The Kennedy Conventions, Parts 2 and 3

JFK holds off LBJ in 1960, and then looms over his successor’s convention four years later


Dear readers: This is the second and third part of a three-part series on the 1956, 1960, and 1964 Democratic National Conventions, and John F. Kennedy’s role at each. Click here to read part one.

The Editors

Part II: Jack Kennedy’s 1960 Convention Triumph

In 2016, some delegates in both parties have hoped the conventions might return to a bygone era, when they were not cut-and-dried, when delegates could revolt and pull surprises and upset frontrunners. There were plenty of Democrats in 1960 who prayed for just such an outcome. John F. Kennedy had won the primaries and run an exceptionally well-organized campaign — but he was a mere 43 years old, he was Roman Catholic in a heavily Protestant nation, and many party elders, including former President Harry Truman and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, were open in their opposition.

Nonetheless, by the summer of 1960, most party insiders believed the Kennedy nomination was a fait accompli. JFK arrived in Los Angeles for the Democratic convention brimming with confidence. He had already chosen his Washington headquarters for the general election and determined his strategy for the fall. His challengers were desperate to stop his nomination.

Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson’s supporters told the press that Kennedy had Addison’s disease and depended on cortisone treatments to stay alive. Robert Kennedy denied the charge, saying that Jack “does not now nor has he ever had an ailment described classically as Addison’s disease.” Bobby was not truthful, and neither were Drs. Eugene Cohen and Janet Travell when they published a report in June describing JFK’s health as “excellent” and his “vitality, endurance and resistance to infection” as “above average.” In reality, Kennedy had nagging health problems, including ulcers, colitis, and severe back pain as well as Addison’s disease. Travell would later discover that Kennedy’s left leg was three-quarters of an inch shorter than his right leg, a defect that had worsened his back pain for years and would force him to wear special shoes during his presidency. John Connally, one of LBJ’s strongest supporters and a fellow Texan, said that he would be delighted “to submit Senator Johnson’s medical record, since his recovery from a 1955 heart attack, and have it compared with that of Senator Kennedy and any other contenders.” The Kennedy campaign refused to take the bait and the controversy was soon lost in the excitement of the convention.

JFK arrived in Los Angeles with 600 delegate votes, 161 short of what he needed to secure the nomination. Although confident of victory, Kennedy refused to take anything for granted. He knew that Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri controlled between 100 and 150 delegates, two-time nominee Adlai Stevenson had somewhere around 50, and the Kansas and Iowa delegations had pledged their 52 votes to their favorite-son candidates, Govs. George Docking and Hershel Loveless.

Kennedy understood that Lyndon Johnson posed the greatest threat to his nomination; even though the Texas senator had waited until the last minute to declare his candidacy — less than a week before the convention — LBJ had already lined up close to 500 votes. Five states were still up for grabs: Pennsylvania, California, New Jersey, Illinois, and Minnesota.

On Monday, July 11, the opening day of the convention, JFK zipped between meetings in a white Cadillac that had a rare car telephone. At each stop, he glad-handed delegates and fielded questions from journalists. Meanwhile, at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, delegates had just settled in for a round of hum-drum party speeches when a huge commotion erupted outside — hundreds of men, women, and children were marching back and forth in front of the arena, waving signs and shouting “We want Stevenson! We want Stevenson!” The demonstration encouraged the California delegation — which previously had been leaning toward JFK — to split its vote the next day between Kennedy and Stevenson.

At the same time, Johnson kept up the pressure on the Kennedy camp, secretly encouraging his supporters to make hay out of the family’s religion and accusing Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., of having harbored pro-Nazi sympathies in the 1930s. Johnson also challenged the young senator to a debate in the week before the convention with their home Texas and Massachusetts delegations as the audience. Kennedy accepted, and confident of his forthcoming convention majority, all but ignored the brickbats Johnson hurled at him. Kennedy even said he was “strongly in support” of Johnson…for Senate majority leader.

Unknown to Johnson or almost anyone else, Kennedy was seriously considering the Texan for the vice presidential nomination. On the opening day of the convention, in a highly unusual intervention by journalists, the newspaper columnist Joseph Alsop and Philip Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, stopped by Kennedy’s suite to urge him to select Johnson as his running mate. Having talked to friends of Johnson, they assured JFK that Johnson would accept the vice presidential nomination if it were offered to him. Kennedy tipped his hand a bit when he readily agreed with their arguments.

