- Historic Sites
Madly For Adlai
The masses and the media made waves for the Stevenson campaign of 1960 and almost upset John F. Kennedy’s bid for the Democratic nomination. The waves have been felt ever since.
August/september 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 5
THERE WERE TWO Stevenson speakers, Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Monroney. Kennedy had trounced Humphrey in the West Virginia primary. Backers of Stevenson had contributed to Humphrey’s campaign; but Kennedy, if elected, could help Humphrey get reelected to the Senate from Minnesota. It took some courage for the wounded Humphrey to back Stevenson. As he stood to speak, the caucus responded as though he were a bloodied gladiator rising from the sand. Overcome, Humphrey burst into tears and was unable to speak more than a few garbled words. (Next morning he endorsed Stevenson.)
Monroney followed with a fighting oration, disdainful of Kennedy’s claim on the nomination and filled with gambling images. The delegates must, he said, “take the long chance.” In the midst of a standing ovation, he brought in Stevenson from a side door, and the caucus, swept by a great rush of cheers, seemed to levitate.
Stevenson’s performance proved that he was running, but evidently not on all cylinders. He spoke briefly. He was less eloquent than usual. He lectured on John Foster Dulles, who was not the fish he had been expected to fry. Still, his presence was vintage Stevenson, as ever the dauntless, cheerful, roly-poly man, with a bent nose and Lincolnesque eyes. Just when I thought he was warming up, he thanked one and all and stopped. The delegates had wanted more. But they got on their feet—some stood on their chairs—and left no doubt by their applause that they were not going to Kennedy. They just did not levitate again. If Stevenson’s little talk had not hit a home run, it still had been a very long ball. And while the loving roar filled the room, Schlesinger wept in the back. Whether in regret or remorse, I could not know.
At the Biltmore convention press center, as well as at Stevenson headquarters, excitement bubbled all day Tuesday over the signs that Stevenson was in the race, that he had visited the Minnesota and New York delegations, that he was unlocking delegations previously locked up for others, and that he was on his way that very afternoon to meet Mrs. Roosevelt at the Biltmore Bowl, a large arena in the hotel basement wired and lit for press conferences.
Perhaps three hundred reporters, television crewmen, and Stevenson supporters had packed into the Bowl by the time Stevenson arrived. He was late. Again Mrs. Roosevelt spoke of him to him in almost elegiac terms. Stevenson supporters, many from our office across the park, momentarily turned the press conference into a rally. They waved signs and chanted, “We want Stevenson.”
When Stevenson faced the massed microphones, the Bowl was ready for a ringing declaration of his reasons for becoming an avowed candidate at long last. But Stevenson was not ready, nor was I surprised. In a few hours, as an Illinois delegate, he intended unannounced to take his seat on the convention floor. If he declared himself an active contender at this press conference, then he could not go to the convention.
I had warned a number of key reporters during the day to anticipate no more than a repetition of Stevenson’s “I am their candidate” position. What had changed once again, I argued, was the situation. Since the Stevensonians had become a significant force at the convention as of Monday night at the Sports Arena, the question of noncandidacy need no longer be asked; demonstrators in Pershing Square, in the Biltmore lobby, at the Sheraton West, and again since noon outside the convention underscored my point: Stevenson was running for the nomination his way. “You sound like a fanatic,” a reporter said to me.
But most journalists to whom I was talking agreed; there were too many signs of seeming weakness in the Kennedy ranks. They even perceived Stevenson gaining, if not in delegate numbers, then in influence, in contingency support for a deadlock and thereafter. For them, Stevenson’s press conference merely confirmed that he was no longer a noncandidate.
At the Biltmore Bowl, then, Stevenson had spoken briefly, praised Mrs. Roosevelt, thanked his supporters, parried some questions, and left with Monroney, accompanied by a few cheers. Several reporters noted that the press conference had enormously disappointed the Stevensonian claque. But the news was that the man had met the press like a real candidate.
Tuesday night at the Sports Arena, it was not hard to get tickets for spectators’ seats in the balcony. The attractions of Los Angeles interested many families and friends of the delegates more than the gallery view for platform planks and a series of window-dressing speeches. So hundreds (but not thousands) of Stevenson demonstrators, many of them simply tired of marching all Tuesday afternoon, filled an empty section upstairs and settled down to watch the show; only in that sense did they “pack” the galleries, which were not full in any case. I underscore this to foreshadow the momentous greeting waiting for Stevenson at the hall. The delegates themselves, rather than “packed” galleries, as some reporters would later allege, would lead the convention in saying, “Hello, Adlai!”
As Chairman Collins was speaking, Stevenson arrived with his friend and supporter Marietta Tree. Garth and Sharon met them at the VIP entrance, and they waited in the corridor by a door to the hall. Mrs. Tree borrowed a delegate’s badge and went inside. A crush of latecomers, by chance, blocked the entrance, so that the next speaker already had ascended to the rostrum when, without plan, prior announcement, or prepared remarks, Stevenson walked onto the floor with Garth and Sharon.