Safely hunkered down at home during the Covid pandemic, watching the virtual Democratic Convention on CNN this past week, I’ve been thinking about the convention I attended in Chicago in 1956, when Jack Kennedy burst on the scene as a rising star. The Senator from Massachusetts was in a tightly contested race for Vice President. Estes Kefauver won on the third ballot, but Kennedy’s gracious concession speech electrified the jam-packed arena and set him on the fast track to the nomination for President four years later.
I was in the audience with my mother, Viola Lomoe, high up in the peanut gallery. We’d come to cheer for Adlai Stevenson, because she was, as the slogan had it, “Madly for Adlai.” He’d lost badly to Eisenhower four years before, but the Democrats elected to give him a second chance. He ditched his 1952 running mate, John Sparkman, which left the convention open to a “free vote” for the vice presidential nomination. Far down below us at the podium, Kennedy was a tiny figure, practically invisible, but his voice with its distinctive Boston accent rang out clear and strong.
Like everyone there, we were thrilled, and my mother predicted a bright future for the handsome young Senator. His speech was probably strategically planned: had he won, he would have gone down in flames with Adlai’s disastrous campaign, whereas losing put him in a perfect position to emerge triumphant four years later without the taint of failure.
My mother had been active in Milwaukee’s Democratic politics for years. As a child, I spent countless hours hanging out at various campaign headquarters, helping to stuff envelopes for candidates I can no longer remember. But she had to keep a low profile. My father was Managing Editor of the Milwaukee Journal, an outstanding liberal newspaper which helped bring down Joe McCarthy. Still, the paper tried to appear nonpartisan, and it wouldn’t have been seemly for the editor’s wife to become known as a Democratic politician. Too bad, because she would have made a brilliant one.
Before the 1956 convention, we attended a fundraising garden party for Adlai Stevenson, held at the mansion of a well-heeled donor on the shore of Lake Michigan. I remember serenading him with a few bars of Big Bill Broonzy’s “Democrat Man”—“I’m a Democrat man, a Democrat man, and I’ll be one till the day I die”—and suggesting he use it as a campaign song.* But in that enormous arena on Chicago’s South Side, my mother and I were just part of the hoi polloi, high in the peanut gallery.
On the Sunday before the election that November, my mother announced that she wanted to go to church with me. I was shocked: she was an agnostic if not a downright atheist. In early adolescence, partly as an act of rebellion, partly because I’d attended church with the boy next door and liked the pomp and circumstance, I’d gotten myself baptized and confirmed Episcopalian. But my mother never went to church with me.
Why now, I asked. Her reply: “Prayer is the only thing that can save Adlai now.” Clearly it didn’t work, and I don’t believe she ever went back to church.
The Democrats did an outstanding job with their virtual convention, and I was captivated by the many diverse voices, ages and races that kept me glued to the screen for four nights straight. I suppose I’ll check out at least the beginning and end of the Republican convention next week, but the very thought of Trump and his corrupt cronies makes me feel like barfing, so I’ll minimize my exposure. In any case, political conventions in jam-packed arenas are probably a thing of the past.
*Big Bill Broonzy died in 1958 of throat cancer. He had an illustrious career, wrote over 300 songs, and attained his greatest success during the folk music revival in the 1950’s. Numerous rock stars, including Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend and Jerry Garcia, cited him as a major influence One of his classics is “Black Brown and White”: They said if you was white, should be all right. If you was brown, stick around. But if you black, mmm brother, git back git back git back.”