that provided the label for his eventual administration, the New Frontier:
“For the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won — and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960s — a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils — a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats. Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom promised our nation a new political and economic framework. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal promised security and succor to those in need. But the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises — it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not to their pocketbook — it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.”
The Gallup Poll’s trial heat had been tied leading up to the convention. A strong performance in Los Angeles gave Kennedy a slim 50% to 46% edge over Nixon. It didn’t last, and Nixon went up by several points after his August convention. The polling see-saw continued all the way to the photo-finish in JFK’s favor on Election Day in November. Almost anything, even at the convention, could have made the tiny difference between victory and defeat.
Part III: Robert Kennedy’s 1964 Tribute to His Slain Brother
The formal business of the ’64 Democratic National Convention was nominating President Lyndon Johnson and his choice for vice president, Sen. Hubert Humphrey. The emotional highlight, though, would be memorializing John F. Kennedy, and this was not an entirely welcome prospect for LBJ. For weeks memos had streamed back and forth in the Johnson White House about how to handle the Kennedys in Atlantic City. In LBJ’s view, this was his convention, his opportunity to emerge fully from John Kennedy’s shadow. But to the Kennedys, and a large portion of Democrats and the public, it was impossible to forget that this would have been JFK’s moment of triumph, where he would have been launched toward a second term.
A 20-minute film was commissioned to salute JFK. It was, in the words of Johnson presidential assistant Douglass Cater, a “tearjerker,” utilizing Mrs. Kennedy’s allusion to Camelot as its theme. “Camelot was a highly schmaltzy musical about a semi-mythical kingdom,” wrote Cater to LBJ press secretary Bill Moyers. “I have quite mixed feelings about its propriety at a convention,” he huffed. Cater’s real concern became apparent:
“Certainly, the delegates will be left weeping. It would be less dramatic but probably less risky to show that film sequence without the music. I have vague unrest about engaging in such an emotional bender just before the Johnson acceptance speech.”
At first the film had been scheduled for showing on the convention’s first night. But Johnson and some of his aides worried that it could stampede the delegates into nominating Bobby Kennedy for vice president, regardless of Johnson’s preference. This was never a very likely prospect, but such was the wariness about RFK and the Kennedy family’s intentions. LBJ and RFK had long nurtured a hatred for one another that was burned into their souls; both could be extraordinarily petty, and they never missed an opportunity to assume the worst about one another. Even though he knew he would be miserable in the position, Kennedy wanted the vice presidency as a vehicle to eventually restore the White House to his family. Johnson was more determined to ensure that RFK didn’t get it. During his VP search, the president had ruled out “all sitting members of my Cabinet” because he needed them to serve, for continuity’s sake, in their current positions. This was a thinly veiled way of eliminating RFK, and everyone understood that. (For more, read Larry Tye’s superb new book from Random House, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon.)
LBJ’s convention solution was shrewd: the JFK film would be delayed until the final evening when the Johnson-Humphrey ticket was already set. Bobby Kennedy could tug at the delegates’ heartstrings all he wanted, and nothing would come of it.
The Johnson entourage was right about one thing. The emotional impact of this film, and its introduction by Robert Kennedy, was overwhelming. When RFK appeared, the delegates launched a spontaneous, 22-minute standing ovation, and they simply refused to let him start speaking. They wanted the moment to last; they wanted him to know how they felt. RFK’s short oration finished with a passage from “Romeo and Juliet” that some read, perhaps over-read, as a contrast between JFK (the heavenly night stars) and LBJ (the garish sun):
“. . . when he shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars
And he will make the face of heav’n so fine
That all the world will be in love with the Night
And pay no worship to the garish Sun.”
Virtually the entire convention hall was crying, and millions at home as well. The film recounted JFK’s achievements, but the personal glimpses — such as Kennedy teaching John Jr. to tickle his chin with a buttercup — were most affecting, and hard to watch. Meanwhile, RFK had left the stage and gone out to sit on a staircase. Inconsolable, he broke down in tears. No one knew better what that evening would have meant had President Kennedy not gone to Texas.
