Sabato's Crystal Ball

Kennedy’s Three Conventions, Part 1

Coming up second in the 1956 veepstakes

Larry J. Sabato, Director, UVA Center for Politics July 27th, 2016

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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.