The GOP talent pool of 2012 — the Democrats of 1960?
Will the Republican National Convention of 2012 — scheduled to be reaching its zenith one year from today — look more like a political version of American Idol?
Showcasing an explosion of fresh political faces destined to star in American politics for decades into the future?
Is it 1960 all over again? When the Democratic National Convention was showered with so much sparkling new political talent that it shaped both the party and the nation for the next quarter century?
Except this time, in 2012, it’s show time for Republicans? With a new Republican Kelly or Jennifer or Carrie just waiting to be discovered?
While today’s media follows the traditional ups-and-downs of the campaign trail (Perry is beating Romney! Palin is getting in! Palin is out! Ron Paul was second to Bachmann in Iowa! Santorum is gaining! Extra! Extra! Extra! Read all about it!) there’s something else at work in the GOP.
The 2012 Republican National Convention, which will begin on August 27 in the Tampa, Florida arena known as the St. Pete Times Forum, promises to be a rarity. A once-in-a-generation clustering of aborning political stars that has perhaps not been seen since Democrats gathered in Los Angeles in 1960 to nominate — after an extraordinary fight — Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy.
Indeed, the 1960 gathering of Democrats was perhaps the most remarkable political gathering of its kind in the last 40 years of the 20th century. Attending the convention that week in July were names known and mostly nationally unknown. Names that would become famous over the next quarter century, associated with all manner of historical events and national traumas, some for better and others decidedly for worse.
Let’s start at the top.
John F. Kennedy: Since January of 1960 — early in the election calendar in those days — the 43-yearold newcomer Senator Kennedy had been out of the gate as the presumed frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. There were only seven presidential primaries, and he won them all. But not without a terrific fight. In what would become even more of a rarity over the next quarter-century of presidential politics, the actual nomination battle climaxed dramatically on the floor of the convention itself, as JFK won at the tale-end of the first ballot with the votes of the Wyoming delegation. He will go on to defeat Republican Vice President Richard Nixon by 100,000 votes in a legendarily close election. Assassinated in November of 1963, he becomes an American icon, the Arthurian hero of “Camelot” — a concept fashioned by his wife Jacqueline within weeks of his death and immortalized by author and JFK friend Theodore H. White in a Life magazine tribute to the late President. Administration battles: Civil Rights and the beginning of Vietnam, two crises in Cuba including one — the Cuban Missile Crisis — in which the world is walked to the brink of nuclear war.
Lyndon B. Johnson: LBJ, the canny Senate Majority Leader a Washington fixture but mostly unknown outside his home state of Texas, declares his candidacy with the primary season over and he untainted by any losses. As a Texan he pulls considerable Southern support. LBJ is not fond of the Kennedys, viewing the young JFK as an ambitious young upstart. LBJ pulls up a respectable but to him humiliating second. Yet when JFK surprisingly offers the vice-presidency to LBJ — a story of much Machiavellian intrigue — Johnson shocks many by saying yes. In a rare contribution of a vice-presidential nominee, Johnson is credited with carrying his home state of Texas for the Northeastern and Catholic JFK. He becomes president on the day of Kennedy’s murder. The following year he wins in a landslide over GOP nominee Senator Barry Goldwater. He launches the massive “Great Society” federal spending program and sinks the U.S. deep into the quagmire that becomes Vietnam. So controversial does he become that by 1968 his public appearances are frequently limited to secure zones such as U.S. military bases. He withdraws from a re-election race and he refuses to attend his party’s convention in Chicago. He also, with considerable Republican help, passes JFK’s Civil Rights bills. He dies suddenly from a heart attack days after Richard Nixon is inaugurated for a second term in 1973.
Hubert H. Humphrey: The senior Senator from Minnesota, it is Humphrey who has come closest to defeating JFK in the Democratic primaries, notably Wisconsin and West Virginia. He loses after a terrific fight and by Convention time is out of the race but present in the hall. Passed over for the VP nomination for his colleague and friend LBJ, Humphrey will be re-elected to the Senate in the fall and spend the next four years as the Senate Democratic Whip. He champions Civil Rights and arms control issues as the Senate’s famous liberal leader of the day. In 1964 he is picked by LBJ for the vice-presidency. He serves four tumultuous and frustrating years in the job. In 1968 he is nominated for the presidency and loses to ex-GOP vice president Nixon in another close election. On the sidelines, Humphrey returns to the Senate in 1970, runs again for the Democratic nomination again in 1972, losing. He remains in the Senate, declining a 1976 race many thought he could have won. He becomes the Senate’s elder statesman — the position of Deputy President Pro Temp created for him. He dies in 1978, given a state funeral.
Adlai E. Stevenson: The best known Democrat in the nation in 1960, the party’s 1952 and 1956 losing nominee against Eisenhower loses a draft-Adlai effort at the Convention. JFK makes him Ambassador to the United Nations where Stevenson becomes famous in a showdown at the UN with the Soviet Ambassador during the climax of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He dies of a heart attack three years later in 1965.
While there were other lesser candidates, these were the four in the “top tier” of the party at the 1960 Convention. Just below, milling around in the flashing spotlights of political fame, was a veritable platoon of future national political superstars.
Robert F. Kennedy: JFK’s younger brother, he was also in 1960 the candidate’s campaign manager. Already making a name as a Senate investigator of labor racketeering, the 1960 campaign would make him both famous and, by December, the new president’s choice to be Attorney General of the United States. As attorney general he pursued issues from civil rights to steel price hikes with what America would learn was his typical zeal or, in the eyes of his enemies, “ruthlessness.” After his brother’s murder, he inherits the “Camelot” mantle and is elected Senator from New York. In four years he becomes LBJ’s most hated intra-party rival. He runs for president in 1968 and is assassinated after claiming victory in the California primary.
Edward M. “Teddy” Kennedy: The youngest of the Kennedy brothers, Teddy gets his first taste of the limelight as the regional manager of the Western states in the 1960 primary fight. It is a smiling Teddy who is caught on camera on the Convention floor as he stands in the middle of the Wyoming delegation, knowing that it is Wyoming — his responsibility — that will provide the votes giving JFK his first-ballot win. Two years later at the age of 30 — the minimum age, he is elected to his brother’s old Senate seat. He will remain there until his death 47 years later. After the death of his brother Bobby, Teddy Kennedy is seen as the heir to “Camelot.” Immediately considered a presidential possibility from 1968 forward, he runs and loses the nomination in 1980. His personal life — a 1969 incident involving the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in which he leaves the scene of the accident, along with an alcohol problem — effectively keeps him from the White House. He becomes instead the “Liberal Lion of the Senate” — a major voice in an endless series of national events from Vietnam to Supreme Court nominations to health care and the election of Barack Obama.
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