Although he would not run for president until 1960, John F. Kennedy began speculating with family members and aides as early as 1954, when he was a freshman senator, about a future run. A year later, his father, Joseph, had the audacity to offer to finance a campaign for Lyndon Johnson if the Texas senator would choose his son as his running mate on the Democratic ticket. After that overture failed, Jack Kennedy began promoting himself as a prospective running mate for the eventual nominee in 1956, Adlai Stevenson. The convention in Chicago that summer was a chaotic scene of jockeying and speechmaking—behind the scenes at the Chicago Amphitheater and on television screens around the country—as Kennedy and his competitors vied for the No. 2 spot on the ticket. Those few days in August aren’t often recounted in biographies of JFK, who would have turned 100 this year. But they are chronicled here—based on contemporaneous reporting, new interviews, archives and oral histories—to capture the moment that launched the future 35th president onto the national stage.
By the middle of 1956, John F. Kennedy had many reasons to be encouraged. He had proved to be the master of politics back home, seizing control of the Massachusetts Democratic Party from John McCormack, a long-time power in the state, in a brutal coup. JFK’s cultivation of the press resulted in favorable national coverage; his face was being splashed on the covers of popular magazines. And the publication of his best-selling book, Profiles in Courage, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, added gravitas to his résumé. Now that Stevenson, the former governor of Illinois, had the presidential nomination in his grasp, Kennedy felt he should be at least considered as his running mate.
Kennedy had been an early Stevenson supporter and had ensured that a majority of the Massachusetts delegation would wind up in his column. And he had allies among the candidate’s close advisers, especially Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a leading liberal, and Newton Minow, a partner in Stevenson’s law firm. Kennedy’s father opposed the idea of his son sharing the ticket with Stevenson, whom he believed was doomed to defeat. But Joe Kennedy owned Chicago’s enormous Merchandise Mart commercial building, and his daughter Eunice and her husband, Sargent Shriver, who ran the business, were personal friends of Stevenson’s and regularly passed on intelligence from Chicago.
In conversations with members of the Kennedy family, Stevenson talked of his fondness for Jack, who was not yet 40 years old and had joined the Senate less three years earlier. The Chicago Sun-Times reported in July that Stevenson liked either Kennedy or Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota as a running mate. The newspaper preferred Kennedy, whose interests kept up the drumbeat. “We were lobbied to death,” one Stevenson aide complained. After hearing from Schlesinger that “things looked good,” Kennedy finally told his young adviser Ted Sorensen that he was prepared to make a serious bid for the spot.
Kennedy was already certain of a place center stage at the convention. Paul Butler, the national Democratic chairman, asked the filmmaker Dore Schary to include the ambitious senator in his plans for The Pursuit of Happiness, a documentary extolling the party’s history that would be shown to the delegates—and a nationwide television audience—on the first night of the convention. Kennedy learned a week before he left for Chicago that he might also be asked to deliver the speech nominating Stevenson. The two high-profile assignments would make him one of the most visible figures at the convention. But Kennedy began to fear that they might be consolation prizes. It seemed unlikely, he thought, that the man who nominated Stevenson would also be picked as his running mate.
Although he was anything but passive in his backstage activity, Kennedy remained publicly coy. Landing in Chicago, he told reporters, “I am not a candidate, and I am not campaigning for the office.”
In fact, the Kennedy organization had been privy to inside information that there was a good chance Stevenson might throw the choice of his running mate over to the delegates rather than make the decision himself. The move was seen as a way to symbolize the democracy of the party, in contrast to the Republicans, and introduce an element of excitement to the proceedings. Kennedy had come to Chicago hoping that Stevenson would pick him. But if the vice presidential nominee was to be chosen by the delegates, he was prepared to fight for it.
Over the summer, political commentators had compiled a growing list of candidates—what the nationally syndicated political columnist Doris Fleeson called “an embarrassment of riches in vice presidential timber.”
