National party conventions were once wild west spectacles.
Exactly 60 years ago I watched my very first presidential convention on television when a fresh-faced democratic Senator won his party’s nomination for president.
It was a raucous affair, unlike today’s virtual, highly programmed convention. It was one worthy of beckoning us into the New Frontier.
The 1960 Democratic Convention was a high-steppin, wild west of a good time, and my family and I had front row seats in front of our Philco. It was as rip roarin, rip snortin a time as any western on TV.
I wasn’t but knee-high to a lamb when Walter Cronkite shepherded me into the New Frontier that hot summer of 1960. A trustworthy thoroughbred if ever there was one, Walter “Curly” Cronkite safely steered me and my family through the rough and tumble, wild west that was the 1960 Democratic Convention.
That July was as hot as a whorehouse on a nickel night.
As the blazing sun set in the East, television turned to the West for the coverage of the Final Showdown at the OK Corral Convention Arena in Los Angeles.
In those days, the nominee for President wasn’t a done deal. And the Vice President sure as shootin’ hadn’t already been picked earlier like today.
The whole purpose of the convention was for persuading them there delegates still on the fence, to take a shine to your candidate. Then all fired up, they’d choose their party’s nominee for president.
It had the makins’ of a rootin-tootin, good-time.
Giddy Up to the Convention
Mom was fixin’ to get us cowpokes some cool ice cream, as the TV set warmed up. My brother and I sure were hankering to watch The Rifleman on channel seven, but we were outnumbered.
“Hold your horses,” Dad calmly said.
He explained that the Presidential convention that only came around every four years was as rip-roarin’, rip-snortin’ a time as any western on TV.
There’d be a lot of whoopin’ an’ hollerin’, fightin’ and cussin’; plenty of folks dickerin’ and goin’ at it hammer and tongs,” described Dad as his eyes lit up.
“It would be chock full of scalawags and boot lickers, pow wows and Indian Givers, and a whole lotta last-minute horse-trading, gambling, and bellyaching; there’d be stallions and geldings a courting and a wooin’, and plenty of filly’s, fine as cream gravy, prancing around.”
“There were curmudgeon Congressmen who were mean enough to steal a fly from a blind spider, and Senators ornery enough to eat off the same plate as a snake. Some fellers were as crazy as popcorn on a hot stove, and so dumb they couldn’t track an elephant in snow,” he continued.
The main stars of this ultimate rodeo show filled with hope and a lot of gumption were a young cowpoke from Massachusetts Senator Jack “Fandango” Kennedy, and Texas’s favorite cowboy and master of the Senate Lyndon “Longhorn” Johnson. Pulling up the rear was smiling Senator Stuart Symington and long shot Adlai Stevenson the Democrats favorite egghead.
“Mark my words,” Dad promised, “at the end of the convention one of ‘em will be grinning like a weasel in a hen-house and as pleased as a pup with two tails when he becomes the new Sheriff in town., and more than one of ‘em will be hurtin’ like the dickens, and high tailin’ it outta Dodge madder than an old wet hen.”
The convention was crawling with glitter, a continuous blaze of color with Kennedy cuties bedecked in red, white, and blue sundresses, sporting JFK buttons, banners and bows, snake dancing through the delegates.
This fandango of frenzy, flashbulb- popping fiddle-faddle, glad-handing gadabouts trading guffaws and favors with party brass a huddlin’, and scalawags a scamperin’ was brought to you in basic black and white, with the color enhancement courtesy of Walter Cronkite and his well-honed ear to the ground.
The dense, smoke-filled hall full of scuttlebutt, was a bedlam of balderdash, brass bands and brass balls.
With scouts sent boldly onto the convention floor to ambush any delegates willing to spill the beans, a vigilant Cronkite listened to every sound.
“Kennedy went through a heap of trouble to get that nomination,” Cronkite commented. “His high falutin’ Harvard friends did a bang-up job. And his daddy who was powerful rich didn’t hurt none. And now by gum, he was the biggest toad in the pond.”
Dad was dumbfounded; he thought anyone was plumb crazy to support a tenderfoot like Jack Kennedy.
“Criminy! He ain’t worth a hill of beans!” Dad snorted. “He’ll have a hard row to hoe if he runs against Vice President Nixon.”
Later when the new sheriff chose his deputy, a tall Texan who sounded just like Deputy Dawg, Dad was incredulous.
“What in Sam Hill are they doing,” Dad cried out. “They got the wrong pig by the tail choosing Lyndon “I-don’t-play-second-fiddle-to-anyone” Johnson!”
Just before it was time for me to skedaddle off to bed, the victor climbed to the top of the podium and looked out at the wilderness spread out below him.
Just like Dad said he would, JFK was grinning like a weasel in a hen-house.
John Kennedy was one of the best woodsmen in the frontier.
He was a hard livin’, hard lovin’, hard fightin’ believer in freedom, who like Lariat Sam couldn’t see anything but good in anybody.
After weeks of hard travel through every one horse town, he had reached the last Mountain in Los Angeles by the skin of his teeth.
He knew he would face many dangers.
But he had a mind to face them. Political life was not for the lily-livered, or yellow-bellied, but John Fitzgerald Kennedy was tall hog at the trough.
Under skies that were not cloudy all day, a young, hell-fired up John Kennedy was fixin’ to accept his party’s nomination that blazing summer in 1960, inviting us all to “Saddle up Pardner,” hitch our wagon to his train and be pioneers in a New Frontier.
With my Matt Dillon gen-u-ine leather holster embellished with bright metal jewels hugging my hips for fast draws, my matching pair of shootin’ irons with the big hammer-head for quick fanning action – A-RAT-TA-TA TAT and A RING A DING DING – I was ready to be a pioneer in that New Frontier that Kennedy beckoned us to.
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