- 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
Moments later I learned that a suicidal young man on the roof ledge of the Biltmore Hotel was threatening to jump. En route to meet with Eugene McCarthy, I detoured across Pershing Square to see, frankly, whether he was one of ours (he was not). The cops rescued him forthwith, and the crowd cheered. I then found myself standing next to my friend Roger Tubby, who had been a White House press secretary in Harry Truman’s last days and was now a political aide in the Kennedy campaign.
“Well, Roger,” I said, “rumor has it that Jack’s decided to put Lyndon on the ticket as Vice-President, you believe that?”
A slope-shouldered, serious man who understood the politics of Northern liberals, Tubby paled and mopped his brow with a folded hanky. It struck me as awesome that he did not seem to be hearing my “rumor” for the first time. He laughed and then I laughed. “If it’s true,” I said, “let’s both go up there and jump off.”
“That’s a deal,” he said.
A Kennedy-Johnson ticket, of course, was already in the works.
WHEN I ARRIVED at the convention, the Stevenson demonstrators outside numbered about three thousand, a great crowd expanding by the minute. I marched with them once around the Sports Arena. Then I went inside to the Stevenson press trailer to wait for Eugene McCarthy. My job was to prepare a press release from an advance copy of his speech, which he was to drop off by midafternoon.
For years I have heard rumors that McCarthy, in the politics of 1960, had been a Johnson wolf in Stevenson sheep’s clothing. John Bartlow Martin, Stevenson’s biographer, speculated in 1977 that “perhaps it was not all pure loyalty” that motivated McCarthy to nominate Stevenson. He cites Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., as one source for the theory he discusses that McCarthy was personally ambitious: a Johnson man who sought to run as Vice-President on Johnson’s ticket, McCarthy spoke for Stevenson to stop Kennedy on Johnson’s behalf, if not behest. But Martin apparently did not solicit McCarthy’s version.
In New York not long ago, Schlesinger restated his “ambition” theory in a talk with me. Schlesinger claims McCarthy was part of Johnson’s strategy. “Johnson saw Stevenson as the only way to stop Kennedy,” he says. “Johnson figured that if Kennedy did not get a first ballot nomination, the delegates, sore at Stevenson, would go to Johnson and then Johnson would take McCarthy, a Northern Irish Catholic on the ticket. So that was why McCarthy got involved.” He also cites Hubert Humphrey, who “felt” that McCarthy had come to Los Angeles for Johnson. “McCarthy made the best speech,” he says. “A cynical man. If the strategy had worked, McCarthy would’ve got both the Stevenson votes and the Irish Catholic votes [for a Johnson-McCarthy ticket]…. The Kennedys had real apprehension that the Johnson strategy might work. ”
McCarthy, with whom I spoke recently in New York, remembered it differently: “Ambition had nothing to do with it,” McCarthy says. “I went to a Washington rally for Stevenson earlier in the year. I was committed to Adlai if he was going to run. I didn’t know until I got to Los Angeles that Adlai was even going to be nominated. I was also asked who I’d choose between Kennedy and Johnson, and I answered, ‘Johnson.’ There never was a ‘Stop Kennedy for Lyndon’ movement. When Arthur [Schlesinger, Jr.] said I did it for Lyndon, that’s sheer nonsense. And some people repeated that when I ran against Lyndon in 1968. There are no grounds whatsoever to say that I was doing it for Lyndon. None of us had Lyndon in mind. Everyone felt he was not possible. The only one who could’ve stopped Kennedy was Adlai.”
McCarthy recalls, too, that he had no illusions about the speech he was making to the convention that day. “I thought Adlai deserved the tribute,” he says. “You could count, though. The Kennedy people were more worried than I would have been. We knew we could not win. I went with Adlai to say good-bye.”
McCarthy’s version persuades me, even discounting my own partisanship. We feared Johnson, not as a contender, but as the leader of a narrow cause threatening our effort to deny Kennedy a first-ballot victory. Even George Reedy, later Johnson’s press secretary, has said that Johnson’s 1960 bid was only “half-hearted.” McCarthy’s preference for Johnson over Kennedy, like Kennedy’s own Johnson connection, may well have been rooted in ambition, but not in self-destruction.
The idea that a Johnson-McCarthy ticket could have emerged from that convention is hopelessly unrealistic; the theory that McCarthy thought it might is absurd. That Stevenson and his advisers, some of whom were in close touch with the Kennedy camp, would have been party to a Johnson strategy is farfetched. That, given the nomination, Johnson or Stevenson would have chosen anyone other than Kennedy as a running mate is inconceivable. And besides, why would any normal, red-blooded, television-conscious Democratic politician in 1960 need an ulterior motive to respond to a personal request for help from Adlai Stevenson?