Conventional Thinking

The presidential nomination convention season always reminds me of tripping over Governor Lawrence.

David Leo Lawrence, the 71-year-old governor of Pennsylvania, headed the state’s delegation to the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. He, Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley and Governor Pat Brown of California, were the old school political bosses whose control of 231 uncommitted votes would determine the candidate to run against Richard Nixon who, as a red-baiting congressman and Eisenhower’s mud-slinging vice-president, had set Democrats fervently and unalterably against him. The leading contenders were Adlai Stevenson, a cerebral former Illinois governor and favorite of the party’s liberal wing, whom Eisenhower had licked in 1952 and 1956, and John F. Kennedy, the glamorous junior senator from Massachusetts, who was perceived by the Stevensonians as too young, too insubstantial, and, as the son of Joseph P. Kennedy, a reputed anti-Semite with the scruples of a 19th century Robber Baron, too morally suspect. Besides, he was Catholic, and everyone remembered what had happened to Al Smith in 1928. Stevenson had not contested the primaries, hoping for a draft, and Kennedy, who won most of them, remained 150 votes short of the nomination when the convention’s first gavel fell. Running behind and hoping to be turned to in the event of a deadlock were Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and Senator Stuart Symington, a defense-hawk from Missouri.

My father, who had been active in Democratic city politics for 30 years and was leader of South Philadelphia’s Fourth Ward, was one of those delegates the contenders courted. Personally, he was all-in for Stevenson, but he was loyal, and he knew how bread got buttered. Lawrence admired Stevenson too, but he, like Dailey and Brown, studied his cards, pondered his tea leaves, and kept silent.

A telegram from Eleanor Roosevelt would greet each unlocked-up vote: “Follow the dictates of your conscience…,” it urged and join the million Americans petitioning to have “the universally acknowledged best qualified man” picked. She meant Adlai.

My father liked the road. No other aspect of him suggested Dean Moriarty, but the highway nourished something within. In 1939, for their honeymoon, he drove my mother to Mexico. Beginning when I was 10 and my brother five, his preferred vacations, summer and winter, entailed loading us in the car and seizing the wheel. We went to the Laurentians, Florida (three or four times), Yellowstone, and California in an era when air conditioning was a bulky metal contraption into which you poured cold water so that, hooked onto a window, it temporarily chilled the passing air, and, when you saw another Pennsylvania license plate, you honked. These trips had ceased a few years earlier, but with me about to leave home for college at Brandeis, he decided the convention justified a farewell tour.

I would have preferred cruising Lancaster Pike, catching Narberth Summer League games, and surreptitiously drinking Miller’s quarts with my pals to crossing Iowa, Kansas and Nevraska, but the convention had appeal. I planned to major in political science. I read Time and Newsweek and knew the players. And I’d been for Stevenson since he answered a condolence note I wrote him after his loss in ‘52.

Our means of transit, however, was a burr beneath my saddle. My father’s favors for a Broad Street dealer allowed him to purchase on the cheap cars that’d been repossessed. This had landed him, in 1958, a green El Dorado which gave the descriptive “garish” new resonance. It may have represented the scaling of some summit to my 10th & Baimbridge raised dad, but, to my adolescent rebellious self, it meant humiliation. Any Cadillac, let alone one with fins longer than a White House hoagie, signified “Bourgeoises-spoken-here.” It practically screeched “Nouveau riche” If my father delivered me somewhere my buddies might be in attendance, I insisted on riding in the back, slumped so it might appear I’d hitched a lift with a stranger. My feelings were not without outside validation. On our way to L.A., for instance, we dipped south of the border, and, in Mexico City, touring the university campus, were stopped by student demonstrators who, identifying us by our wheels as Yankee imperialists, heaved agua upon us.

But in Lotusland, the Caddy proved handy. Pennsylvania’s deficiencies in fund-raising or dues payment had relegated its delegation to the Huntington-Sheraton in Pasadena, a $15 cab ride ($45 now) from the convention site, the Memorial Sports Arena. Almost everyone else had flown in, so my father held a valuable, cost-saving chit. Most days, he gave Henry J. (“Buddy”) Cianfrani, leader of the Second Ward, a ride. Buddy, a free-spirited character, whose insouciance and joie de vivre would lead to his serving 27 months for racketeering and mail fraud in the late 1970s (after which he resumed his political career), capitalized on the car’s image to secure us free-and-favored parking by convincing the lot attendants it was the governor’s and my father his chauffeur.

That is one of my favorite memories of the convention. Another is the stirring speech by a to-me unknown senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy, placing Stevenson’s name in nomination. (“Do not reject the man who made us all proud to be Democrats.”) A third is the redhead from Arkansas who somehow resisted being equally fascinated by me. And then there is my father’s introducing me to Max Lerner at the opening cocktail party.

Lerner, a New Deal liberal, who had written for The Nation and PM, was covering the convention for the New York Post, where he was a columnist. He also taught American civilization at Brandeis, and my father, politician that he was, probably reasoned any potential connection a good one. (In fact, Lerner’s course was so unchallenging and graded so leniently that a classmate would later describe it as “walking into a Who’s Who on Academic Probation.”) Our meeting produced no sparks. I had never heard of Lerner, and he, further study revealed, would have been more interested if the flesh he pressed had been that of a freshman-to-be oppositely sexed.

I enjoyed the convention. I scooped up an “All the Way With LBJ” walking stick, Symington mini-sun glasses, a cardboard hat that declared “America Wants Stevenson,” and a plastic boater with a “Kennedy: Man For The ‘60s” red-white-and-blue band. I attended the Biltmore dinner ( le filet mignon, les pommes champs elysees, and les coeurs de palmiers amandine), co-emceed by Milton Berle and George Jessel, entertainment by Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Mort Sahl. It was there I first saw Kennedy, practically radiating strength and vigor. Still, I had no sense he heralded a new course in national policies or culture. I lacked all inkling of Camelot. Nor did I suspect that his glow came from the cortisone his Addison’s Disease required.
But returning to Governor Lawrence. My father would regularly score me a badge from those who preferred the action at the hotel bar or pool, enabling me to sit on the floor with the delegation. The governor presided in Pennsylvania’s front row, on the aisle, and before the climactic session, when Wyoming put Kennedy over the top, hurrying to my seat, my foot caught on his, nearly throwing me into his lap. I righted myself, said “Sorry” to his scowl, and plowed forward. I imagine my father momentarily wondered what future appointments it would cost to claim me, but he held my space and welcomed my arrival.

Back in Philadelphia, my father was asked by an ex-Commie neurosurgeon from Lower Merion with whom he played bridge, “Herb, how could you have voted against Stevenson?” “Because,” he answered, “the governor said we were going with Kennedy, and he was going to win.”

That was one lesson to take away from that summer. Another was that he had not held it against me when I stumbled getting to my place.

From October, 2012