- 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
I REMEMBER THAT , about 10:00 P.M. that Wednesday night, I was standing aside under the arch of one of the exit doors of the Sports Arena looking in on the convention floor. The approach of the inevitable creates a special kind of suspense; the strain of anticipation and resignation makes a crowd tingle. It is pleasant and scary. It is the appeal of theater, especially the circus and the ritual sports, like bullfighting. It was all there.
Behind me, in a protected parking lot just beyond the arena’s outside wall, was a restricted area, covered with fake grass and bordered by a low, white picket fence, where the Stevenson campaign had parked three white office trailers, side by side. Nearby were the Kennedy bungalow and trailer camps for the other contenders.
The first Stevenson trailer was a communications and control center for the platoon of radio-equipped Stevenson workers maneuvering among the delegates on the packed floor. Inside I could see the campaign’s two young social scientists, Victor DeGrazia and Dave Green of Chicago. They would be taking last-minute walkie-talkie inquiries about delegate politics, poring through their convention intelligence files, and reporting back to the Stevenson workers. Their two-way broadcasting system, using makeshift gear to solve the mobility problem endemic to convention-floor politicking, had been set up on a shoestring by David Garth of New York, a Stevenson campaign leader and television producer of sports programs.
The second Stevenson trailer was a delegates’ lounge, stocked with beer and soft drinks, bales of campaign literature, and a black-and-white television set. It was empty. Even the volunteer receptionists, called “Stevenson girls,” had slipped onto the floor to Be There.
Third was the Stevenson press-information trailer, abandoned now to piles of dated backgrounders and releases issued from the Stevenson campaign base at the Paramount Building on Hill Street at Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. The sign over the trailer’s door bore my name, too, as I had been press secretary for the Stevenson campaign for the past three weeks.
I had no more chores for the night. My last had been a few hours earlier when I processed, for several hundred reporters inside the convention hall, press-release copies of a speech by Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota placing Stevenson’s name in nomination.
Just two hours before, having climbed into the press gallery behind the rostrum and distributed my releases, I had seen and heard McCarthy launch his incendiary peroration. He was tall and broad-shouldered and spoke tipped back on his heels with his chin raised and both hands on the podium. He was about John Kennedy’s age and, like Kennedy, an Irish Catholic. Earlier, only half-joking I thought, he had said: “If they want an Irish Catholic, why don’t they take me instead of him? I’m twice the Democrat and three times the Catholic.” But that Wednesday evening there had been no laughs. He spoke hypnotically, his voice rich and sharp, yet soft around the edges, lilting: “And so I say to you Democrats here assembled: Do not turn away from this man. Do not reject this man. He has fought gallantly. He has fought courageously. He has fought honorably.
“In 1952 in the great battle. [For Democrats, Stevenson’s noble speeches in his first race against Eisenhower remained a never-to-be-forgotten affirmation of their party’s Roosevelt tradition.]
“In 1956 he fought bravely. [Facing a second loss to Eisenhower, Stevenson had called for a ban on testing hydrogen bombs, proposed a volunteer army to replace the military draft, and envisioned a new America.]
”… Do not reject this man who, his enemies said, spoke above the heads of the people, but they said it only because they didn’t want the people to listen. He spoke to the people. [Stevenson’s speeches leading up to the 1960 convention had concerned peacemaking through world law, accommodation with the Soviets, and admitting Red China to the United Nations.] He moved their minds and stirred their hearts, and this was what was objected to. Do not leave this prophet without honor in his own party. Do not reject this man.
“I submit to you a man who is not the favorite son of any one state. I submit to you the man who is the favorite son of fifty states…. This favorite son I submit to you: Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois.”
AND WITH THAT a volcanic demonstration erupted, unprecedented in the modern memory of the Democratic party, portentous because we still believed in 1960 that a single demonstration might change the outcome of a convention. Only twenty years before, in 1940, a gallery uprising for Wendell Willkie helped him win the Republican nomination. Besides, with live television beaming this particular spectacle into the homes and favorite saloons of most of the voters of America, how could the Democrats reject Stevenson and expect to win in November?