The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers

Chapter Forty-two, "The Democratic Convention of 1960" of The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt by Eleanor Roosevelt


The Democratic Convention of 1960

At the end of the presidential campaign of 1956, in which I had worked to the point of exhaustion for Adlai Stevenson, I determined that never again would I take any personal part in a political campaign.

So much for my firm intentions! My involvement in the 1960 campaign came about almost inadvertently. It grew out of a controversy in the Democratic party in New York State, where boss rule was attempting to replace the voice of the voters.1 The fact that my own party was involved in this particular case did not absolve me from feeling that the situation was intolerable. The morality of a party must grow out of the conscience and the participation of the voters. We cannot condemn the bosses as long as we sit back supinely and fail to wrest power from their hands and restore it to the voters themselves. In order to function at all, democracy depends upon the participation of the people in their government. It cannot survive by boss rule.

I do not believe that the people of this country would submit passively to boss rule and meekly abdicate their own rights and privileges if they were clearly aware of the situation and understood the workings of the machinery which makes bosses possible. Certainly the first step is to start not at the top but at the bottom of the pyramid and curb the power of the local city and state leaders of the political machine who, unchallenged, become the party bosses and, in a very real sense, our bosses.

The core of boss rule, naturally, is patronage.2 Many Americans have little idea of how the machinery of politics is handled. They have too little sense of responsibility in regard to its functioning. And yet boss rule can exist only where there is widespread indifference.

"But what can we do about it?" people ask me. "I know it is disgraceful, but we're helpless to do anything."

The answer to that, of course, is that we are not in the least helpless. We can always do something if we care enough. It was in protest against the bosses of the Republican party machine--Hanna and Platt--that Theodore Roosevelt started his Bull Moose party.3

One curious feature about political reform is that so many people feel it is "disloyal" to attempt to rectify the abuses in one's own party. And yet it is obvious that political morality is dependent upon the awakened conscience and private morality of the voters. Such "disloyalty" is simply an evidence of loyalty to principle.

Two years ago, at Buffalo, both the governor and the mayor of New York said they preferred a certain candidate for the U. S. Senate. Carmine De Sapio, the boss of the Democratic machinery in New York, calmly turned them down and took it upon himself to name his own candidate. The result was that he defeated the party's chance of victory by forcing upon the voting public an unacceptable candidate.

Because of this highhanded action, in March, 1959, Senator Herbert Lehman, Thomas Finletter and I signed a statement backing reform groups in New York City. We declared that the people were weary of bossism.

The response of the people was swift. They set up a clamor to be heard as citizens with a right to a voice in their own government. Once started, the revolt began to grow and it is still growing and gaining strength. The result was that the regular party organization discovered it would go down in defeat unless the reform groups threw in their support and worked with it. But the reform groups made clear that, unless they were free of all control from the local organization, it would not have their support. The only way to get rid of one's chains is not by complaint or lamentation. It is by knocking them off.

Now, while I was determined to take no further part in presidential campaigns, I was stirred by reading a statement made by two of our leading historians, Henry Commager and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who declared that, while Adlai Stevenson was undoubtedly the best candidate for the Presidency, they did not think he could be nominated and consequently they were going to support John Kennedy.

It seemed absurd to accept anyone as second best until you had done all you could to get the best. For my part, I believed the best ticket would be Stevenson and Kennedy, with the strong chance that the latter would become president at a later time.

Having made this statement, I was immediately heralded by the Stevenson backers. Nonetheless, I did not intend to go to the Democratic convention. Three of my sons were strongly backing Senator Kennedy, and it seemed pointless for me to appear on the opposite side.

However, I did not agree with the people who said Mr. Stevenson could not be nominated because he had twice been defeated. His defeat, I felt, was a result of running against the hero worship of President Eisenhower, a factor which would not exist in this campaign. I felt, too, that there was no one who could serve us better in the present crisis of world affairs or who had earned higher regard and respect among other nations.

I was finally persuaded to go to the convention, where I was distressed to find that once again I was in opposition to Mr. Truman's political stand, and I made a seconding speech for Mr. Stevenson's nomination.

