• U.S.

National Affairs: Hail & Farewell

5 minute read

Within a space of days, old (74) Alben Barkley was swept into such riptides of excitement, wild hopes and shattering delusion as few men ever know in a lifetime. On the very eve of the convention he heard heart-lifting news: the Administration, fearful that Stevenson could not be drafted, uncertain of other candidates, was turning at the eleventh hour to him.

He hurried to Chicago, buoyed by a strong old man’s fierce pride, strutted five blocks through heat and applause, and girded himself to grasp the ultimate prize. Then, with cruel suddenness, the prize was snatched away. The Stevenson boom had never really died; when Barkley invited some labor friends, among them the C.I.O.’s Walter Reuther and Jack Kroll, to a friendly breakfast, they carelessly told him the awful truth: he was too old.

Forgiveness. No man knew better than he that there was no appeal from the cold dictates of expediency, but the knowledge was salt in his wounds. He issued a bitter public reply and locked himself in his room. The party had not meant to hurt him, but having done so, it could not rest without obtaining his forgiveness. He must, it urged, come forth and be saluted. In a sense it was a terrible request; the party now had nothing to offer but mocking sound, but it asked that he return thanks and praise before the world. He agreed.

On the night the ritual was to be enacted, the amphitheater’s galleries were jammed to the rafters with crowds which sat ghostly and half revealed behind the slanted, dazzling shafts of brightness from the television lights. When Barkley came down the stairs at the end of the platform, stiffened his back, lifted his chin and advanced unsmilingly to the speaker’s stand, the restless rumble of the crowd became a roar. The ovation went on for 20 minutes.

Occasionally, Barkley forced a grin. Occasionally, he lifted his thick arms for the beelike clusters of photographers below him. But for the most part he remained motionless and impassive, his hands clamped on the stand. Behind him in the mezzanine his pretty wife stood, surrounded by applauding women, stared expressionlessly straight ahead. She licked her lips as if her mouth were dry. Then, finally, the uproar hushed and Alben Barkley began to speak—his vigorous, harsh, measured and practiced voice carrying to the farthest corners of the huge hall.

He was interrupted almost at once by applause. He was, he cried, “more firmly convinced in the righteousness of the Democratic cause than . . . ever before in my entire life . . .” He was not a candidate. But as he went on, it was impossible not to conclude that he was making a hopeless, last-ditch attempt to bring about some improbable stampede of delegates, to set off some improbable rallying of the television audiences. He spoke without a text. “Not,” he said, “from a piece of paper, but from the heart.” Bathed by applause, he fell into that half trance in which the old-fashioned political orator achieves communion with his fellow men.

No Lightning. Too old? Only last November, he recalled, he had visited U.S. troops upon the “snowclad mountains” of Korea, had eaten a humble meal from a mess kit in the open. He had celebrated his last birthday in Korea, but it was not the last birthday he would enjoy. He spoke as if he did not really believe he would retire “to the shades and shelters of private life …”

In effect, he repeated the points made by almost every orator at the convention —but none had said them as passionately, as dramatically, or with such skill. The Republican crusade? “We,” he cried, “are not beginning a crusade. We are continuing a crusade … [for] a happier and fuller life for all mankind in the years that lie before us.” He ended by speaking of “2½ billion human beings bowed down . . . by war and fear of war,” predicted that “the day shall come when they shall all rise . . . and stand erect before Almighty God … as free men and women. God grant that it may come in your day and mine. Thank you . . . and goodbye.”

As he ended, the hall erupted sound. He stood, arms widespread, beaming finally in what seemed genuine delight. His wife made her way down to stand and wave beside him. Dignitaries rushed up to shake his hand—pink-domed Jim Farley, the Roosevelt brothers, Jimmy and Franklin, James Caesar Petrillo, scores of Senators, bosses, party leaders. The clamor went on for a full 50 minutes. But no lightning struck. No change of heart gripped the milling thousands—then, or later in the convention. As he left the platform and disappeared into the mezzanine after his two hours in the limelight, the crowd was singing: “My Old Kentucky Home . . . good night.”

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