Tom Ross: Choosing presidential nominee was vastly different in 1960
September 4, 2012
Steamboat Springs — As the Democratic National Convention got under way Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C., it could not be depended upon for any more drama and political intrigue than the Republicans generated last week in Tampa. Which didn't add up to much.
If there is drama in Charlotte, it will not come from the delegates but from protesters outside the convention hall.
As every American voter knows by now, the conventions, once a mad flurry of political maneuvering, have devolved into carefully orchestrated pep rallies. But there was a time when a front-running candidate from either party might arrive at the convention without the nomination fully secured.
State delegations held out for favorite sons (sorry, I'd like to add "and daughters," but it wasn't happening in an earlier era), and other delegates were persuaded to change their vote.
At the 1956 Democratic convention, there even were multiple ballots for the nomination for vice president, after presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson made the surprise announcement that he would leave the choice up to the convention delegates, according to historian Theodore H. White. They overwhelmingly chose Estes Kefauver over a young John F. Kennedy. How many of you recalled the name of Sen. Kefauver, of Tennessee? I thought not.
We saw a little old-timey convention drama last week in Tampa when Ron Paul backers voted for Paul instead of Mitt Romney in defiance of new party rules and promptly were stifled. Paul didn't win a single presidential primary but still received 190 delegate votes when the roll was called Aug. 28.
When JFK arrived at the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles, he still was 160 delegates short of the nomination, with a strong challenge from Sen. Stevenson. Waiting in the wings, according to White, were Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson, who gave away 1,000 pounds of taffy imported from Texas to delegates, and a retired Army general named James A. Holdridge, who was the candidate of the American Vegetarian Party. Before the convention began, Holdridge proclaimed the 1960 elections unconstitutional and therefore null and void.
Those details were recorded by White, a noted historian, in his book "The Making of the President 1960," and they are emblematic of how accessible his books are.
If you recall watching the 1960 conventions, or if you're curious about another era when presidential politics were wide open, there's no better place to turn than to White's "The Making of the President" series of books that cover 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1980.
White's prose is far more lively than the typical campaign speech.
On the Republican side, White describes how presumed nominee Vice President Richard Nixon, of California, was not in as much jeopardy as JFK in 1960, but he had to deal with an aggressive last-minute move by powerful adversary Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, of New York, who had spurned Nixon's offer of the vice presidency.
Nixon was not about to lose the nomination but ultimately was forced to accept 14 of Rockefeller's demands for planks to be included in the party platform.
Although we currently are focused on the political conventions during the two weeks straddling August and September, "The Making of the President 1960" is best remembered for the way it chronicled the permanent changes wrought on American presidential politics by the Nixon/Kennedy debates, the first ever to be televised.
If you become wary of the speeches in Charlotte this week and disillusioned by the amount of money being funneled into political ads in seven or eight battleground states, including Colorado, you already know my advice. Track down a copy of "The Making of the President 1960."
You won't be disappointed.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com