- 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
Also in New York during that winter and spring before the convention, another group was acting independently on its belief that America needed Stevenson. Headed by Tedson Meyers and David Garth, it raised its own money with a full-page “Draft Stevenson” ad in The New York Times and began contacting potential Stevenson volunteers across the country. Impressed, Monroney and Hemenway brought Meyers and Garth into the campaign. Together with Doyle, Finney, and Sharon, they formed the operational core of Stevenson’s preconvention apparatus.
BY MID-JUNE the result of all this effort was the semblance of a national organization working to coordinate the activities of Stevensonians all over the country. Eleanor Roosevelt had blessed it. Monroney and Doyle chaired it. They called it the Stevenson Campaign Committee, leaving off the word draft , I assumed, in the hope that Stevenson would declare himself at any moment.
As July approached, Monroney and Doyle set up shop in Los Angeles itself. With money from Adlai’s fat cats and nationwide fund-raising among small contributors, even schoolchildren, they flew Meyers and Garth to the Coast to locate a Stevenson headquarters and scout the convention layout at the Sports Arena. Finney and Sharon soon followed to work on delegate intelligence and national committee politics.
The Democratic national committee chairman, Paul Butler, ruled that the Stevenson committee, representing an avowed “noncandidate,” had no right to offices at the party’s Biltmore Hotel convention headquarters or to tickets for the Sports Arena convention-hall galleries. Later relenting, Butler assigned the Stevensonians two small rooms on the hotel’s mezzanine, remote from the spacious offices and delegate lounges assigned to the Kennedy, Johnson, and Symington committees. The press dubbed the Stevenson space “Butler’s pantry,” and scored one for our side. Butler also allocated seventy-five seats per convention session for Stevenson spectators; the gallery held seats for more than five thousand.
Unfazed, Meyers rented an abandoned five-story building on Hill Street, facing what was then the sleazy side of Pershing Square Park. The new headquarters was only a minute from the Biltmore convention press facilities; some of the 4,750 media representatives assigned to the convention would be able to find us, and we could find them. I arrived at the end of June to set up a press office. The convention was scheduled to open on Monday, July 11, and last until Friday, July 15. The Stevenson headquarters had already started humming, but without an active candidate the press was disbelieving. How could we be serious if Stevenson was not really running? That was the question. Our answer was a series of optimistic statements by our campaign cochairman, James Doyle, a slim, dark-haired, taciturn man, age forty-five, who had the gift of sincerity. He tried, and failed, to speak for Stevenson.
At one press conference, less than a week before opening night, Monday, July 11, a reporter testily asked, “Why hasn’t Stevenson declared himself—is he shy?”
“Governor Stevenson is not shy,” Doyle replied. “He has taken the only proper and sensible attitude in this situation. He has been the nominee of the party twice. It is inappropriate that he should seek the nomination a third time.” The emphasis was on the word seek .
It was understandable when William Lawrence, a skeptical New York Times reporter, came up to me after Doyle’s statement and said, “There was a shot heard almost nowhere.” He gave me a disgusted look.
Press secretaries are least liked by reporters when they lie, but next least when they call a press conference to say nothing the reporters have not heard before.
Still, the press was wrong about the Stevenson campaign. Our news was not inside the Biltmore but outside where the Stevenson demonstrators had begun to arrive and were making themselves seen and heard on television.
It seemed to me that most of the reporters had themselves arrived feeling supremely confident that Kennedy had already foreclosed on the nomination. As time passed, however, the influence of the demonstrators would be felt within the various delegations and in the atmosphere of the political city. Some reporters would begin to hedge. A consensus would begin to develop that the alternative to Kennedy, if there could be one, would not be Johnson or Symington, but Stevenson; that Kennedy had to win on one or two ballots or not at all; and that a third nomination for Stevenson, which had been beneath consideration in June, was not unthinkable as the convention neared. In a postconvention column, Douglass Cater wrote: “Up to the very last, there was a widespread feeling that the Kennedy bandwagon was of a fairly fragile variety. Like some kind of a jet-propelled aircraft, it had to keep moving to keep from crashing.”
That reflected the feeling of many of us who wished, most of all, that Stevenson had not made the mistake of running against Eisenhower in 1956. His defeat then surely prompted young Kennedy to try for the nomination in 1960 and, of course, labeled Stevenson himself as a two-time loser. Had Stevenson let the inevitable 1956 defeat go to another Democratic contender (Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee perhaps), he would have been ideally positioned to win the nomination in 1960, probably without serious opposition from Kennedy or anyone else.