In the summer of 1960 I was an assistant to Donald “Duke” Norberg, the Chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. I, therefore, witnessed the run-up in Iowa to the national Democratic Party’s July 1960 convention in Los Angeles.
Before the convention Senators John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were the leading contestants for the Party’s presidential nomination.
On June 19th LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, came to Des Moines to woo the Iowa convention delegates. At a luncheon at the Hotel Fort Des Moines, LBJ emphasized the need for dynamic national leadership. He said that religion was not an issue whereas it undoubtedly was because Kennedy was Roman Catholic. Johnson then implicitly contradicted his own point by noting that he was accompanied by some of his Texas supporters; one, he said, was a Methodist, one an Episcopalian, one a Jew and one a Roman Catholic who had been knighted by Pope Pius XII. Johnson stressed that the U.S. had lost friends in the world as well as military power and that the president had to make foreign policy decisions. In an implicit criticism of Kennedy who recently had said that at the May 1960 U.S.-U.S.S.R. summit meeting President Eisenhower should have apologized to Khrushchev for the then recent U.S. U-2 spy plane’s flight over the Soviet Union that the Soviets had shot down, LBJ said that the U.S. should not have apologized. Such an apology, Johnson said, was not in line with what America stood for.
Before the luncheon, Mrs. Johnson worked the room. She visited people at different tables and asked if they knew some of the Johnson’s friends from their various home towns. This was a demonstration of the Johnson campaign’s good organization. The following day I drove one of Johnson’s assistants, Cliff Carter, to visit some of the Iowa delegates who could not make the luncheon. Carter asserted that although Kennedy was leading in national delegate support, he would fade on the third ballot after a high of 640 while LBJ would gain strength so that by the third ballot he would have over 800 delegates to win the nomination.
A week later, June 26th, JFK came to Des Moines for a reception at the Hotel Savery. I was not able to be in the room with Kennedy and the Iowa delegates. But I did see him in the hotel lobby and noticed the palpable excitement as he walked to the meeting. I overheard someone say, “Here is another Roosevelt.”
On July 13, 1960, the Los Angeles convention nominated Kennedy for president on the first ballot with 806 votes (or 52.9%). It then nominated Johnson for Vice President. In Kennedy’s July 15th acceptance speech he said, “The New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises– it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.”
In the November election, JFK and LBJ won the national popular vote by 113,000 votes over Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge out of a total vote of 68,831,000. In Iowa, however, Nixon/Lodge won with 56.7% of the vote; Kennedy/Johnson only carried six of the 99 counties in the state.
This experience before my senior year at Grinnell College was financed by its Program in Practical Politics.