LOS ANGELES — The last time the Democrats came to Los Angeles for their convention, their candidate was behind -and he went on to win in the fall. That was 1960, John F. Kennedy was their nominee, and Richard Nixon was the adversary. And this old-timer was there.
Kennedy had won enough delegates during the primaries to sew up the nomination. Yet he really had not won their affection; that would come later. Adlai Stevenson still was the sentimental favorite of the delegates and most Democrats.
This lingering love of Adlai led to that unreal moment at the convention when it seemed possible that these Kennedy delegates had lost their way and were bent on nominating Stevenson, their two-time loser of the past.
Stirring, emotional Stevenson-for-President nominating speeches by Eugene McCarthy and Eleanor Roosevelt set off the unexpected, roaring explosion of applause. We in the press had thought there would only be a token delegate response to what was hardly more than a token nomination. Stevenson had never even entered the race; Hubert Humphrey had contested Kennedy and lost in the primaries.
The rousing applause at first seemed to represent appreciation for that old soldier. But as the cheers rolled on and on, getting louder and louder and with delegates on all sides shouting, "We want Stevenson," we newsmen began to wonder where it was going. Some were asking: Could it possibly be that the delegates are going to nominate Stevenson?
But the cheering for Adlai finally subsided. The delegates remember what they were there for; and Kennedy was nominated.
I shall always remember seeing several disappointed women in the audience crying when the Stevenson-for-President bubble burst and the convention nominated a man who was to most Democrats still somewhat of a stranger.
Kennedy, of course, soon began to build up his own vast personal following. His first debate with Nixon, when much of the public was seeing the young Massachusetts senator for the first time and liking what they saw, turned Kennedy - in the eyes of many voters - into somewhat of a matinee idol.
I was covering Kennedy before and after that debate. Before that event, the Kennedy crowds were often sparse and the audience reception not overly enthusiastic. But, afterward, Kennedy was stirring up excitement wherever he went. I well remember those jumpers in the back of crowds - people trying to get just a glimpse of him.
Kennedy's principal liability lay in his being a Roman Catholic. Well before the convention he had faced up to that problem, making it known that he believed firmly in the separation of church and state and that under no circumstances would he let his church connection affect his presidency.
In an interview he told me that no Catholic priest had ever tried to influence his public decisions - "nor would it happen in the future."
Indeed, after making similar declarations to a group of Baptist ministers in the South, Kennedy was able to deal quite efficiently with his "religion problem." It was the end of his utterances on the subject. And, certainly, NIxon and Kennedy didn't make each other's religion a part of their debates. Indeed, the talk by both candidates during the campaign was entirely on other issues. And now - 40 years later - we're back in Los Angeles for a convention, and religion again is center stage.
Today there is this new openness to discussing one's faith. The two presidential candidates never seem to miss an opportunity to mention their reliance on God. In fact, someone who was counting noted that Al Gore's running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman mentioned God 13 times in 90 seconds in his Nashville debut.
But in one way things haven't changed. Back then the delegates and then voters had to decide whether a Catholic was qualified to be president. Now there's the question about whether Mr. Lieberman's being a Jew will make him a liability on the ticket.
The good news here is that polls are already showing Lieberman is an asset; Gore's getting closer to Bush in just the last few days is being attributed to the addition of Lieberman.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society