Wednesday, August 27, 2014

When the Cheering Would Not Stop

"When there were periods of crisis, you stood beside him. When there were periods of happiness, you laughed with him. And when there were periods of sorrow, you comforted him."

Robert F. Kennedy
Aug. 27, 1964

It was the president's birthday, and he was scheduled to give a speech accepting his party's nomination that night. His newly anointed running mate also was scheduled to give a speech accepting his nomination.

But the delegates at the Democratic National Convention 50 years ago tonight gave their longest, most sustained ovation to the attorney general and late president's brother, Robert F. Kennedy.

Kennedy was there to introduce a film honoring his brother, who had been assassinated about nine months earlier.

There was no love lost between Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy. Johnson feared having to put Kennedy on the ticket with him to placate party leaders; the bad blood between them predated John F. Kennedy's administration, and LBJ had worried, on the day of the assassination, that Bobby Kennedy, as attorney general, would find some way to deny him the presidency.

That did not happen, of course, but so intent was LBJ on preventing Kennedy from seizing power that he had announced, early in 1964, that no members of his Cabinet would be considered for running mate.

(In my studies of that time, I have yet to see any kind of evidence that Kennedy ever wanted to be Johnson's running mate.)

Of course, that didn't prevent Johnson from relying heavily on Kennedy to get the Civil Rights Act passed earlier in the summer of 1964. If he was nothing else, Johnson was a political creature, and he knew the P.R. value of at least appearing to be in Kennedy's good graces. But he feared being upstaged by Kennedy.

Kennedy originally was scheduled to introduce the film on Tuesday, Aug. 25, but Johnson wanted to push it back to Thursday night. He was worried that a movement to draft Kennedy, born of the emotion of the moment, could force him to put Kennedy on the ticket. Consequently, he wanted Kennedy to make his appearance on Thursday night, the last night of the convention — when the nominations would be done deals and all that remained would be the acceptance speeches.

Even though it was supposed to be Johnson's night.

Even though it was Johnson's birthday.

"I stood on the floor in the midst of the thunderous ovation," wrote historian Arthur Schlesinger. "I had never seen anything like it. Ordinarily an organ in the background controls the pandemonium of a convention. This time they stopped the organ after a moment or so. But the demonstration roared on, reaching a new intensity every time that Robert Kennedy, standing with a wistful half–smile on his face, tried to bring it to an end."

The delegates' ovation was not a surprise. The duration and fervor of it was.

As Schlesinger noted, Kennedy tried, unsuccessfully, to quiet the crowd so he could speak. Henry Jackson of Washington reportedly told Kennedy to let the delegates have their demonstration. "Let them get it all out of their systems," he supposedly said. And, for the most part, Kennedy did.

When Kennedy finally did speak, there couldn't have been a dry eye in the convention hall, particularly when he closed with a quotation from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet:"
"When he shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun."

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