When: August 13-17, 1956
Nominee: Former Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson
The film footage, now almost 60 years old, is grainy. Flat. A man stands at a podium, a rostrum almost comically small. Around him, photographers and functionaries struggle for space.
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The man — Adlai Stevenson, the former governor of Illinois — has just been nominated for president by the Democrats he seeks to address. It’s the second straight time the party has asked Stevenson to carry its banner into the fall.
But it’s soon clear that Stevenson isn’t here to thank the delegates for their courtesy. He’s got a surprise.
The choice of a running mate is important, he tells the crowd, a “solemn obligation.” Maybe too solemn for him to make alone.
“I have concluded to depart from the presidents of the past,” he says. “I have decided that the selection of the vice presidential nominee should be made through the free processes of this convention.”
Stevenson was reading from a text that day, so his decision to leave the vice presidential pick to the delegates was obviously planned in advance. Yet it still isn’t completely clear what Stevenson was thinking.
Did he think the country thirsted for an old-fashioned floor fight? Was he unsure of his own instincts? Was he too tired to choose among the handful of hopefuls who had lobbied him through the summer?
Maybe he thought he would lose to incumbent Dwight Eisenhower under any circumstances and didn’t want the responsibility of dragging a running mate down with him.
Regardless of motive, the decision touched off a wild scramble and led to the last multiballot convention nomination in American history.
The favorite for veep was Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. He was known nationally for serving as chairman of a committee that investigated organized crime. He had run against Stevenson in the primaries and lost. He was a civil rights supporter from a border state.
Other names were floated: Sen. Lyndon Johnson, the Texas wheeler-dealer. Mayor Robert Wagner of New York. Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota. Sen. Al Gore Sr., Kefauver’s Tennessee colleague.
And joining those ranks: a young senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy was ambitious, as was his father, Joe. But the elder Kennedy was aghast at his son’s vice presidential aspirations, JFK biographer Robert Dallek writes, worried that the son’s Catholicism would be blamed if Stevenson lost.
Nevertheless, “Jack was determined to push ahead,” according to Dallek.
The balloting began. Kefauver moved to an early lead, besting the better-known opponents, but Kennedy showed surprising strength. When the voting ended, Kefauver had the most delegates but not enough to win the nomination outright. John Kennedy was second.
The convention voted again. On the second ballot, Kennedy surged into the lead, moving tantilizingly close to grabbing the second spot on the ticket. Then the arm-twisting started. Kefauver’s team surged into state delegations, urging them to drop favorite sons — or Kennedy — and cast ballots for the Tennessean. Gore left the race, yielding his votes to Kefauver.
Slowly at first, then more rapidly, the second-ballot stampede to Kefauver grew.
“The balloting verged on a mob scene in the final minutes of the vote switching that made Senator Kefauver the victor,” The New York Times reported the next day, calling the decision “as dramatic as any Democratic convention has witnessed.”
Maybe that’s what Stevenson had in mind.
It didn’t work, of course. Stevenson’s presidential campaign foundered badly against Eisenhower, and the former general won easily.
Today historians generally agree: The other big political winner that year was John Kennedy. His close-but-no-cigar effort at the convention marked him as an important figure in the Democratic Party. After losing the second-ballot fight, Kennedy had asked the convention to back Kefauver unanimously, a graceful gesture many party members would remember four years later.
And, of course, Kennedy wasn’t tarred by Stevenson’s loss.
“Jack understood that his defeat in Chicago had been a stroke of good luck,” Dallek writes.
Kennedy’s campaign for president began a few weeks after Eisenhower’s victory. Kennedy would win the nomination in 1960. And he picked his own running mate.