Aside from Kennedy, several prominent figures were interested. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee had served as chairman of a Senate committee whose investigation of organized crime had attracted national television coverage. He added to his name recognition with arduous campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1952 and 1956. Sometimes donning a coonskin cap for effect, Kefauver barnstormed across the country and proved to be Stevenson’s principal opponent. When he withdrew from his failing campaign before the convention and endorsed Stevenson, Kefauver felt he had earned a favor from the nominee, and as soon as he got to Chicago, he announced that he would accept the vice presidential spot if it became available. His supporters opened a “Kefauver for Vice President” headquarters in a ballroom of the Conrad Hilton.
Kefauver met with Stevenson and asked him directly if he was in line to become his running mate. But Stevenson was noncommittal. He disliked Kefauver, who had a reputation for excessive drinking and reckless extramarital affairs. Some of his colleagues in the Senate, where he was not very popular, found him crude and conniving. Still, Kefauver had built considerable strength at the convention by winning delegates during the primary season.
If not as well known as Kefauver, his fellow Tennessee senator, Albert Gore, was considered more respectable. He had a following among some fellow senators and members of the party establishment. If Stevenson intended to balance his ticket with a southerner, then Gore might be a safer choice.
A third Tennessean said to be under consideration was Frank Clement, who had visions that his keynote address on the first night of the convention might propel him to heights once reached by William Jennings Bryan after his “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 convention. (In fact, Clement’s speech ended up being so lengthy and florid that he never materialized as a vice presidential candidate. One irreverent journalist composed a mock biblical beginning for his account of the speech: “The Democrats last night smote President [Dwight] Eisenhower with the jawbone of an ass.”)
Then there was Hubert Humphrey. As a youthful mayor of Minneapolis, he had made a name for himself at the 1948 convention: His famous speech on behalf of a strong civil rights plank led to a walkout by some Deep South delegations and the formation of a segregationist Dixiecrat ticket in the general election that year. Humphrey became a bête noire among conservative elements of the party as a result of his outspoken views on race and his progressive record in the Senate. Yet for those very reasons he was embraced as a darling by liberals generally allied with Stevenson.
After a private conversation in late July with Stevenson, Humphrey was convinced he would be chosen. Stevenson had been blunt about his reluctance to choose Kefauver and mused openly about Gore, Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri and Mayor Robert Wagner of New York. After leading Humphrey through a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of these men, Stevenson asked, “Well, Hubert, why don’t you think about it yourself?”
Humphrey had already been thinking about it for weeks. He believed he would be supported by southern leaders in Congress such as the two powerful Texans, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn, as well as Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. Humphrey was so confident that he announced in early August that he would be a formal candidate for the vice presidential nomination, a rare break with tradition.
But Stevenson had been put off by a meeting with party elders in late July, when former President Harry Truman dismissed Humphrey as “too radical.” The leaders also warned that Kefauver would be unacceptable and that Catholicism probably ruled out Kennedy. Rayburn was particularly contemptuous of the senator from Massachusetts. “If we have to have a Catholic,” he told Stevenson, “I hope we don’t have to take that little pissant Kennedy.”
Kennedy made a splash at the convention from the start. During opening night ceremonies, on August 13, he received a resounding ovation from the delegates for narrating The Pursuit of Happiness. The Massachusetts delegation staged a noisy parade around the floor, and the cheers for Kennedy when he appeared on stage to take a bow were louder than those for Clement after his keynote address.
The next morning, however, Kennedy had his spirits dampened. A mutual friend arranged a meeting between Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt, the doyenne of the Democratic Party, in the hope that he might win her favor. The widow of Franklin Roosevelt was known to be cool toward Kennedy. She had disliked his father for years, from the time he served as ambassador to London, when his tolerance of the Nazis had been an embarrassment to her husband. And she felt that Jack Kennedy had been cowardly when the Senate grappled with the zealous anticommunist Joe McCarthy earlier in the decade.
The meeting took place at the Blackstone Hotel, scene of the infamous “smoke-filled room” where Republican satraps had chosen Warren G. Harding as their nominee in 1920. When Kennedy arrived, he found Roosevelt’s suite filled with two of her sons, a daughter-in-law and a secretary typing in the corner. The noise of telephones constantly ringing was disconcerting, and the disorder grew when several of the Roosevelt grandchildren arrived. “Just sit on the beds,” she told them. “I’m busy.”
Roosevelt was brusque with Kennedy, asking one question: “Why did you not stand up against McCarthyism?”
