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Gore sees links to 1960 JFK convention

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LOS ANGELES — The nation's second-largest city has hosted only one other national party convention, for Democrats in 1960. That's when John F. Kennedy said the city and the West were the last frontier and called for pushing into a New Frontier.

Al Gore has already been drawing comparisons between the 1960 convention and 2000, saying both will be considered historically significant.

The main reason is Kennedy was only the second-ever Catholic nominated (Al Smith, also a Democrat, was the first in 1928). And this year, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., will be the first Jew ever to be nominated by a major party for vice president.

"That year (1960), we voted with our hearts to tear down a mighty wall of division. We made history, and when we nominate Joe Lieberman for vice president, we will do it again," Gore said last week.

But comparisons between the two Los Angeles conventions may end there.

While this week will feature nothing but Democratic harmony and endorsements for Gore, the 1960 convention was a sometimes contentious affair whose outcome was not certain at first.

That year, Kennedy was on the verge of sewing up the nomination thanks to wins in primaries and support from urban leaders. But he was not quite assured of enough votes to win on the first ballot.

His main adversary was then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, who made last-ditch efforts to block Kennedy's nomination and even maneuvered him into a last-minute, nationally televised debate.

That happened when Kennedy sent a note to the Texas delegation requesting some time to explain his positions. Johnson responded by offering that time — if it came in a debate with him.

As TV cameras recorded it, Johnson attacked the 43-year-old Kennedy's absenteeism in the Senate, his "youthful haste in seeking the presidency" and his votes on farm, power and natural resources development.

Kennedy responded by praising Johnson for "answering all those quorum calls in the Senate" and said his record as majority leader there was so good that he "ought to be retained in that position."

Meanwhile, visitor galleries were pushing for nomination of Adlai Stevenson, the party nominee in 1952 and 1956. Stevenson did not campaign but said he would accept a draft nomination.

When Stevenson stepped into the convention hall, a 20-minute demonstration interrupted proceedings. When his name was placed into nomination, an allowed 10-minute demonstration stretched to 25 minutes. When the convention chairman could not stop it, he ordered the lights turned out in the hall. That did stop it.

In the end, Kennedy won on the first ballot. He had 806 votes compared to 409 for Johnson, 86 for Missouri Sen. Stuart Symington and 79 1/2 for Stevenson. Five other candidates had a few votes each.

Meanwhile, the party was somewhat divided on its platform. Ten Southern states repudiated its civil rights plank, which called for ensuring voting rights of blacks, compliance with court-ordered school desegregation and expanded federal efforts to fight bias.

The biggest surprise of the convention came when Kennedy chose former adversary Johnson as his running mate, a move that helped pull factions of the party back together.

As a final surprise, Kennedy organizers convinced Democratic officials to allow him to make his acceptance speech not in a relatively small convention hall but in the 100,000-seat Los Angeles Coliseum so he could claim he spoke to the largest crowd ever assembled (up to that time) to hear any speech.

On short notice, Democrats turned out 80,000 people to hear Kennedy's famous acceptance speech proclaiming, "We are standing on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960s — a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils."

E-mail: lee@desnews.com