On Wednesday, the excitement of the convention reached a fever pitch when Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota put Adlai Stevenson’s name into nomination. “Do not reject this man who has made us all proud to be called Democrats,” proclaimed McCarthy. “Do not leave this prophet without honor in his own party.” Stevenson’s supporters marched through the hall singing, clapping, and chanting, “We want Stevenson! We want Stevenson!” Watching the scene from the comfort of a posh Beverly Hills estate, JFK told his father not to worry because, “Stevenson has everything but delegates.” The Kennedy high command had made a science of delegate counting and was supremely confident. A bit later, Kennedy won the nomination on the first ballot with the support of 763 delegates — precisely two more votes than he needed.

The decision on the running mate was next. Kennedy’s short list included Symington, Johnson, Humphrey, Minnesota Governor Orville Freeman, and Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington state. Kennedy knew that having LBJ on the ticket would help him greatly in the South and that, if he were elected, Johnson’s magnificent legislative skills might assist him in enacting his program. The possibility of taking the second spot was broached with LBJ, and sure enough, he was receptive.

LBJ aide Bill Moyers (later a longtime PBS fixture) was with Johnson the day JFK offered him the vice presidency, sleeping in the bathroom of the Johnsons’ hotel suite when he heard the phone ring. “I thought I would get to the phone first in the hotel room,” he recalls, “but Lady Bird picked it up. And I heard her as I came in the door saying ‘Lyndon, it’s Jack . . . Senator Kennedy.’ LBJ woke up, listened to the voice, hung up and said, ‘He wants to come see me.’ And Lady Bird said, ‘I hope you won’t do it.’” Moyers opened the door for Kennedy when he arrived a short time later, but he retreated to his assigned bathroom while the two politicians talked. Although he could not hear anything that was said, Moyers is convinced that JFK knew exactly what he was doing and had no qualms about choosing Johnson as a running mate. “When [Kennedy] left that room, I was sure that he had communicated to Johnson that he really wanted him to run, and that LBJ was going to do it.”

Johnson thought his nomination was a done deal as word spread. Then JFK had second thoughts the very same day: What if his choice, a conservative Southerner, caused a split in the party? RFK and aides Kenny O’Donnell and Ralph Dungan protested the possible choice. In order to line up liberal votes, they had promised to keep LBJ off the ticket. JFK also got an earful from labor leaders, who were angry with Johnson for supporting legislation they considered harmful to the union cause.

Kennedy dispatched Bobby to warn Johnson about the brewing revolt inside the party. Bobby offered Johnson the party chairmanship as an alternative, but LBJ, blinded by tears, steadfastly refused. He wanted the vice presidency; Johnson was willing to give up real power in the Senate in order to “get in line” for the presidency. “Well, then that’s fine,” replied an unhappy Bobby. “He wants you to be vice president if you want to be vice president” — not exactly the enthusiastic embrace a prospective ticket-mate usually gets. Johnson never forgave Bobby for trying to bump him off the ticket, and this episode was apparently the beginning of their long mutual loathing.

Whatever the internal turmoil behind Johnson’s selection as the vice presidential nominee, it turned out to be a big key to a close victory in the fall. A Northern Yankee, Kennedy could not have been elected without Southern electoral votes that Johnson added in Texas and probably other closely contested states below the Mason-Dixon Line. The implications of JFK’s decision would reverberate well beyond the election, of course. American history would have taken a different path, for good or ill, if one of the other possibilities had joined the ticket. Either Richard Nixon would have become president eight years before he actually did, or a Democratic president very unlike LBJ would have succeeded an assassinated Kennedy (assuming the murder would still have occurred). This alternate universe is fascinating to contemplate but unknowable.

The world we do know proceeded from Johnson’s selection to JFK’s acceptance speech at the convention. At Bobby Kennedy’s suggestion, the Los Angeles Coliseum was chosen as the site of the address instead of the convention hall, since the 100,000-seat stadium could hold more people and would inject additional excitement into the closing hours. RFK was sold on the idea by a 29-year-old Los Angeles councilwoman, Rosalind Wyman, who had been instrumental in bringing the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles. When the younger Kennedy expressed concerns about filling the stadium, Wyman suggested that they close off half the structure, and Bobby agreed. As campaign manager, RFK always looked for ways to enhance his brother’s image, and the coliseum speech was novel. What Bobby did not consider were the security implications. By selecting an open-air facility in front of thousands of unscreened people, Sen. Kennedy would be vulnerable to attack by anyone who secured a ticket. The campaign made JFK even more vulnerable by having the candidate ride through the stadium in an open convertible. This was a very different era, when security concerns were secondary to political needs, and campaigns rarely considered “the unthinkable.”

