When Brokered Conventions Selected the Best Candidates

By Beacon Staff

Memory often flirts with a singular episode from one’s past. This year’s presidential primary campaign has me remembering a political season from my teen years. Intrigued and inspired by politics done right, I was captivated by the 1952 Democratic and Republican conventions. Many candidates sought their party’s nomination but only two held the imagination and support of both the public and the convention delegates, and neither of those candidates either wanted or sought the presidency. Back then, unlike today, state presidential primaries and caucuses were virtually non-existent. Party leaders selected the presidential nominee, working through the many hundreds of state delegates to the two national conventions.

Dwight Eisenhower, a hero of World War II, decided only six weeks before the convention that he was a Republican. Those encouraging the moderate Eisenhower to allow his name to be placed in nomination had two objectives: to prevent the harshly conservative Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio from winning the nomination and, of course, to propel Eisenhower into the White House.

The Democrats had eight announced candidates. The leading three were Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, and Gov. Averill Harriman of New York. The outgoing president, Harry Truman, had tried unsuccessfully to convince an almost unknown governor from Illinois, Adlai Stevenson, to become a candidate. Stevenson refused but did agree to give the convention’s keynote address. That hot July evening at the Chicago convention the wit, style, voice and ideas enunciated by Stevenson electrified the delegates as well as millions of Americans listening and watching across the country. For the last time in American political history, a nominating convention became wide open, brokered, and Adlai Stevenson, unable to suppress the excitement and enthusiasm, was nominated for president on the third ballot.

The Republican Convention was, to a degree, also brokered with the wildly popular Eisenhower, an unseasoned politician, reluctantly agreeing to allow his name to be placed in nomination. He was chosen on the first ballot.

Those conventions rejected candidates who had been campaigning for the nomination and turned instead to two men – Ike and Adlai –who had to be persuaded to accept the presidential candidacy.

Sixty years ago those two quadrennial political extravaganzas, with hoopla and Wurlitzer, meeting only one day apart in the city of Chicago did the unexpected – something that we have not seen since. In brokered conventions, delegates, and yes, political, corporate and union bosses selected two of the very best presidential candidates ever offered to the American people … two reluctant men, Ike and Adlai, the qualities of which we haven’t seen since.

Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and taught at The University of Montana.

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