The state of the race after Clinton makes it official
July 27th, 2016,
(PHILADELPHIA) — After Donald Trump picked Mike Pence to be his running mate two weeks ago — that feels like two months ago, right? — we suggested that Trump could end up taking at least a temporary lead because of the convention bounce that presidential candidates typically get after their conventions.
It appears that Trump has in fact gotten a bounce, at least in some polls. The most dramatic change so far came in the CNN/ORC poll, which shifted all the way from a seven-point Hillary Clinton lead to a three-point Trump edge. On the other hand, the NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll didn’t change at all (it showed a 46%-45% Clinton lead both before and after the convention), and there were some other contradictory signs. Nonetheless, Trump’s numbers generally improved, as is common after a convention. Based on the median of five polls surveyed in the period after the GOP convention that have been released so far, Trump has experienced a three-point bounce relative to his median the week before Republicans gathered in Cleveland. That’s clearly a small sample, but put it all together and Trump has taken a small, one-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average, while Clinton has an equally small one-point lead in the HuffPost Pollster average (that average is less sensitive to short-term changes). Our advice would be to wait before drawing conclusions: Clinton still has an opportunity to get a bounce from her convention, and we also may have some more polls later in the week to further measure the size of Trump’s bounce.
For the time being, we’re sticking with our current Electoral College ratings, which show Clinton with 347 electoral votes safe, likely, and leaning to her, with 191 safe/likely/leaning Trump. We agree that if the election were held today, it would almost certainly be closer than that — and that Trump could very well win. But the election isn’t being held today — it’s actually still about 100 days away. Our ratings are a forecast for November, not a reflection of the day-to-day state of play, and we still see Clinton with an edge.
If the dust settles from the conventions the next few weeks and the numbers are still what they are today, then we very well may have to reassess. We’ve long suggested that a generic Republican may have been favored to win this election, but that Trump wasn’t a generic Republican. But maybe we’re wrong about that, and that the same factors that would boost a generic Republican, like a desire for change after eight years of Democratic rule, are enough to get Trump over the finish line, too. Sean Trende, friend of the Crystal Ball and astute RealClearPolitics analyst, has been urging caution over regarding Clinton as a big favorite, and his latest column is well worth reading in that regard.
Trump, in spite of everything, is hanging tough, and it seems like the vast majority of Republicans have embraced him as their own.
If the millions upon millions of largely unanswered campaign dollars that the Clinton campaign and its allies are pouring into the swing states are having an effect, it’s hard to say there is an obvious one. Perhaps the Trump strategy of holding his more limited resources back for later in the campaign is a wise one. In fact, there is scant evidence that early ad spending makes a lasting impression, although the Obama and Romney 2012 campaigns would disagree — those professionals believe Obama’s early ad blitz against Romney helped negatively define the Republican. But it may be that the early Clinton campaign ads are not making much of a difference.
Meanwhile, there are two days left to go at the Democratic National Convention. On Tuesday evening, Clinton became the first woman to be officially nominated by a major party for president. The stand-out event of the roll call vote was surely Bernie Sanders asking the convention to nominate Clinton by acclamation following the vote counting for every delegation. Sanders’ move was obviously a well-choreographed attempt to improve party unity, a key goal of the convention. But will it work? Thus far, polling has been a bit mixed on where Sanders voters lie. Pew found that 90% of “consistent” Sanders backers plan to back Clinton, which suggests there will be relative unity among Democratic and Democratic-leaning identifiers. But as for Sanders voters overall, the jury is still out to some degree, and there were some limited protests inside and outside the convention on Tuesday night.
Just like at the Republican confab, there are clearly some delegates and attendees here who have little use for Clinton, who is now the nominee. One Sanders die-hard told us she prefers four years of Trump to eight years of Clinton (as if either outcome would be guaranteed in 2020). But we also think the number of true #NeverHillary Democrats is small, just like the number of true #NeverTrump Republicans is also small. Conventions are supposed to be a positive public relations show for the party that spur party unity, and the pageant isn’t just for the TV viewers — it’s also for the delegates in the hall, a kind of shock therapy that wears down the resistance of the holdouts.
