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.
Eugene J. McCarthy: The junior Senator from Minnesota, McCarthy steps into the Convention spotlight as the man who nominates Adlai Stevenson for president. Four years later he is seriously considered as LBJ’s running mate, losing out to Humphrey. In 1968 McCarthy takes on the task of challenging LBJ for the presidential nomination over Vietnam. To the shock of political observers he comes close to defeating the sitting President in New Hampshire. The results are two: Robert Kennedy reverses himself and enters the race. And on March 30, LBJ abruptly withdraws. With Kennedy’s death McCarthy winds up opposing his old Minnesota comrade Humphrey. He loses, but not before becoming a prime figure in the “anti-war” movement. Two years later he gives up his Senate seat, which Humphrey reclaims.
Walter F. Mondale: Seated quietly in the Minnesota delegation, Mondale was the freshly appointed state attorney general. Young, the campaign manager for Governor Orville Freeman in recent state elections, Mondale was the surprise choice to fill a new vacancy. Four years later Mondale’s profile would rise as LBJ’s agent to handle a civil rights dispute at the 1964 Convention. With Humphrey’s election as vice president, Mondale was appointed to succeed him. He would stay in the Senate as a pillar of liberal politics, then be selected to run for vice president in 1976. He wins, serving one term. In 1984 he becomes the Democratic presidential nominee, placing the first woman, New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, on the ticket for vice president. The Mondale-Ferraro ticket loses in landslide to Ronald Reagan, but Ferraro’s selection paves the way for women presidential and vice presidential candidates from Hillary Clinton to Sarah Palin to Michele Bachmann.
• John Connally: A visible and powerful LBJ ally at the 1960 convention, he became JFK’s Secretary of the Navy before being elected Governor of Texas in 1962. It was Connally who was riding in the car with JFK, shot but surviving. The episode made him something of a Texas legend. As the nation moved right, Connally moved with it, becoming a Republican and Richard Nixon’s heavyweight Secretary of the Treasury. An expected strong showing in the 1980 GOP primaries came to naught — one delegate from Arkansas who was the sum total result of a hugely well-financed Connally campaign.
Edmund S. Muskie: Attending the Democratic Convention as the new Senator from Maine, Muskie was unknown much beyond his state’s borders, where he had also served as governor. A friend and supporter of JFK, he would create a solid liberal record in the Senate, earning himself a spot as Hubert Humphrey’s running mate in 1968. Losing, he returned to the Senate and was for a period the Democratic presidential frontrunner in 1972. In 1980 he gave up his Senate seat to serve as Secretary of State.
In the backwaters of the Massachusetts delegation at that 1960 convention also sat the young congressman Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, who by 1977 would be Speaker of the House and in the 1980s the nemesis of President Ronald Reagan. His predecessor as Speaker, a young Carl Albert from Oklahoma, was there — contemplating JFK’s run against Richard Nixon. It would be Nixon whose impeachment hearings in 1973 and 1974 would occur under Albert’s watchful eye as House speaker. And O’Neill’s successor as Speaker was over in the Texas delegation, a young Jim Wright, his stunned image to be flashed across the nation after being a few cars behind JFK’s in Dallas in what was, that week in Los Angeles of 1960, an unimaginable November day in 1963.” South Dakota Democrats at that convention were ecstatic about the Senate prospects of their Kennedy-supporting Congressman, George McGovern. McGovern would lose that Senate race, but win a spot in the Kennedy administration and get his Senate victory two years later. In 1972 he was the Democratic presidential nominee and a leader of the anti-Vietnam War forces in the Senate.
McGovern had two running mates in 1972. The first, Senator Thomas Eagleton, was in 1960 a favorite of the Missouri delegation busy supporting Eagleton for state attorney general. When Eagleton was forced to withdraw from McGovern’s ticket for health reasons, McGovern turned to another young man present at the convention. That would be Sargent Shriver, a convention organizer for his (Shriver’s) brother-in-law JFK. Shriver would become the first director of the Peace Corps and LBJ’s “War on Poverty” before becoming Ambassador to France and, later, an unsuccessful candidate for the 1976 Democratic nomination. In recent years before his death he was well-known as the father-in-law of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In 1960 Georgians were abuzz about State Senator Carl Sanders running for governor two years later. Sanders would win — and a decade later seek a return to the state house in a losing race to a young state senator whose Georgia family was already a local legend in local Democratic politics and familiar to those Georgia delegates — Jimmy Carter.
And tucked away in the Alabama delegation? The then-anonymous Democratic National Committeeman who within three years would be one of the most famous — or infamous — men in America: Birmingham’s Eugene “Bull” Connor, the man who would unleash police dogs and fire hoses on civil rights protestors as the nation watched on television.
Led in one or another capacity by this collection of men destined for some sort of political stardom — almost all of these new rising stars young men at the time — America would face Vietnam, civil rights, the Cuban Missile Crisis, assassination traumas, the Great Society, Watergate, the energy crisis, the Iran hostage crisis, and eight presidential elections.
