THE BLOG

The Last Great Convention

09/27/2008 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Tears of nostalgia filled my eyes Monday evening, watching Caroline and Ted Kennedy open the Democratic National Convention in Denver. It reminded me of a reporting assignment I had at the so-called Kennedy Convention that was convened in Los Angeles 48 years ago.

The setting was concentrated in the city's Sports Arena that seated no more than 12 thousand people. But it turned out to be the last large gathering of party bosses. It wasn't like the old smoke-filled room but it did have some of the party's most powerful figures, trying to exert their fading influence on the delegates. Mayor Richard Daley and Jake Arvey of Chicago, David Lawrence and Bill Green from Pennsylvania, Carmine de Sapio of New York and John Bailey of Connecticut, all were there.

But the outcome would have little to do with their influence. The nomination of the junior senator from Massachusetts was in the bag.After rolling up primary victories from West Virginia to Wisconsin, John F. Kennedy was destined to be the Democratic candidate for president. Some liberal stalwarts were holding out hope that Adlai Stevenson, already a two-time loser against Dwight Eisenhower, would willingly put himself forward as a candidate for the third time. But the former governor of Illinois was reluctant.

I was standing alongside Kennedy and his gorgeous wife, Jacqueline, as they climbed the stairs leading into the Biltmore Hotel lobby. They were greeted like rock stars by Democratic party volunteers once their eyes lit on the Kennedy couple.

The following day, the focus was on the Sports Arena floor. Stevenson was physically terrified of large crowds and for a few moments it did seem as if some momentum for him was mounting that might have stopped the Kennedy nomination. But then one other person entered the convention, stealing Stevenson's thunder. Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of the country's four-term president, took her place in the balcony, truly igniting an incomparable crescendo of cheers, applause and screaming that shook the walls of the arena.

I had joined NBC News in early 1960 after eight years as an Associated Press correspondent and was promptly assigned to canvas the 11 Western and Rocky Mountain states in advance of the convention. I interviewed innumerable Democratic party officials and after two tours through the region was convinced that the junior senator from the state of Washington, Henry (Scoop) Jackson, was one of Kennedy's likely choices as a running mate if his nomination was ratified by the convention. Jackson offered the ticket regional balance with candidates from the east and west.

That decision was to be shaped, not inside the convention arena, but on the eighth floor of the Biltmore where Kennedy and his principal advisors were headquartered; an area that was considered off limits to the press.

As a first ballot nomination seemed to be within sight, the convention roll call summoned the state of Wyoming with its 15 votes. The delegates were split, 8-8, half in favor of Kennedy and the other half going for Stuart Symington of Missouri. Bobby Kennedy was standing alongside me when he barked out at the Wyoming state chairman, Tracy McCracken, "Now's the time, Tracy, it's now or never!" McCracken called a caucus of the delegation, then announced "Wyoming casts all 15 votes for the next President of the United States!" That sealed the deal for JFK.

The following day, shocking news reverberated across the convention floor as I was interviewing two stalwarts of the Democrats' liberal wing, Governor G. Mennen Williams and Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers. Lyndon Johnson was en route to Kennedy's suite and the rumor was that he would be asked to join JFK as his vice presidential running mate. Williams and Reuther, no friends of Johnson, were both shocked and speechless.

I ran toward the Texas delegation and collared the House Speaker, Sam Rayburn, who was Johnson's closest confidante in Congress. "Was it true," I yelled at Rayburn, trying to overcome the Convention noise. "Nah, never," he replied. But it was true. Johnson had reasoned that his power as a Senate Majority leader would have nowhere as much influence in the Congress if Kennedy was elected as he did have with a Republican president in the White House.

Eventually, it would be a turning point in American history when LBJ assumed the presidency nearly three years later after John F. Kennedy's assassination.

Johnson would have celebrated his 100th birthday today, an occasion not likely to be remembered on the floor of the current Democratic National Convention.