Despite some rocky moments, the GOP convention probably helped the Republicans achieve a greater level of unity. The same is probably true of the Democratic convention. Just think about it — on the first day of both the RNC and DNC, there was some very public dissent on both convention floors. But by the time of the nominating votes themselves, there were few major waves at either convention. Even Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement of Trump on the third night probably hurt Cruz more than it hurt Trump. And it does not seem like Clinton will have to suffer through a Cruz-esque speech tonight or Thursday. There’s the potential for further dissent at the DNC but day two was better for the party on that front than day one.
Clinton’s own speech looms large over the remainder of the proceedings. She clearly has a lot of work to do to improve her very weak favorability ratings. A little contrition for her email antics might be wise. Whenever the Trump campaign does go on the air, they will have some potent ads to cut on the issue, and whatever Clinton has done to try to defuse the issue has so far been clearly inadequate.
Coming up second in the 1956 veepstakes
July 27th, 2016,
|Dear readers: With the Clinton family seeking to cement itself as the Democratic dynasty of the present, this week during the Democratic National Convention we’re taking a look back at the Democratic dynasty of the past — the Kennedys, and, specifically, John F. Kennedy. Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato, author of The Kennedy Half-Century, is recounting JFK’s three Democratic conventions — 1956, 1960, and 1964 — this week. In this first installment, he explores Kennedy’s bid for the 1956 running mate slot.
— The Editors
This year’s Democratic conclave marks the fourth time Hillary Clinton has played a leading role in her party’s national conventions (1992, 1996, 2008, and 2016). While there are no exact equivalents, given that her first two starring roles were as the very powerful spouse of the presidential nominee, Mrs. Clinton has still achieved roughly the same level of exposure as Ronald Reagan (1968, 1976, 1980, and 1984) and George H.W. Bush (1980, 1984, 1988, and 1992). Among post-World War II political figures with longevity at the top of national conventions, Mrs. Clinton really only trails Richard Nixon — and her husband, Bill.
The durability of the most prominent politicians traces the arc of their national careers. John F. Kennedy is yet another example. In three successive Democratic National Conventions, JFK had a headlining role. At the tender age of 39, he almost won the vice presidential nomination when the party’s 1956 White House choice, Adlai Stevenson, decided to throw open the VP selection to a free vote of the delegates. While unsuccessful, Kennedy’s path to the presidency was set after his impressive debut. After a long, difficult campaign in 1960 to convince Democrats his Catholicism wouldn’t deep six his chances, Kennedy made the 1960 convention his own, grabbing the presidential nomination and outlining his “New Frontier.” Tragically, following his 1963 assassination at the Texas start of what would almost certainly have been a triumphant march to a second term, Kennedy was every bit as much the focus of the 1964 convention as his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. JFK’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, achieved the emotional high point of LBJ’s “Let Us Continue” theme in August ’64.
So, in three parts, let’s take a look at a pre-Clinton Democratic dynasty, the Kennedys, through the rise and fall of the family’s only president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
PART I: Vice President JFK?
At half past eight on the opening night of the 1956 Democratic National Convention, the Honorable Paul M. Butler stood on the main stage of Chicago’s International Amphitheatre and made the following announcement: “Will the delegates please clear the aisles? The lights are going to be turned out, so you had better get into your seats, if you want to see.” What they were about to see, explained the DNC chairman, was a documentary film on the history of the Democratic Party.
A few minutes later, a star was born. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts,” said the boyishly-handsome face on the screen. “To some, the Democratic Party represents a philosophy, a way of life, a point of view. Others think in terms of personalities — the great Democratic leaders of past and present . . . Whatever the unique quality our party represents to each of you, I believe you will find it in the course of this film, which singles out the principal events which have given the Democratic Party special character and dignity — which make it now, as always, our nation’s best and greatest hope.”