“That was so long ago,” he fumbled, giving a rambling account of Senate procedure. But he had been the only senator who did not vote, and though he had a legitimate reason for his absence, he had failed to take a public stand against McCarthy. Roosevelt was not satisfied and dismissed him.
Kennedy was further discomforted later in the day during a private meeting with Stevenson. As he had anticipated, he was asked to deliver the nominating speech. Kennedy asked flatly whether that meant he had been disqualified as a candidate for the vice presidential nomination. “No,” Stevenson answered. “Not necessarily.” But Kennedy had strong doubts. He even recommended Humphrey for the position.
Later in the day, Kennedy told his friend Schlesinger, “I think I should know whether or not I’ve been eliminated before I make the nominating speech.” Schlesinger assured him that no decision had been made yet.
In this atmosphere of uncertainty, Kennedy tackled his latest high-priority assignment: the speech. The Stevenson campaign insisted on writing it, and both Sorensen and Kennedy thought the draft provided to them—less than 24 hours before Kennedy would go on national television again—was terrible, a collection of clichés and boring tropes. They went to work on their own version. Kennedy dictated the opening lines and suggested some general ideas, and Sorensen labored through the night. The next morning, a secretary retyped the new draft, and a copy was sent to the TelePrompTer booth at the convention.
Kennedy and Sorensen boarded a taxi and set off for the Chicago Amphitheater, adjacent to the vast stockyards on the far south side of the city. En route, the senator looked at his copy of the speech and realized that parts of it were illegible. Oaths reminiscent of his Navy days spilled from his mouth. As the cab sped down Michigan Avenue, Kennedy saw a familiar face trying to hail a taxi: Tom Winship, a reporter for the Boston Globe who had overlapped with Kennedy at Harvard. The senator commanded the driver to pick up Winship, whom Kennedy enlisted to rewrite two clear new pages once they arrived at the Amphitheater. Kennedy got the refreshed copy to the TelePrompTer 15 minutes before his 11 a.m. address.
He delivered it flawlessly, however, and for the second time that week applause washed over him. At this point, Kennedy had done all he could do to make himself irresistible as a vice presidential nominee. But he didn’t know that Stevenson had conducted two private meetings that would turn the convention’s orderly process into a night and day of frenetic activity.
Over the objections of some of the party’s top leadership—Lyndon Johnson pronounced it “the goddamndest, stupidest move a politician could make”—Stevenson decided on an open convention. Near midnight on Thursday, the fourth day of the convention, after formally accepting the nomination, he shocked the rest of the delegates, declaring that the vice presidential nominee would “join me before the nation, not as one man’s selection, but as one chosen by our great party.”
This triggered a frantic rush and set the stage for an afternoon of drama the next day. No modern convention since then has matched the suspense, intrigue, deal-making and high-stakes pressure that Stevenson’s decision caused over an 18-hour period.
Kefauver felt betrayed and threatened to leave Chicago, but supporters counseled him to stay. Mollified by a conversation with Stevenson, he agreed to have his name put in nomination, and his forces began an all-night effort to track down delegates who had supported his primary campaign.
But Kefauver was so unpopular among most of his fellow Tennesseans that they refused to endorse him, intending to vote for Frank Clement instead. Then, when Clement’s speech failed to generate momentum, the delegation turned to Gore, using the unit rule (meaning a simple majority could command an entire delegation) to ensure that he would get all 32 of the state’s votes. A similar situation prevailed in the Texas delegation, which had been prepared to support Clement in an effort to block Kefauver, who was detested by both Rayburn and Johnson. A short-lived Gore campaign, which attracted scattered southern votes, materialized among other foes of Kefauver.
Humphrey was actually writing his acceptance speech when he heard of Stevenson’s decision. But he and his team also scurried to round up delegates.
Following his unplanned meeting with Kefauver, Stevenson felt it was necessary to invite all of the prospective running mates to come see him to demonstrate that he had not intended to show favoritism. When he arrived, Kennedy grumbled to members of Stevenson’s operation that it seemed to be “a fixed convention.”