The result not only of the Democratic but of the Republican convention has been such that observers in both parties were left with an acute feeling of dismay. I am not concerned at this point with the merits of either candidate. What I found, and what numbers of Americans found, horrifying was the fact that the choice of a presidential candidate, the fundamental and basic right of every American citizen, was no longer a result of public thinking or an expression of the wishes of the majority of the people of the country; that, instead, it represented the decision of the party bosses.

This kind of thing, of course, should not be allowed to go on. Our political conventions, as they now function, are as obsolete as outmoded machinery. Our present need is to evolve a new method by which the voice of the people is heard and they again arrive at their own choice of the candidates who are to lead them and to carry out their wishes in government. We cannot again permit the political bosses to dictate who the nominees are to be.

The working of smooth political machines, such as we observed in the two recent conventions, is not new. It is only an intensification of a process that has been going on for years. But now that we have seen it clearly the time has come to say, as many people are saying, "This is intolerable. We cannot permit it to go on."

How was it possible that in the 1960 conventions the choice of candidates was made without regard to the wishes of the American citizens? The answer lies in boss rule. The effect of local organizations on the choice of a presidential candidate is, unless checked, a strangle hold.

It works like this. The delegates to a convention are appointed by the state machinery. Generally a caucus is held of the delegates of each state and they are told that the leaders have decided they are to support a certain candidate. And why do the delegates supinely do as they are told? Because most of them hold some kind of public office and do not want to risk their positions. It is the rare delegate who, like Senator Lehman, can say, "I will not serve unless I am given complete freedom to vote as my conscience dictates."

Having been committed to the machine, the delegate can only carry out instructions. He remains deaf to the voice of his constituents. He may receive thousands of telegrams favoring another candidate but he disregards them. It is not the voice of the people but the voice of the machine boss that he heeds.

During the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles, a large box of telegrams was handed to Mr. Prendergast.4 He opened one or two, saw they were in favor of Adlai Stevenson, and threw the box away.

It must be obvious to anyone who attended or watched either or both of the conventions of 1960 that if the delegates chosen cannot represent what they consider to be the majority opinion of the people of their district they might as well stay at home. The convention could, as efficiently, be attended solely by the two or three high-ranking bosses from each state.

All that would be lacking would be the demonstrations, which are, as a rule, artificial displays of enthusiasm arranged for by the machines or the candidates themselves. These demonstrations are largely controlled, in their extent, noise and length of time, by the National Committeemen, who allot to each candidate the number of tickets to which they feel he is entitled, according to his apparent strength. This choice rests upon the decision of a single man.

It was rumored at the 1960 Democratic convention that Mr. Kennedy's group, which was undoubtedly the strongest, received a far greater number of passes than those assigned to Mr. Stevenson's headquarters.

This situation, of course, was greatly simplified in the Republican convention at Chicago, for there the people were offered no choice of candidates for the Presidency; as, indeed, had been the case with Mr. Nixon's vice-presidency in 1956.

It has been many years since, in Baltimore, I attended my first political convention for the nomination of a president. At that time I felt, and I feel still, that to select the standard-bearer of a party in an atmosphere of noise, bands and balloons, to the accompaniment of the manufactured and synthetic excitement of parades, is to strip one of the most important features of our system of its dignity and meaning. The circus has almost overshadowed the serious purpose and far-reaching effect of these deliberations. One can imagine, in horror, the effect of accompanying debates in the Senate or in the House by interpolations of noise and music from the partisans of either side of the question.

The time has come to restore the choice of a presidential candidate to the people themselves. How can this be done? One possibility has occurred to me. Instead of continuing to leave the selection of the men who, in turn, select the candidate, in the hands of the city and state committees, we should elect the delegates ourselves. The simplest and most direct procedure would be, at the primary nearest the convention, to elect the delegates to attend that convention and to have the names of all the presidential aspirants listed on the ballot. Each voter could check the name of the candidate of his choice. The delegates to the convention would be required to vote for the candidate with the majority vote in that primary.

Of course, beyond the first ballot, it might not be practicable to hold the delegate to the original choice. An occasion might arise in which there would be a deadlock and it would be impossible to come to any definite conclusion.

The answer to this seems to me to lie in the caucus held by each state delegation. In the past this, too often, has resulted in the issuing of definite instructions. If the law required a secret ballot, so that the delegates could be free to vote, as all Americans are presumed free to vote, according to their consciences, it would be possible to achieve a system that would come much closer to reflecting the wishes of the people of the United States than our present one does.