At the conclusion of the 28-minute film called “The Pursuit of Happiness” (which was shown on ABC and NBC, but not CBS), Butler thanked the narrator, referring to him as “one of our new young Democratic giants.” Kennedy “was introduced from the floor” and received “prolonged applause.” A small group of New England delegates rushed the platform and waved Kennedy placards, but they instantly vanished when Butler asked them to clear the aisles so [that] the keynoter, Gov. Frank G. Clement of Tennessee, could be introduced.
Kennedy outclassed the parochial Clement, who delivered a very partisan (and much parodied) speech. The New York Times called the Massachusetts senator a “movie star.” Eleven thousand delegates and millions of TV viewers witnessed Kennedy’s exemplary performance. Historian Herbert Parmet noted that it made the senator “an overnight hero in Chicago” and that people mobbed him “wherever he went, on the streets, on the convention floor.”
Jack Kennedy was one of the few politicians who understood the emerging power of televised images. His father had made millions in the 1920s off a Hollywood studio called Film Booking Offices (FBO). The elder Kennedy turned FBO into a profitable company by focusing on low-cost productions rather than big-budget blockbusters. Kennedy’s target audience was theater-owners in small towns and rural areas who usually featured new films every couple of days. Before long, Kennedy had established a lucrative niche for FBO. During the first year of his stewardship, the studio generated nearly $9 million worth of revenue. It remained a profitable company in the years that followed, before merging with Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO) to form RKO Pictures, one of the studio giants of Hollywood’s golden era. The money that came from FBO, the stock market, and other investments allowed Joe — FDR’s ambassador to the United Kingdom between 1938 and 1940 — to pamper his nine children. Although descended from poor Irish Catholic immigrants who came to America in the 19th century, the 20th century Kennedys lived like Boston Brahmins. John Kennedy wore the nicest clothes, ate the best-prepared foods, and attended the finest schools, including Choate and Harvard. His father had taught him to play hard and to win at any cost. This lesson gave him the strength to rescue three sailors from a sinking PT boat during World War II, the ambition to run for Congress before he turned 30, and the temerity to challenge and defeat an incumbent GOP U.S. senator in the Republican year of 1952. And in 1956, this same feisty, competitive spirit convinced JFK to try for the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential nomination.
According to JFK’s speechwriter and confidante Ted Sorensen, Kennedy knew “early in 1956” that he was under consideration for the number two slot on the party’s ticket. Adlai Stevenson’s handlers told author Theodore White (who in turn told Sorensen and Kennedy) that two southerners — Sen. Al Gore, Sr., of Tennessee and Frank Clement — as well as two Catholics — JFK and New York Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. — were under consideration for the running-mate job. Connecticut Gov. Abraham Ribicoff was the first politician to publicly endorse Kennedy; Gov. Dennis Roberts of Rhode Island quickly followed suit. So did Gov. Luther Hodges of North Carolina, who thought that JFK would be acceptable to the southern wing of the party. Newspapers and magazines also played up the possibility of a Kennedy vice presidency during this period.
During the convention, the delegates and media speculated on who Stevenson, the presumed nominee, would choose as a running mate. Influential former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt made it clear that she did not want Kennedy on the ticket. Several weeks before the convention, she received a letter from a friend who wanted her to endorse the ambassador’s son. “Across the bottom of her reply, Mrs. Roosevelt added that, before she would support Senator Kennedy for the second spot, he would have to declare his views on Senator [Joseph] McCarthy (R-Wis.) so that she could know ‘how he really stands.’” McCarthy, a Kennedy family friend and enemy of the left, had made a name for himself in the early 1950s by accusing prominent people of supporting communism without real evidence. Careers had been ruined and reputations besmirched as a result of the senator’s witch hunts. Kennedy had never publicly denounced fellow Irish-American McCarthy, aware that many of the voters in his district supported the Wisconsin senator. During the convention, Kennedy made a back-handed attempt to appease Roosevelt by telling her that he would make his views on McCarthy known “when the occasion presented itself.” Roosevelt was not satisfied and continued giving JFK the cold shoulder.