While Kennedy dealt with party power brokers, his team gathered in a suite at the Conrad Hilton. Most of his family was there, but it was his brother Robert who tackled the unpleasant duty of calling his father on a transatlantic telephone line to announce that Jack was making a run for the ticket. Robert winced as his father unleashed what Kenny O’Donnell, a close family friend and JFK adviser, described as “blue language.” Joe Kennedy called his oldest surviving son an “idiot” and predicted that he was destroying his political career. At the end of the conversation, overheard by others in the room, Robert looked around with a wan smile and said simply, “Whew.”
The Kennedy team worked through the night, but they were relative novices in the exercise of power. Armed with a pen and a legal pad, Robert began a haphazard tally of friendly delegates in various states. John Bailey, the party boss from Connecticut, suggested assigning specific supporters to contact each delegation to plead Kennedy’s case in individual caucuses before balloting began at noon. When Carmine DeSapio, the head of New York City’s Tammany Hall political organization, came to the Kennedy suite, he was kept waiting for a half-hour. No one knew who he was or that he was prepared to help deliver his delegation to Kennedy.
After daybreak, Kennedy spoke at several caucuses and met with key people. He was pleased to learn that the Georgia delegation planned to give all its votes to him. His efforts to build an improbable political alliance in Dixie began that day. He knew that some of the durable old bulls in the Senate, men who personally liked Kennedy and loathed Kefauver, might be open to courtship.
When the afternoon session began, Kennedy asked Abe Ribicoff, the governor of Connecticut, to give his nominating speech. (Ribicoff noted the irony of a Jew advocating a Catholic for the ticket.) To display southern support, Kennedy arranged for his good friend Senator George Smathers of Florida to second the nomination. Midway through his speech, Smathers felt a sharp pain in his back and feared he was being stricken by a heart attack, but the discomfort was caused by a gavel wielded by Sam Rayburn. He hissed for Smathers to yield for a surprising endorsement from John McCormack, the House majority leader and Kennedy’s rival in the Bay State delegation. In the hubbub on the floor, Robert Kennedy had asked McCormack if he would speak on Jack’s behalf. Standing at the rostrum unenthusiastically, he called for the convention to “go East for a vice presidential candidate,” but he did not mention Kennedy’s name until the final sentence.
This was the first convention to have a wide television audience. Coverage was gavel-to-gavel, so cameras were on hand to capture all the excitement. The unfolding scene was described the next day in the New York Times as “a spectacle that might have confounded all Christendom in the old days,” in an atmosphere shaken by “a shrieking pandemonium with 11,000 people on their feet and howling.”
Given space to watch the proceedings on television in the Stock Yard Inn, a few steps from the convention hall, Kennedy huddled inside Room 104 with only Sorensen and a Chicago plainclothes officer, assigned as a guard. There was a knock on the door. Tom Winship, the Globe reporter, had tracked down the senator. He asked, “Any chance of coming in to watch the balloting on TV?”
“Sure,” said Kennedy. “Come on in.” He was visibly exhausted, lying on a bed in his undershorts. Kennedy liked to bathe to relax and soothe his aching back, and was waiting for the tub to fill. He enjoyed the company of Winship, a colorful, uninhibited personality. They chatted while the reporter sat on the closed toilet seat and the candidate soaked in the tub.
After the nominating speeches, the first roll-call vote began shortly after 2:30 p.m. and proceeded along fairly predictable lines. Kefauver did well in the states where he had won delegates in the primaries. Gore’s strength was confined to the South. Humphrey collected scattered votes from delegations with pockets of liberals, but he trailed almost everywhere but in his home state. Wagner, the New York mayor who made a largely symbolic run for the nomination, got all of New York’s 98 votes, but other than two nearby states on the eastern seaboard, New Jersey and Delaware, he was shut out. The biggest surprise was that Kennedy took all the votes in the southern states of Georgia, Louisiana and Virginia to build on his support in the Northeast.
At the end of the balloting, an organist played “Linger Awhile” as officials double-checked the numbers: Kefauver 483 1/2; Kennedy 304; Gore 178; Wagner 162 1/2; Humphrey 134 1/2. No one was close to the 687 votes needed to win the nomination. Officials prepared for round two. (It would have seemed inconceivable in Chicago that afternoon, but since that time no national political convention has been forced to a second ballot.)
