It had not at all been clear early in the 1960 presidential cycle that JFK would be able to win the Democratic nomination; it seemed more likely that it would go to Senate majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson, Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri, or former Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, who had been the party’s choice during the two previous elections. Questions about Kennedy’s youth, Catholicism, and health threatened his candidacy. But with the help of Robert Kennedy, JFK secured just enough votes to win on the first ballot at the convention, 45 years ago today. The Nation’s editor Carey McWilliams attended that convention, and wrote about it in a piece titled “The Kennedys Take Over” (July 23, 1960).
The odd thing about the Kennedy drive was that it was based on only two “popular” elements: Catholic support, particularly among the politically influential Irish-Americans, and younger elements, including older persons who think we need “young” leadership…. So the paradox of this convention has been that a young man without an impressive political record, without a program, without broad rank-and-file support, backed by not a single interest group with the possible exception of labor, not merely won the nomination of a great party without substantial opposition, but took possession of it, lock, stock and barrel. The delegates were victims of a default of political leadership which was premised, of course, on their own default as citizens.
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