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The Has-been

March 2023
2min read

It was almost like the week of the Miss America Pageant: celebrities everywhere, stars of the Democratic party leading processions up and down the famed Boardwalk, their entourages surrounding them, an excited press walking backward, focusing cameras and making notes.

Here came Hubert Humphrey, the leading contender for the vice-presidential nomination to run with the anointed Lyndon Johnson in November (1964) following his coronation in the vast Convention Hall, where Miss America is crowned each fall. A huge group of admirers, politicians, and the media crowded Senator Humphrey as he strode the venerable boards, heedless of the hot New Jersey summer sun and of the gigantic billboard above his head that advised, “Goldwater: In your heart, you know he’s right!” Under that legend, a strip sign placed by the Democrats added, “Yes, far right!”

An immense portrait of the man from Minnesota was being hauled into place in Convention Hall, under canvas, to be unveiled that evening when the delegates were told that their beloved Hubert was the choice of the President and therefore of the convention.

I was a young radio reporter for a small station in Trenton at that time. Like most members of the media, I was scurrying around looking for something interesting to report. Everything was tightly managed. The convention was cut-and-dried, and its outcome no great secret, even though national political conventions still actually nominated presidential candidates and their running mates.

In nearby Margate City, Perle Mesta, “the hostess with the mostest,” was entertaining Lady Bird, Lynda, and Luci Johnson. Television cameras intruded through nearly every window of her waterfront mansion, so there could be little activity inside that was strictly private, but things livened up a bit when the sixteen-year-old Luci decided to go swimming in the ocean. Unfortunately for the Secret Service agents who had to follow her every move, she waded out waist deep while fully clothed in a light blouse and skirt. Her guards, all of them wearing business suits, valiantly splashed after her.

I made my way back to the basement corridor of one of the big hotels on the Boardwalk, hoping to find a dignitary to interview. Major politicians were known to enter the hotel from their limousines by way of this corridor. Bright television lights were set up in front of the elevators, ready should a celebrity of rank appear and be willing to pause for a quickie interview by the networks. Carrying my heavy battery-operated reel-to-reel tape recorder, I walked into the space leading to the elevators and was completely startled when the lights suddenly went on. At the same moment I crashed head-on into a man I hadn’t seen approaching from the opposite direction. He was much taller than I, and as I looked up to apologize, I was horrified to see the scowling face of a thoroughly annoyed Adlai Stevenson. My apology was on the profuse side, but Mr. Stevenson did not acknowledge it in any way. Instead he turned on his heel, brushed past two TV-reporter types who attempted to stop him, and stared impassively at us as the elevator doors silently closed.

At first I was offended at what I considered his haughtiness in refusing my apology. After all, I was genuinely sorry and quite embarrassed. But on reflection I believed I understood. Here he was in this bleak hotel corridor. Alone. No entourage. No cheering crowds. No sycophants or hangers-on. No real press. Time and circumstances had passed him by.

My apology was on the profuse side, but Adlai Stevenson did not acknowledge it. Instead he turned on his heel.

Eight years earlier he had had it all. He had been the nominee of his party for President of the United States for the second time in a row. Now all that was gone, and it was never coming back. It was sad. And it was Life.

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