11/21/2013 02:27 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

JFK: Memories of My First Convention

The first story we covered at the 1960 Democratic Convention was about Beau Jack, a black fighter who was twice the lightweight champion of the world. He had gone broke and was employed by the Georgia Delegation to the Convention to shine its shoes. The Georgia Congregation thought it was very funny.

The first big story that I covered at the Convention was an interview with David Lawrence, Governor of Pennsylvania, who we all thought controlled the votes that could make Kennedy the nominee on the first ballot. Lawrence was the first Catholic Governor of his state, but he had come up the hard way. Born to poor Irish parents, he was lucky to get a job as a clerk to the leader of the local Democratic party and went into the insurance business. He fought battles for union workers and immigrants and rose rapidly in the party. He fought for the election of Al Smith, the Democratic Presidential candidate in 1928, but Smith lost and Governor Lawrence was not sure that Jack Kennedy would fare any better. He sidestepped all my questions, he would make his decision later.

I also remember Governor Meyner of New Jersey, who supported Lyndon Johnson. Meyner was surrounded by Missouri delegates wearing Masonic pins who were praising and thanking him for battling against the Catholic Kennedy. Meyner was disgusted and walked away. He refused my invitation to talk about it on camera.

A few days later, the word got out that Governor Lawrence would vote the Pennsylvania Delegation for Kennedy, which seemed to assure Kennedy victory. In a final attempt to gather delegate votes, Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas, challenged Kennedy to a televised debate before a joint meeting of the Texas and Massachusetts delegations. UP/MovieTone were very late in learning about the debate. I rushed over along with a cameraman and sound man, but we were too late to get our mic on the lectern. The sound man attached a long cable to a mic, screwed the mic to the end of a yard-long "fish pole" and I raced down the center aisle to stick the mic in the midst of the more conventionally attached and spent a half hour turning my mic from one to the other of the debaters. (You can see the back of my head and my right arm holding the fish pole on slide 11.) It was clear that nobody scored a knockout and that JFK was almost certain to win.

At the Convention, my boss, the great UP journalist Bill Higginbotham, equipped me with a brand new invention, a cordless mic and assigned me to cover the vote of the delegation that would put JFK over the top. I first moved to the Washington delegation, then to Wisconsin and finally to Wyoming, which had the votes that would do it. I held the mic next to the Governor's mic as he announced the vote and I thought we had a worldwide first time scoop. However, Higginbotham and I had failed to reckon on the vast amount of electrical interference in a room full of electrical equipment. We got nothing but interference, but it did suggest to a lot of other people that it would be a good idea for the next convention.

The convention ended the next day. And even at his second-best, JFK scored mightily when he pledged to fight for "'The Rights of Man' -- the civil and economic rights essential to the human dignity of all men -- are indeed our goal and our first principles." He was better when he faced Dick Nixon, but this was plenty good enough to end the Convention that had begun in racial and religious divide and concluded in a nearly united party.

Harry Truman never forgave JFK for jumping the line by running for president so early in his career and then choosing Lynden Johnson rather than Missouri Senator Stuart Symington as his vice presidential running mate. I'll be writing more about that.