LOST TO SIGHT AS THE 2012 FIGHT for the GOP presidential nomination picks up is that the next GOP convention will have a startling collection of extremely talented and capable men and women present who could easily dominate American politics for the next quarter century. Just as the Democrats listed above and gathered together in 1960 played such prominent roles in their time. Here’s a doubtless incomplete roster.
• Sarah Palin. Already a major political and cultural star after rocketing onto the national scene in 2008 as John McCain’s running mate, whether Palin runs or doesn’t run in 2012 is almost beside the point. If anything is to be learned from the 1960 Democrats it’s that history has its own ins and outs and ups and downs. Sarah Palin is here to stay, whether she is the next Republican president or a Cabinet officer or Senator or simply a larger than life GOP mainstay.
• Tim Pawlenty: Yes, he’s out of the 2012 race. Doubtless with lessons learned, a sure bet for a Cabinet spot if not a VP slot.
• Mitt Romney: Can he or can’t he? This very August day of next year will provide the answer as to a Romney presence on the GOP ticket. But in a year where Obama looks eminently beatable, even a loss would guarantee him some position in a Republican Cabinet.
• Paul Ryan: Ryan says no to a presidential run in 2012. He has plenty of time. Speaker Ryan? Vice President Ryan? President Ryan later on? Anything is possible.
• Eric Cantor: Modern House speakers aren’t known for longevity, and Cantor, a “young gun” along with Ryan, has both time and smarts going for him. Speaker Cantor? Easily possible.
• Marco Rubio: The new Senator from Florida is the Latino Reagan or JFK. The demand to put him on the GOP 2012 ticket as the obvious VP choice may be impossible to resist.
• Michele Bachmann: If she’s not on the 2012 ticket top or bottom, her industriousness and sheer energy will ensure that she will be on the scene in one capacity or another for a long time.
• Rick Santorum: This is a man with too much intensity, persistence, and solid experience to disappear. He is one of those who will only benefit from this race whether he wins the nomination fight or not.
• Ken Cuccinelli: The man who has already made a considerable impact in the national health care debate from his post as Virginia’s Attorney General will surely keep rising as a presidential cabinet officer or governor or senator.
• Rick Perry: The Texas frontrunner may or may not make it to the August 30 podium as the 2012 nominee. But if not, he will be a sure bet for a Cabinet pick or ticket-mate. Various Bushies notwithstanding.
• John Bolton: The ex-UN Ambassador and possible presidential candidate is surely headed back into diplomacy in a GOP administration not, as seems likely, his own. After already serving at the UN, he would float to the top of the State Department lists.
• Chris Christie: If he doesn’t take the 2012 plunge, the New Jersey ex-U.S. Attorney would be an easy sale as attorney general, a job the now-governor surely could do in his sleep. Saying he’s “not ready” to be president means that some day he thinks he will be ready.
• Bob McDonnell: Now the head of the Republican Governor’s Association and rapidly gaining a reputation as a both a competent, popular governor (in the eye of Hurricane Irene efforts to keep his state safe and secure) and on all sorts of VP shortlists. McDonnell also got the conservative counter-revolution to Obama started with his election as governor in 2009 — Virginia a state Obama carried in 2008.
• Jeb Bush: Bush or not, like Teddy Kennedy Jeb Bush may surprise by his longevity and gravity as the next GOP set of stars roll into Washington.
• Mitch Daniels: He may say no to the White House, but there’s more to do in government than be president. And Daniels will have some choices as he retires from the governorship of Indiana.
• Haley Barbour: And ditto for Mississippi’s Governor Barbour.
Are there more Republican stars who will be floating around the 2012 corridors and back rooms of the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa? Of course.
But there are various numbers of titled VIP’s at any political convention.
What makes the 2012 Republican Tampa gathering the place to watch is not just the new nominee himself or herself. The atmosphere of crisis that pervades the country in unsettling fashion today, not dissimilar to the feeling felt by so many millions of Americans in 1960 as the Cold War ratcheted up, is having its own way of generating heat from what seems today to be a disparate yet increasingly powerful set of new names and faces.
It also reminds of a time before 1960 — a century before, in fact.
In 1860 the Republican Party gathered in Chicago’s “Wigwam” to settle the course of the still new national party. In those days candidates didn’t usually show up for these events, but managers and candidates and the minor-stars-who-would-be-major stars did.
In one place at one time were the proponents for William Seward, Abraham Lincoln, Edward Bates, Salmon Chase and Simon Cameron, the future “Team of Rivals” as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin would later have it. And in the armies of blue these men would collectively assemble upon election as one vent turned into another and another, there was even more of the future.
Predicted Edwin Stanton, eventually Lincoln’s Secretary of War: “You see in these armies the foundation of our Republic.”
The young men of the 1960 Democratic National Convention were, in a peculiar way, an army of 20th century liberals. They would spend the next quarter of a century running all or parts of the American government, for better — and some would say for worse.
But run it they did.
In the confines of a Tampa arena on this August day a year from now, the political sum and substance of America’s future will be gathered once again in one place. They will be stars burning and stars aborning. They will be the new stars coming together to strengthen once more what Stanton called “the foundation of our Republic.”
And rest assured, stars they will be.
The only thing denied us all is the knowledge of how it turns out.
Then again, we don’t know who will be the next American Idol before the show starts, do we?