On August 14, the New York Times reported that Gore was Stevenson’s “personal choice” for vice-president. But Gore was reluctant to pick a fight with Estes Kefauver, a fellow Tennessean, whom he purportedly said would “attract more widespread voting support to Mr. Stevenson than any other Democrat.” Gore also recognized that Kefauver — perceived as too liberal by many southerners — might be a drag on the ticket in the former Confederate states. John Kennedy was Gore’s second choice. On August 15, the Times reported that the Stevenson camp was leaning toward Kefauver or Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey, but preferred a man who would be acceptable to the various factions represented at the convention. Thus, John Kennedy’s name made Adlai’s short list.
The same day, Kennedy received word “by a circuitous route” that he was no longer under consideration as the party’s vice-presidential nominee. In response, Kennedy sought, and received, an audience with Stevenson, who insisted to JFK that he was noncommittal. The presidential nominee-to-be did, however, ask JFK to deliver his (Stevenson’s) official nomination speech. Kennedy accepted but interpreted the offer as proof that he was no longer in the running for the vice presidential slot. One of Stevenson’s aides delivered a pre-written speech to Kennedy that had been slap-dashed together. Kennedy and Sorensen worked late into the night redrafting it.
The senator scored big political points the next day (Aug. 16) when he delivered the new-and-improved speech before the convention. He received “a great cheer” when he appeared on the platform. “Sometimes in the heat of a political convention, we forget the grave responsibilities which we as delegates possess,” said Kennedy.
“For we here today are selecting a man who must be something more than a good candidate, something more than a good speaker, more than a good politician, a good liberal, or a good conservative. We are selecting the head of the most powerful nation on earth, the man who literally will hold in his hands the powers of survival or destruction, of freedom or slavery, of success or failure for us all. We are selecting here today the man who for the next four years will be guiding, for good or evil, for better or worse, the destinies of our nation and, to a large extent, the destiny of the free world. I ask you, therefore, to think beyond the balloting of tonight and tomorrow — to think beyond even the election in November and to think instead of those four years that lie ahead, and of the crises that will come with them.”
Kennedy also took the required pot shots at the GOP, which entertained his audience. He wisely chose to attack the often-reviled Nixon (who had been his friend and attended his wedding) instead of the popular Eisenhower: “Our party will be up against two of the toughest, most skillful campaigners in its history — one who takes the high road, and one who takes the low.” According to Sorensen, this line “was picked up by subsequent speakers and became part of that year’s campaign vocabulary.”
Kennedy closed his speech with a tribute to Stevenson, whom he described as a man of “compassion” and “courage” who also happened to be “the top vote-getter in the Democratic Party.” “Fellow delegates,” he bellowed, “I give you the man from Libertyville — the next Democratic nominee and our next President of the United States — Adlai E. Stevenson.” The crowd roared. Jacqueline Kennedy, six weeks pregnant at the time, stood on her chair and waved a Stevenson placard from the convention floor.
Shortly after 11 p.m., Stevenson threw the convention into an uproar when, in a move unprecedented in modern times and apparently with no advance word to any of the possible contenders, he asked the delegates to choose his running mate for him. “The choice will be yours,” said the Illinois politician. “The profit will be the nation’s.” Stevenson wanted to highlight the differences between the two parties by showing that Democrats were the only true supporters of majoritarian rule. The decision also relieved him of the politically-risky burden of choosing a running mate. Kennedy and his energetic supporters instantly swung into action. Bobby held an impromptu meeting and began handing out assignments and lining up key supporters. JFK’s sister Eunice lobbied state delegations for support. Jack buttonholed Robert Wagner in the men’s room of the Blackstone Hotel sometime after midnight and proposed a deal: the candidate who came up short after the first ballot would throw his support to the other. The New York City mayor agreed. Overnight, Kennedy-for-Vice-President stickpins were manufactured, and they went on sale outside the convention hall.
