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Adlai Arguments

May 2024
1min read

As a speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson in the spring of 1960, I particularly enjoyed Tom Morgan’s perceptive recollections of what you called on the cover “The Heartbreak Convention” (August/September issue). But I also feel impelled to add a few recollections of my own if only to emphasize that had the effort on behalf of Stevenson succeeded in July, the result would probably have been a heartbreak election in November.

Three weeks before the convention, I met with Kennedy and his wife at Ben Bradlee’s home in Washington. Having recently offered to make Stevenson Secretary of State in exchange for his support—and been rebuffed—Kennedy was understandably curious about “what Adlai was up to.” I told him Stevenson did not regard himself as part of a stop-Kennedy drive but simply wanted to remain available if the convention deadlocked with only Johnson and Symington as the alternatives. In that event I suggested that Walter Lippmann’s advocacy of a Stevenson-Kennedy ticket might make sense.

Kennedy shook his head. “I’m running for the Presidency, period,” he replied in a flat, hard voice.

Jacqueline was more vehement. “I will slash my wrists and write an oath in blood that Jack will never run for Vice-President!” she cried. “We’d let Adlai go down to defeat alone!”

She was very convincing.

So what would have happened had Stevenson’s noisy and nostalgic commandos managed to stampede the convention? Kennedy’s forces would have sat out the campaign, the Democratic party would have been perceived as anti-Catholic, and Stevenson would have been beaten once again, not this time by likable Ike but by Richard Nixon, a man he thoroughly detested. Talk about heartbreak!

But the outcome was a lot happier for us Democrats. There was no blood on the floor of the convention, Kennedy and Stevenson met soon after the nomination, and the old candidate agreed to make ten major speeches on behalf of the new candidate. He asked me to assemble some material in July, which I did before joining Kennedy’s campaign staff.

By September it was clear that Stevenson’s loyal legions (cultists, as some Kennedyites called them) were not yet fired up, and Stevenson’s tenspeech schedule ballooned to more than seventy-five over a period of six weeks in thirteen states. I accompanied him on most of these travels, along with Bill Blair and Bill Wirtz, his law partners, and you could tell that the crowds who turned out for him wanted to hear it from Adlai himself that Kennedy was okay.

In retrospect I think Stevenson’s active campaigning (which mobilized the liberals for Kennedy), along with Kennedy’s Texas speech to the Protestant clergy (which defused the Catholic issue), his phone call to Mrs. Martin Luther King (which crystallized the black vote), and the first debate (when many voters were able to compare him, favorably, with Nixon for the first time) were the factors that together produced his narrow margin of victory.

So while the July convention may have been emotionally heartbreaking to many, it nominated the one man who could unite the Democratic party and delay, at least for eight years, Nixon’s capture of the White House.

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