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DEMOCRATS: The Big Battle

8 minute read

Before the convention opened, it was clear that Adlai Stevenson, the reluctant candidate, was the man most of the most influential delegates wanted. The Kefauver and Harriman forces of more or less liberal Democrats formed an alliance, decided that what they needed was an issue comparable to the contested delegate fight at the opening of the G.O.P. convention. The issue they hoped would rouse the convention to their side: Northern New Dealism v. Southern conservatism.

Monday. At the first night session they rammed through (by voice vote) a resolution requiring all delegations to sign a “loyalty pledge,” promising to use “all honorable means” to get the convention’s nominees on the ballots in their states (TIME, July 28). This was designed to make it impossible for the Dixiecrats to run their own regional candidate on the Democratic ticket, as some Southern states had done in 1948. Chiefly responsible for the loyalty pledge move were Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. Harriman campaign manager, Michigan Senator Blair Moody. Michigan Governor Mennen (“Soapy”) Williams, a group which North Carolina’s old (82), formidable former Governor Cameron Morrison called “half-educated boys.” Against them were such fierce old eagles as South Carolina’s Jimmy Byrnes and Virginia’s Senator Harry Byrd, who were politicians before Roosevelt & Co. could spell “caucus.”

Tuesday. The “half-educated boys” began to suspect that they had gone too far, agreed to soften the pledge by adding a proviso that, “for this convention only,” it would not be binding if it interfered with state laws. But Virginia, South Carolina and Louisiana still refused to sign.

Wednesday. On the floor, it became apparent that there was no steam in the North-South fight. Reason: the issue that divided them was “white supremacy,” and “white supremacy” is no longer a live slogan in the U.S. One of the Democratic Convention’s most important achievements was to make this fact clear. Few delegates really wanted to force the South into a walkout. Said Virginia’s Harry Byrd: “We’ll just sit here, and maybe they’ll have to throw us out.”

Thursday. On nominating day the delegates, not unlike a family taking the kids to the circus, eager and just a little apprehensive, brought a full arsenal of convention democracy—placards and pennants, paper hats and noisemakers, confetti and enthusiasm. Dick Russell was first. Then that great tribal dance known as the demonstration for the candidate broke loose, with waving banners, music, shouting. Nominating speeches for Kefauver, Kerr, Fulbright, Harriman, Ewing followed. More shouting, more music, more posters. Then Stevenson.

In the midst of the nomination hoopla, the North-South battle erupted again. Louisiana’s Governor Kennon insisted that his delegation could not sign the loyalty pledge: “So, I suppose, I shall have to say goodbye and God bless you.” Maryland’s senatorial candidate Lansdale Sasscer moved to seat Virginia, even though it had not signed the pledge. The Harriman-Kefauver forces fought it all-out. For a while, it looked as if they would win this test. Stevenson’s own Illinois voted 45 against seating Virginia, 15 for. But by the time the roll passed Pennsylvania, it became clear that the Kefauver-Harriman bloc did not include the bosses. Pennsylvania voted 57-13 for seating Virginia. That was the tip-off to other states that a vote for the motion was a vote for Stevenson. Pro-Stevenson leaders frantically worked up & down the aisles, urging delegates to switch. After a wave of corrections and switches (including Illinois), the vote was 615 for seating Virginia, 529 against.

The Harriman-Kefauver forces, beaten again, decided they needed an adjournment to rally their strength and prevent a ballot that night. Senator Paul Douglas, like a man possessed, shouted, “Mr. Chairman! Mr. Chairman!” In a hoarse, weird croak, he moved adjournment. When it looked as if Chairman Rayburn might let the convention dispose of the matter by voice vote, Douglas, his face contorted in frenzy, shouted. “Roll call! Roll call!” The roll was called, and the convention decided to stay in session.

While Governor Byrnes was being harried with questions on the loyalty pledge, smoke and flames rose from among the tightly packed crowd of delegates. In short order, the firemen put out the flames. Jimmy Byrnes rose to say dryly: “I want to announce that I did not set the place on fire.”