Fortunately, the address proceeded without incident. JFK impressed the stadium crowd as well as a much larger audience watching on TV with a dynamic presentation that provided the label for his eventual administration, the New Frontier:

“For the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won — and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960s — a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils — a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats. Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom promised our nation a new political and economic framework. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal promised security and succor to those in need. But the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises — it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not to their pocketbook — it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.”

The Gallup Poll’s trial heat had been tied leading up to the convention. A strong performance in Los Angeles gave Kennedy a slim 50% to 46% edge over Nixon. It didn’t last, and Nixon went up by several points after his August convention. The polling see-saw continued all the way to the photo-finish in JFK’s favor on Election Day in November. Almost anything, even at the convention, could have made the tiny difference between victory and defeat.

Part III: Robert Kennedy’s 1964 Tribute to His Slain Brother

The formal business of the ’64 Democratic National Convention was nominating President Lyndon Johnson and his choice for vice president, Sen. Hubert Humphrey. The emotional highlight, though, would be memorializing John F. Kennedy, and this was not an entirely welcome prospect for LBJ. For weeks memos had streamed back and forth in the Johnson White House about how to handle the Kennedys in Atlantic City. In LBJ’s view, this was his convention, his opportunity to emerge fully from John Kennedy’s shadow. But to the Kennedys, and a large portion of Democrats and the public, it was impossible to forget that this would have been JFK’s moment of triumph, where he would have been launched toward a second term.

A 20-minute film was commissioned to salute JFK. It was, in the words of Johnson presidential assistant Douglass Cater, a “tearjerker,” utilizing Mrs. Kennedy’s allusion to Camelot as its theme. “Camelot was a highly schmaltzy musical about a semi-mythical kingdom,” wrote Cater to LBJ press secretary Bill Moyers. “I have quite mixed feelings about its propriety at a convention,” he huffed.  Cater’s real concern became apparent:

“Certainly, the delegates will be left weeping. It would be less dramatic but probably less risky to show that film sequence without the music. I have vague unrest about engaging in such an emotional bender just before the Johnson acceptance speech.”

At first the film had been scheduled for showing on the convention’s first night. But Johnson and some of his aides worried that it could stampede the delegates into nominating Bobby Kennedy for vice president, regardless of Johnson’s preference. This was never a very likely prospect, but such was the wariness about RFK and the Kennedy family’s intentions. LBJ and RFK had long nurtured a hatred for one another that was burned into their souls; both could be extraordinarily petty, and they never missed an opportunity to assume the worst about one another. Even though he knew he would be miserable in the position, Kennedy wanted the vice presidency as a vehicle to eventually restore the White House to his family. Johnson was more determined to ensure that RFK didn’t get it. During his VP search, the president had ruled out “all sitting members of my Cabinet” because he needed them to serve, for continuity’s sake, in their current positions. This was a thinly veiled way of eliminating RFK, and everyone understood that. (For more, read Larry Tye’s superb new book from Random House, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon.)

LBJ’s convention solution was shrewd: the JFK film would be delayed until the final evening when the Johnson-Humphrey ticket was already set. Bobby Kennedy could tug at the delegates’ heartstrings all he wanted, and nothing would come of it.

The Johnson entourage was right about one thing. The emotional impact of this film, and its introduction by Robert Kennedy, was overwhelming. When RFK appeared, the delegates launched a spontaneous, 22-minute standing ovation, and they simply refused to let him start speaking. They wanted the moment to last; they wanted him to know how they felt. RFK’s short oration finished with a passage from “Romeo and Juliet” that some read, perhaps over-read, as a contrast between JFK (the heavenly night stars) and LBJ (the garish sun):

“. . . when he shall die

Take him and cut him out in little stars

And he will make the face of heav’n so fine

That all the world will be in love with the Night

And pay no worship to the garish Sun.”

Virtually the entire convention hall was crying, and millions at home as well. The film recounted JFK’s achievements, but the personal glimpses — such as Kennedy teaching John Jr. to tickle his chin with a buttercup — were most affecting, and hard to watch. Meanwhile, RFK had left the stage and gone out to sit on a staircase. Inconsolable, he broke down in tears. No one knew better what that evening would have meant had President Kennedy not gone to Texas.