Inside the arena, the real work got under way. After the first ballot, Estes Kefauver led with 483½ votes; Kennedy came in second with 304 votes; Al Gore earned 178 votes, while Robert Wagner and Hubert Humphrey finished with 162½ and 134½ votes respectively. On the second ballot, the race broke open. Southerners who were anxious to stop Kefauver — an advocate of civil rights — began throwing their support to Kennedy. Arkansas switched its 26 votes from Gore to Kennedy, and Delaware soon followed suit. True to his word, Wagner delivered 96½ of New York’s 98 votes to JFK, which sparked a spontaneous outburst of chanting on the convention floor: “We want Kennedy! We want Kennedy!”
Kennedy watched the drama unfold from the comfort of his hotel room. Sorensen later recalled the scene: “Our television set showed wild confusion on the convention floor and a climbing Kennedy total. But the Senator was as calm as ever. He bathed, then again reclined on the bed. Finally we moved, through a back exit, to a larger and more isolated room.”
Though it wasn’t recognized as such at the time, perhaps the most historically evocative moment came when Sen. Lyndon Johnson hollered on the convention floor, “Texas proudly casts its vote for the fighting Senator who wears the scars of battle, that fearless Senator, the next Vice President of the United States, John Kennedy of Massachusetts.” Johnson had come to Chicago with his eyes on the top prize. But when Stevenson secured the nomination instead, LBJ decided to play vice presidential kingmaker. He threw Texas’s 56 votes to Clement and then Gore and finally to Kennedy when it looked as if the Massachusetts senator had a decent shot at beating Kefauver, who was not one of Johnson’s Senate favorites. Johnson’s announcement triggered a burst of applause and activity; California gave Kennedy 14½ more votes; North Carolina contributed 17½; Kentucky switched its 30 votes from Gore to JFK. He was now leading Kefauver 618 to 551½. He needed 686½ votes to win the nomination. Back at the hotel, Sorensen offered his boss a congratulatory handshake. “Not yet,” said Kennedy. Even so, Kennedy was upbeat; he dressed, kept one eye on the TV, and discussed what sort of speech he would deliver if nominated. A cordon of cops arrived, ready to escort the senator to the convention center.
And then the momentum suddenly, almost mysteriously, shifted. Kennedy had soared too close to the sun.
Al Gore withdrew from the contest and asked his supporters to back Kefauver. Oklahomans, unhappy at the prospect of having to vote for a Catholic from an industrial state, happily complied. Missouri and Michigan also jumped on the Kefauver bandwagon. Pennsylvania added 74 votes to the Tennessee senator’s column, which encouraged the delegations from Iowa, Montana, California, Delaware, West Virginia, and Maine to adjust their votes. At the end of the second ballot, Kefauver secured the nomination with 755½ votes. Kennedy finished with a respectable 589. Knowing that he’d been beaten, he headed to the amphitheater to congratulate Kefauver.
Kennedy received a warm welcome as he took the stage. “Recognizing that this convention has selected a man who has campaigned in all parts of the country,” he said just after four o’clock, “I hope this convention will now make Estes Kefauver’s nomination unanimous.” As JFK started to leave the stage, Sam Rayburn called him back and handed him the chairman’s gavel. Kennedy raised it and said, “I move we suspend the rules and nominate Estes Kefauver by acclamation.” The crowd roared its approval. Kennedy’s magnanimous concession endeared him to Democrats. He had made just the right impression on the party faithful.
In private, JFK was hugely disappointed that he had lost. But in politics, losing well can sometimes be better than winning at the wrong time. As events would show, finishing second for the vice presidential nomination was the best thing that could have happened. If Kennedy had won the contest, he would have been blamed in part for Stevenson’s subsequent defeat. Inevitably, the press and pundits would have cited the Catholic issue. Instead, he received extensive, positive media coverage yet was held harmless for Stevenson’s November rout. The seeds of Kennedy’s White House bid had been sown.