This, of course, is only a suggestion. Certainly any method would require considerable elasticity because of the various state laws. The important thing is that the whole concept of the rules governing a convention system should come before the American people to be reassessed and discussed.

Another outmoded piece of machinery in the selection of the President is the presidential primary as it now functions. The chief trouble here is that the candidates spend their time running down their rivals in the same party. The net result is to furnish a large amount of ammunition to the opposition party in the campaign. An example is the Republican use, in 1960 campaign propaganda, of everything Senator Johnson had said about Senator Kennedy in the preconvention days.

I have been talking from the point of view of a Democrat, because I am more familiar with their tactics. But it would appear that the same tactics are used in both parties. In both cases, one had the feeling that the convention did not greatly matter. The votes had been sewed up beforehand.

There is time ahead to re-examine our machinery on state and city as well as national level, to find a method to ensure that each of us can make his voice heard as independent and responsible voters. We can do it if we want to.

As Adlai Stevenson said to some of his family and friends in his living room in Los Angeles, during the hush that followed the realization of his defeat at the Democratic convention, "Cheer up. All is not lost."

Looking back on that turbulent--but prearranged--convention, I am heartened by the memory of the warm spontaneous outburst of genuine feeling and tribute and love that greeted Mr. Stevenson when he entered the hall to take his seat. Even though the delegates had been committed in advance, there was no stifling this tribute to a great statesman and a magnificent citizen.

For him, modest as he is, lacking in vanity, so incapable of self-aggrandizement that he refused to lift his hand to seek the nomination, it must have been a heart-lifting moment.

One factor of the convention that I had cause to remember afterwards was that no one knows when a television camera is turned his way, as the cameras are constantly swinging around. Unless you are constantly aware that you are under scrutiny you are apt to be caught at unexpected and embarrassing moments.

Later I received many letters from people who said they sympathized with my tears after Adlai's defeat. As a matter of fact, it was not tears I was having wiped off my cheek but someone's lipstick.

Because the plain-clothes men were afraid that when I went up to second Adlai's nomination I would be caught in a mob, they circled me about. They were very nice and very solicitous and treated me as though I were made of Dresden china. In fact, they practically carried me, with the result that we moved so slowly I thought we would never cover the ground from one side of the arena to another.

The plain-clothes men held my elbows firmly at every step. Now, this happens to be one of the few things which indicate to me that I am supposed to be unable to navigate in the ordinary manner at my age and I resent it very much. Consequently, I kept trying to get away from and shake off their helpful hands. Presumably this showed up on television, because I received a number of letters from people who wrote to assure me that I had behaved in a most rude and disagreeable manner.

I was also criticized for coming in and receiving an ovation while Governor Collins was making his excellent speech, but, because of the noise, I was quite unaware of the fact that anyone was speaking. Sometimes, even now, I am still taken aback to discover how closely one's most trivial movements are followed in this day of television. It seems as though one can find privacy only within the silence of one's own mind.