The little group in Room 104 watched developments on TV with the rest of the country. Kennedy seemed serene, and he expressed delight over the support from the South. But he knew that he needed more votes, and he was not sure where to turn.
The scene on the convention floor became chaotic. As conventioneers paraded up and down the aisles, bearing placards for their favorites and tooting horns, others stood on chairs, clamoring for attention. Kennedy partisans roamed the Amphitheater, looking for anyone who might help. “Bobby and I ran around the floor like a couple of nuts,” said Kenny O’Donnell. “We didn’t know two people in the place.”
In a desperate attempt to arrest Kefauver’s advantage, Robert Kennedy grabbed at the arm of Michigan’s governor, G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, as he moved off the floor. Forty of Michigan’s 44 votes had gone for Kefauver on the first ballot. “Why are you against my brother?” Robert demanded. Williams, a leader of liberal forces in the party, was “flabbergasted” by the confrontation and shook himself free. He had a more important mission. He headed toward a room behind the rostrum where Humphrey was cloistered with a few advisers.
Humphrey had watched the first roll-call vote with dismay. He already felt deceived by Stevenson; now he was rejected by 90 percent of the delegates. He knew political jackals would be coming to ask him to give his votes to another. Never a man to hide his emotions, he began to cry softly.
Learning that Kefauver was on his way to meet with Humphrey, Kennedy dispatched Sorensen to see if he could arrange his own meeting with Humphrey. The 28-year-old aide’s naïveté quickly showed. He couldn’t locate Humphrey, but he encountered, by chance, Humphrey’s campaign manager, a sardonic congressman from Minnesota named Eugene McCarthy (the same Eugene McCarthy who would challenge Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy and Humphrey for the 1968 Democratic nomination). When Sorensen suggested a parlay between Kennedy and Humphrey, McCarthy brushed him aside. “Forget it,” he told Sorensen. “All we have are farmers and Protestants,” a reference to Kennedy’s Catholicism and his recent votes—unpopular in the farm states—on agriculture bills.
Kefauver did succeed in finding Humphrey’s hideout, where Soapy Williams was already imploring the Minnesota senator to yield his support. Kefauver embraced the weeping Humphrey and appeared close to tears himself. “Hubert, I’ve just got to have those delegates,” he pleaded. “Hubert, you’ve just got to help me.” Humphrey croaked instructions to an aide: Go tell Senators Stuart Symington of Missouri and J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, “I’m for Kefauver.”
As the second ballot moved alphabetically through the states, Missouri switched. After giving Humphrey 34 1/2 votes on the first ballot, the state now threw 36 of its 38 votes to Kefauver. But the move barely slowed Kennedy’s building momentum. At this point he led Kefauver 256 1/2 to 196.
Across the convention floor, delegates were baying to be heard. California passed on its turn, unable to get a firm tally on a divided delegation. From the podium, the acting convention chairman, Senator Warren Magnuson, peered into the confusion and called on other states. Nevada gave Kennedy 13 1/2 of its 14 votes. New Jersey awarded Kennedy 30 of its 36 votes.
New York, the giant, was next. Wagner had assured Kennedy that the New York delegation—the convention’s largest—would rally behind Kennedy on the second ballot. Sure enough, the Tammany chieftain Carmine DeSapio, inscrutable behind tinted glasses, announced, “New York gives one and a half votes for Kefauver; 96 and a half votes for the next vice president of the United States, John Kennedy.”
The Amphitheater shook with roars.
A more stunning report came from Texas. Though Johnson had lobbied for Humphrey and Rayburn’s dislike of Kennedy was known, the two leaders’ antipathy toward Kefauver moved them to swing the whole state, bound by the unit rule, to Kennedy. Never one to shy from a dramatic moment, Johnson gripped the microphone and shouted, “Texas proudly casts its 56 votes for the fighting sailor who wears the scars of battle, that fearless senator, the next vice president of the United States, John Kennedy of Massachusetts.”
That pushed Kennedy’s lead over Kefauver to 504-395. He appeared to be approaching a majority. Robert Kennedy could be seen on the convention floor, flashing two fingers in a “V for victory” salute. Sarge Shriver burst into Kennedy’s hotel room and yelled, “Jack, you’ve got it!” Kennedy, however, counseled his team to restrain themselves.