The convention laughed. His remark did much to ease the tension of the fight. By voice vote the convention seated South Carolina and Louisiana. At 1:55 a.m. after 13¾ hours, the delegates scrambled for their cars and buses.

The Kefauver-Harriman strategists called a caucus at the Congress Hotel; F.D.R. Jr. seemed dazed. “Let’s see,” he rambled . . . We were dealed out and gaveled out of victory . . . Life is not always a bowl of cherries, but … I promise you this: I’ll be back . . .”

Friday. There were no more noisemakers, no more streamers. The musicians left their seats. It was the day of reckoning and the arithmetic was to be more dramatic than the speeches.

Kefauver spurted ahead at the start. There were no major surprises. The favorite-son states stuck to their candidates. The Southern states held a solid front for Richard Russell. Result of the first ballot: Kefauver 340, Stevenson 273, Russell 268, Harriman 123½, Kerr 65, Barkley 48½.

On the second ballot, some favorite-son strength melted away, but there were no major breaks. Both Kefauver and Stevenson gained. The position at the end of Ballot No. 2: Kefauver 362½, Stevenson 324½, Russell 294, Harriman 121, Barkley 78½.

Estes Kefauver sat in his grubby bedroom in the Stock Yard Inn, a bottle of beer in his hand and a sandwich on his lap. His sleepy eyes were fixed on the TV screen. As he watched the first two ballots, his spirits revived. “I’ve never been more delighted in my life,” said he.

Then James Roosevelt, Governor Mennen (“Soapy”) Williams and Senator Blair Moody appeared in the little bedroom to tell Kefauver the facts of life.

He had done better than they expected, but he could never hope to get enough Stevenson or Russell votes for a majority. Truman, who was having dinner on the floor below, had just seen Paul Fitz-patrick of New York and Governor Dever of Massachusetts. Within minutes, Dever would announce his own withdrawal, Fitz-patrick the withdrawal of New York’s Harriman. It was all over.

Kefauver tried one more fantastic grandstand play. With Senator Douglas, he slipped out of the inn and headed for the arena, flanked by bodyguards and reporters. They ran into a police cordon, thrown around the amphitheater because of Harry Truman’s impending visit, pounded on a closed door. No one would let them in. Then someone led them back to the inn, through a pantry and the crowded taproom, into the hall.

The third ballot had reached Colorado. Up the center aisle, elbowing aside the ushers, came a small procession. The delegates strained to see who it was. They could hardly believe their eyes: it was Kefauver and Douglas, heading straight for the platform.

Later Kefauver explained: he wanted to withdraw in favor of Douglas, and then Douglas would withdraw in favor of Stevenson. But Sam Rayburn led the invaders to the. back, behind a chain shutting off the front end of the platform. Cried Rayburn: “Never in the history of a Democratic Convention has a roll call been interrupted for any purpose.”

Kefauver and Douglas sat down sheepishly as the roll call went on. Kefauver’s hard core still stuck to him, and individual delegates still shouted slogans (“I am happy to cast my vote for that man of destiny from the mountains of Tennessee”).

Sagging Balloon. Michigan’s 40 votes were the first big switch to Stevenson, followed inexorably by a gain of 83½ from New York. The roll call dragged on, as delegate after delegate asked that delegations be polled. Theoretically, this is done when anyone questions the accuracy of the vote announced by the chairman. Actually, most of those who said they questioned the accuracy were fibbing; they did it partly for the record, partly for a brief moment in the TV glare.

At the end of the roll call, Stevenson was still 2½ short of the majority. Kefauver finally got the floor. “I, and I know all my friends, will join’ to … elect Governor Stevenson as President of the United States,” he said, in a low voice. Utah’s switch put Stevenson over the top. The final vote: Stevenson 617½, Kefauver 275½, Russell 261, Barkley 67½.

At the rear of the platform stood Nancy Kefauver, an orchid on her shoulder, tears in the corners of her eyes. An official asked her to come forward. “No, I don’t want to,” she said.

Later, someone remembered that it was Kefauver’s 49th birthday, and the convention dutifully burst into. . . Happy birthday, dear Estes, Happy birthday to you!

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