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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
I had been a Stevenson man from very far back. He had served as governor of Illinois in Springfield, where I was born and had been raised a Roosevelt Democrat. At age twenty-two, in 1948, I cast my first vote ever for Stevenson. Working nights during the campaigns of 1952 and 1956 in New York, I wrote campaign pamphlets for Volunteers for Stevenson. In the spring of 1956, wearing my journalist’s hat for Look , I covered two weeks of Stevenson’s preconvention campaign. Later he asked me to work with him on a post-campaign article for Look entitled “Why I Raised the H-Bomb Issue.”
He had impressed me as a self-possessed man, but diffident to a fault, proud of his stature and maddeningly precise. He was a Henry James character in a Joseph Heller world.
At heart, though, he seemed to me to be a man of action. Once past his private hang-ups, he surely loved the attack on public issues, the shield of reason in one hand, the bow of language in the other, and a quiver full of gags, puns, and aphorisms slung across his back. And when he finally delivered a speech he had written and rewritten, he made you feel chosen. More effectively than any politician of that time, for me, he articulated a desire for responsibility-without-overreaching to match the power of the United States after World War II. The merits of his positions entitled him to his idiosyncrasies.
And that is why I was drawn to the Stevenson campaign in 1960. As Sen. Richard Neuberger of Oregon had said, “If Stevenson does not go to the White House, millions of his fellow Americans will feel they have been robbed of their opportunity to live in a time of greatness. ” I was certainly one of those, a true believer, as were many others.
IT WAS ALMOST eleven, Wednesday night. The convention voting had passed halfway through the roll of states, with Kennedy leading. Then, in response to a challenge, the chairman approved a call for the polling of a delegation; that guaranteed ten minutes of boredom for the great viewing audience. In a twinkling my television picture cut away “live” from the floor to a Fellini night scene outside the Sports Arena. The Madly for Adlai uprising was still going on outside!
Those unofficial Stevenson supporters who had marched earlier inside the convention hall were milling about with perhaps a thousand more who had maintained a vigil against the outer walls. The camera slowly panned across their crude signs and printed placards reading JUST ONE MORE TIME, ADLAI; STEVENSON IS THE THINKING MAN’S CANDIDATE; FOR ADLAI, MADLIER THAN EVER , and the mikes picked up the high-pitched shouts, “We want Stevenson!”
It was Jericho revisited, with live television for a trumpet.
I see now that these thousands of Stevenson demonstrators, some of whom had been parading around the Sports Arena for the three days since the opening of the convention, were in the vanguard of a new political style for America. That their subject was Stevenson, a figure whose future was probably behind him, led most contemporary observers to skip over the signal they were giving about the future of political activism in the United States.
The very essence of the Stevenson movement was about something new in participatory politics, the television audience, and televised citizen action. The struggle of media masses against the system was moving center stage in our political culture.
THE STEVENSON phenomenon of 1960 would play back into the civil rights movement that was to peak in a few years. It would echo in the coming antiwar movement, which would literally be burned out by television. And perhaps most significantly, it would be reprised at the future’s quadrennial Democratic national conventions as other outsiders struggled to become insiders through the powerful combination of mass and media. Not only did Stevensonians give a hopeful start to the sixties there in Los Angeles, but they also influenced a long, slow reformation of the Democratic party by blacks (1964), youth (1968), peaceniks (1972), women (1976), Kennedyites (1980), and by blacks again, and Hispanics and gays as well (1984).
Who were the members of this vanguard in real life? My old notes tell me they were mostly young, passionate but still orderly; or as Norman Mailer reported, they were the “defeated, idealistic, innocent, alienated, outside and Beat” of America. The television tended to focus on boys with beards and girls with ponytails; a singularly pregnant young woman carrying the sign STEVENSON IS THE MAN received special attention; bystanders sniffed at “beatniks” and “zanies.” But on the whole, after having spent some time among them, I thought they included (if unevenly) a cross section of our national life, not just middle-class, college-educated Californians but citizens of all classes, high and low; generations, old and new; and races, black and white and brown. They seemed a good chunk of America, hailing from everywhere. They wanted Stevenson because he had been talking about the “unfinished business” of America in civil liberties and civil rights, in health care, education, and the concerns of the elderly, and in foreign relations.