At the conclusion of the roll call, Kennedy held 613 1/2 votes to 551 1/2 for Kefauver. Instead of moving automatically to a third ballot, officials on the rostrum recognized Kentucky for a switch. The state moved its 30 votes from Gore’s column to Kennedy. The senator from Massachusetts reached his high-water mark of 643 1/2 votes—only 43 1/2 from winning.
But new drama was taking place off-stage involving the Tennessee delegation. Many in the state party had never forgiven Kefauver for helping break the Memphis political machine that once ruled the state. Rather than rally behind him, the delegation was prepared to stick with Gore, even though he had fallen to only 110 1/2 votes during the second ballot.
Gore had retreated from the floor to follow the events on television in the Railroad Room, a free watering spot that the railway industry sponsored. It was there that Silliman Evans Jr., the influential publisher of the Tennessean, found him. Evans loved the idea of having a Tennessee man on the ticket, but it seemed obvious that Gore lacked the delegates. Gore’s career would be ended, Evans promised, if he didn’t yield his votes to Kefauver. Clutching Gore’s lapels, Evans warned, “You’ll never get the Tennessean’s support for anything again, not even dogcatcher.”
Chastened, Gore returned to the floor. Only minutes after his state had cast all 32 of its votes for him on the second ballot, he got recognition to speak: “Mr. Chairman, with thanks to this great, free Democratic convention, I request that my name be withdrawn in favor of my colleague, Senator Estes Kefauver.”
The hall erupted into new roars, as delegations from several states sought recognition. One was South Carolina, which was ready to throw all 20 of its votes to Kennedy and might have checked Kefauver’s sudden movement. But Rayburn chose to recognize Oklahoma, which moved its 28 votes from Gore to Kefauver. Then Minnesota gave all 30 of its votes to Kefauver. Missouri followed with 37 votes for Kefauver, putting him slightly ahead of Kennedy. The trend became irreversible.
Afterward, some of Kennedy’s advisers privately complained that Rayburn had recognized the pro-Kefauver delegations as payback for the embarrassment Kennedy had caused Rayburn’s ally John McCormack at the Massachusetts convention in the spring. But Kennedy was magnanimous in defeat. Watching on TV as a succession of states fell for Kefauver, he looked at Sorensen and simply said, “Let’s go.” The pair hurried from the hotel room to an unguarded back door to the Amphitheater and made their way to the rear of the platform. Kennedy took a seat behind Rayburn, who was trying to restore order in the raucous arena. Someone whispered to the convention chairman that Kennedy was there.
The Virgin Islands had just changed its 3 votes to Kefauver. Rayburn pounded the gavel, shouting, “Will the convention be in order?” He paused as the noise subsided. “If there is no objection, the chair will recognize Senator John Kennedy of Massachusetts.”
Kennedy smiled and waved at friends. His eyes appeared to be glistening. Then, speaking without notes, he expressed appreciation “to Democrats from all parts of the country, north and south, east and west, who have been so generous and kind to me this afternoon.” He said the outcome “bears out the good judgment of our Governor Stevenson in deciding that this issue should be taken to the floor of the convention,” and he closed his brief remarks by saying the convention “has selected a man who has campaigned in all parts of the country, who has worked untiringly for the party, who will serve as an admirable running mate to Governor Stevenson.” He asked that the convention “make Estes Kefauver’s nomination unanimous.”
There were final, thunderous shouts from the floor and the spectators’ gallery, and it was over. Stevenson had been watching the event on television with several advisers in his suite at the Blackstone. When it was clear that Kefauver would be his running mate, he perceptibly slumped, as if he himself had been defeated.
Although he was actually the defeated one, Kennedy had won the respect of the Democratic delegates, and the adoration of many in the national television audience. Even the most vociferous critic of his bid for a place on the ticket—his father—had called from overseas to praise him and to declare that the convention could not have gone better. The senator had gained prominence—speaking invitations would soon start rolling in—but was not saddled with a spot on Stevenson’s losing ticket.
Kennedy now seemed to have a limitless future—one that could include a serious push for the presidency in 1960.
This article was adapted from The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign (Simon & Schuster).