     1. The controversy in question centered around control of the Democratic Party in New York State. Throughout the 1950s, ER had clashed with the leader of the Tammany Hall political machine, Carmine DeSapio, especially after he backed Averell Harriman over then-Congressman Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. for the party's gubernatorial nomination in 1954 and Frank Hogan over Thomas Finletter for the party's senatorial nomination in 1958. When voters rejected Hogan and Harriman (who was up for re-election), ER held DeSapio liable for Republican victories ("When the Tammany Hall boss bossed the convention it meant the end of the democratic process.") and joined Thomas Finletter and Herbert Lehman to form the New York Committee for Democratic Voters (NYCDV) to depose DeSapio and defeat Tammany. By 1960, DeSapio pressed Kennedy to work only with the State Democratic Committee and Kennedy, worried that liberal activists would not work for his campaign, pushed Lehman and ER to act as honorary chairs of New York Citizens for Kennedy Committee. In 1961, Mayor Robert Wagner joined ER's efforts to help voters unseat DeSapio on September 7, 1961. [Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor Roosevelt: A Friend's Memoir (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1964), pp. 326-329; Herbert S. Parmet, The Democrats: The Years After FDR (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 179.]
     2. Political patronage includes all the "forms of largesse at the disposal of successful candidates for public office." Most frequently this includes the ability to dispense jobs and to direct the flow of government monies towards specific constituencies. Often used to reward loyal supporters, patronage can also be employed to expand support for a particular officeholder or political party. [James Truslow Adams, ed., Dictionary of American History, 2nd ed., vol. 4 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1940), pp. 224-225.]
     3. In August 1912, disgruntled progressive Republicans who wanted former President Theodore Roosevelt to represent the party rather than the more conservative incumbent William Howard Taft, bolted the Republican Party at the Convention, reorganized in a room down the hall, called themselves the Progressive Party, and nominated TR, who ran on what was soon called "the Bull Moose" ticket. Roosevelt garnered more votes than Taft but both lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. [Paul Boyer, et al., eds., The Oxford Companion to United States History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 624-625.]
     4. Michael Prendergast served as chair of the New York State Democratic Committee during the 1960 election. An ally of DeSapio's Tammany machine, Prendergast hoped to exercise control over New York's 114 delegates at the Los Angeles convention. The Kennedy campaign, however, had been able to secure enough support across New York State early enough to prevent this from happening. As a result, by July both Prendergast and DeSapio had thrown their support solidly behind JFK. [Theodore H. White, The Making of the President 1961 (New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1988), p. 140.]

Index to this Document: 1912 presidential election; 1956 presidential election; 1960 presidential election; Bull Moose Party: founding of; Theodore Roosevelt and; Collins, LeRoy: DNC 1960 address of; ER and; Commager, Henry Steele; Democratic National Convention, 1912 (DNC 1912): ER and; Democratic National Convention, 1960 (DNC 1960): ER on; New York State Democratic Committee and, Michael H. Prendergast and; Democratic Party; DeSapio, Carmine: Averell Harriman's support for; JFK's support for; Michael H. Prendergast and; ER fights with; Tammany Hall and; Eisenhower, Dwight D.; Finletter, Thomas K.: New York Committee for Democratic Voters and; Hanna, Marcus: Republican Party machine and; Theodore Roosevelt and; Harriman, W. Averell: Carmine DeSapio supported by; Hogan, Frank; Johnson, Lyndon Baines: on JFK; Kennedy, John F.: Carmine DeSapio supported by; Michael H. Prendergast and; Lehman, Herbert: New York Committee for Democratic Voters and; New York Committee for Democratic Voters: defined; Thomas Finletter and; Herbert Lehman and; ER and; New York State Democratic Committee: ER's criticism of; New York State Democratic Party; Nixon, Richard: RNC 1956, vice presidential nomination and; RNC 1960 and; Platt, Thomas Collier: Republican Party machine and; Theodore Roosevelt and; Prendergast, Michael H.: Carmine DeSapio and; DNC 1960 and; JFK and; Tammany Hall and; Presidential primaries: ER's criticism of; Republican National Convention 1956 (RNC 1956): Nixon and; Republican National Convention 1960 (RNC 1960): Republican Party: machine of, Marcus Hanna and; Roosevelt, Eleanor: on boss rule; Carmine DeSapio and; DNC 1912 and; DNC 1960, appraisal of; New York Committee for Democratic Voters and; on New York State Democratic Committee; political conventions criticized by; on political machines; presidential primaries, criticism of; Theodore Roosevelt and; Stevenson, ER's opinion of; on Tammany Hall; on television and politics; on Truman; Roosevelt, Franklin D., Jr.; Roosevelt, Theodore: Bull Moose Party and; Marcus Hanna and; Thomas Collier Platt and; Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr.; Stevenson, Adlai E.: DNC 1960 and, lost nomination at; ER's support for; Truman and; Taft, William Howard; Tammany Hall: Carmine DeSapio and; JFK and; New York State Democratic Committee and; Michael H. Prendergast and; ER's criticism of; Truman, Harry S.: ER, DNC 1960 and; Stevenson and; U.S. Government: U.S. Senate; Wagner, Robert F., Jr.; Wilson, Woodrow

Published by the Model Editions Partnership

Recommended citation: Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, John Sears, Christopher Alhambra, Mary Jo Binker, Christopher Brick, John S. Emrich, Eugenia Gusev, Kristen E. Gwinn, and Bryan D. Peery (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2003). Electronic version based on unpublished letters. .

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