by Stephen Fagin, Curator, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
July 15, 1960. Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. Standing before an audience of 52,000 people—with an additional 35 million tuned in via television—John F. Kennedy spoke of revolution.
The young and charismatic Massachusetts senator was referring to changes in technology, urban growth, medicine, human rights, and intellectual and moral strength. “It is a time, in short,” he said, “for a new generation of leadership—new men to cope with new problems and new opportunities.”
Kennedy had experienced a remarkable journey from declaring his candidacy in January to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, from July 11 to 15, 1960. He had steadfastly battled critics of his age, his Catholicism, and his perceived inexperience. While far in the lead by the time he reached L.A., Kennedy was still a few dozen short of the delegate total needed to secure the nomination. It was time for his political opponents to pounce.
Long considered potential candidates, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson of Texas and two-time Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson officially announced their candidacies. Adlai Stevenson’s supporters were quite vocal, and he was loved in Southern California. A ring of enthusiastic Stevenson backers wrapped all around the sports arena, increasing in size and in volume as the convention continued. Meanwhile, Lyndon Johnson challenged Kennedy to a televised debate before a joint session of the Texas and Massachusetts delegations.
Reportedly, Kennedy was nervous entering the debate, yet he handled the audience with his characteristically potent mix of wit and charm. “I come here today full of admiration for Senator Johnson,” he concluded, “strongly in support of him—for majority leader of the United States Senate.” For many, the Kennedy/Johnson debate demonstrated that Johnson had little viability as a candidate outside of the South.
Ultimately, John F. Kennedy’s hopes all rested on winning on the first ballot. His younger brother, Bobby, proved a fierce and untiring campaign manager as he and his team secured and counted votes one by one. It was tense, frantic, and down to the wire. Twelve Democratic candidates received votes on the first ballot. John F. Kennedy emerged as the winner with 53% of the vote, followed by Lyndon Johnson with 27%.
To the surprise of many, including brother Bobby, Kennedy asked Johnson to join him on the ticket—and Johnson accepted. This strategic alliance broadened support for the Democratic ticket and may have eventually handed Kennedy a narrow victory over Republican nominee Richard Nixon.
On stage that July 15, before Kennedy spoke of revolution and change, he thanked his fellow Democrats, including Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, and Stuart Symington (who came in third on the ballot). “I feel a lot safer now that they are on my side again,” Kennedy joked. And then Kennedy sought to capture the imagination of a nation as he laid forth his vision for the 1960s: “I believe the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision. I am asking each of you to be pioneers on that New Frontier.”