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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
Here now were more than two thousand unofficial Stevenson supporters suddenly pouring in from outside and flowing onto the floor, with perhaps another two thousand parading in the balcony. At first they seemed to dismay the convention’s 4,509 full- and half-vote delegates and their alternates, almost all of whom had intended to vote on the first ballot for someone else. But not for long. Ten minutes into the demonstration an all-girl brass band in handsome star-spangled uniforms appeared at the back of the hall, high-stepping into the fray. Then, as banners snaked along the aisles, waved from the balcony, fluttered from the rafters, a giant papier-maché “snowball” —made of petitions bearing more than a million signatures calling on the convention to “Draft Stevenson”— rolled out from behind the rostrum. It floated above the crowd as though lifted on an invisible wave of human enthusiasm. In truth it was volleyed by a team working for Harold “Doc” Humes of New York, a novelist and volunteer who had driven the paper ball from New York to Los Angeles, adding petitions and rallying Stevensonians along the way. It was the giant ball, I saw, that was turning dismay into delight. “Look, it’s Sputnik!” someone cried.
Madly for Adlai, individual delegates, and then whole delegations, joined in the demonstration. In the New York section, the elder statesman Herbert Lehman fought a younger and opposing delegate for their state’s stanchion, tore it free, and proudly flung himself into the maelstrom. Snake-dancing Californians undulated through neighboring delegations, hoping to attract the uncommitted like filings to a magnet. Before long, the stanchion of every state had been moved into the aisles and could be seen bobbing above the swirling human traffic.
By my watch, the demonstration lasted twenty-seven minutes. It might have gone on that much longer had not the convention chairman, Gov. LeRoy Collins of Florida, dimmed the lights and silenced the band to restore order. Even when it was over, it was not really over. Eleanor Roosevelt came on to second the Stevenson nomination and started another stampede that convulsed the convention for fifteen minutes more!
I had not joined in either demonstration. I watched both from the press gallery, if only to savor them more. They had provided the kind of excitement everyone working full-time with the Stevenson campaign had been dreaming of; what might not be possible at this convention after all?
Then, as any number of forgettable speakers rose to nominate the favorite sons of several states, I crossed the floor again. I wished the voting had begun immediately after the second Stevenson demonstration. The Kennedy, Johnson, and Symington floor managers and unofficial arm-twisters were hustling anxiously among the exhausted and strangely relieved delegates. They were checking commitments, plugging leaks, battening down the hatches. I bumped into Robert Kennedy; he acknowledged my “Draft Stevenson” button with an ice-cold stare.
To win, a candidate needed a majority of 1,520 delegate votes; exactly 761 was the number. In grim truth Kennedy was a probable winner on the first ballot. Johnson had perhaps 400 votes, give or take 10. Symington might claim another 100, no more, and the same total might go to Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota (defeated by Kennedy in the spring primaries) and such favorite sons as Gov. Robert Meyner of New Jersey. Stevenson, at best, could hope for 80 votes, and that was stretching it. Whatever Kennedy’s total, it looked like more than 761.
Then what chance did Stevenson have? Only that those mighty, last-minute crashing waves of emotion had swept away the Kennedy majority and would somehow prevent any candidate from reaching a majority on the first ballot. Anything could happen after that, even a transformation of Adlai madness into an irresistible tide of support. And so our floor workers kept fighting, too, moving from buttonhole to buttonhole, talking miracle.
A little after ten o’clock Chairman Collins struck the gavel a few times and ordered the general bedlam to cease. The sergeant at arms would clear the aisles; the secretary would call the roll. The television nation took a deep breath. The radio world moved closer to its set.
Alabama! Alabama voted, followed by Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas … and then on to California. No state had surprised me, but I realized I could not keep up with the count in the remote doorway where I had been standing. So I returned to the empty Stevenson delegates’ trailer, turned on the television, opened a beer, and picked up the count around about Idaho. I took out my notebook.
IN A FEW DAYS , at the end of my month’s assignment as campaign press secretary, I would be returning to my workaday life as a journalist, based in New York and writing free-lance for magazines. An editor of Look magazine and a mentor of mine, William Attwood, on leave to write speeches for Stevenson, had recommended me for the press job. When I first arrived in Los Angeles, late in June, the manager of the Stevenson headquarters, Tedson Meyers, paid my full salary in advance; he was a legal counsel to the American Broadcasting Company and also on leave. I received six hundred dollars in cash which, as it turned out, was about half the money I would spend on my plane fare, hotel bills, meals, rented car, and living expenses. I had become not only a Stevenson volunteer but a contributor. So I started keeping notes on the campaign against the slim chance that I might cover my losses with a magazine piece about how Stevenson had won it. Like my hero, I was a practical idealist.