The scene: a corridor in the Congress Hotel, Chicago. The time: mid-afternoon on a sultry July day in 1952. The cast: four or five radio reporters, a Chicago Tribune staffer, a photographer and a couple of reporters from the Associated Press and United Press. An air of expectation hovers over the scene.
Ed Murrow of CBS puffs at his cigarette. His costume is Brooks Brothers summer livery — gray flannel slacks, seersucker jacket, blue shirt, regimental tie and black loafers, with tassels. Elmer Davis, a commentator for a rival network, is all-seersucker and bow tie. He chats with the wire service men. Murrow is preoccupied with his wrist watch. I, a radio news editor representing an NBC affiliate station in Pennsylvania, fiddle with a tape recorder — praying that the spools don’t jam when the oracle speaks.
The oracle is inside conferring with his advisers. He is Sen. Robert A. Taft, son of the 27th President of the United States, and himself four times a campaigner for the Republican presidential nomination.
Further along Michigan avenue, at the Blackstone Hotel, Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower, a non-campaigner (but running hard) for the nomination, awaits a clear-cut call from the GOP to begin his crusade — one that will sweep himself and his running mate Richard M. Nixon into the White House.
Sen. Taft is Ike’s major opponent for the nomination. At the end of the primaries, the senator had about 525 committed delegates, while the general had amassed roughly 400. The magic number to secure the nomination was 604. Other hopeful GOP standard-bearers are in town. The most prominent, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, recently fired by President Harry S. Truman as commander-in-chief of U.N. forces in Korea, will deliver the keynote address. The general is not a serious contender, having little support among Republican deal-makers.
For the moment, Senator Taft has enough votes to keep Eisenhower off the ticket. But the eastern bloc of the party, led by Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge and Thomas Dewey, is cutting deep into Taft’s lead. It is the rumor that Mr. Republican, as Taft is known, will make a newsworthy announcement that has brought us to his doorstep. Will he or will he not step aside in favor of the general, who daily is gaining popular support?
Half a century later and counting, it is nigh impossible to convey the political drama of that moment in an ordinary hotel corridor. Today, presidential candidates are known months before the general election, chosen by a handful of delegates (the popular vote notwithstanding), and an alliance of diverse special interests. This reduces the quadrennial party conventions to mere pep rallies, unworthy of prime-time TV coverage. State caucuses, once rough-and-tumble forums where nominee credits and debits were assessed and hotly debated, no longer have that impact on the selection process.
Finally, on that long-ago Chicago afternoon, the door opened and a tall, balding presence wearing rimless glasses appeared. He, too, if memory serves, wore seersucker. A couple of flash bulbs ignited and we all pressed forward.
No, the senator said, he would not withdraw. He was, in fact, still seeking votes among the delegates. He thanked us for our interest and then vanished into the suite. Hardly a major news break, but still worth 90 seconds on the six o’clock news back home.
The scene changes. It is the following afternoon. The place is the Yellow Room, a restaurant in the Palmer House. Big Jim Duff, former Pennsylvania governor and now a U.S. senator, and William K. McBride, a prominent surgeon who later will become mayor of Harrisburg, are discussing whether the state’s delegates will choose Eisenhower or Taft. I listen as McBride, who is my cousin, and the senator — both Eisenhower men — review Ike’s prospects.
In June, representatives of the Pennsylvania delegation had met with Eisenhower in New York city. The general was asked if he would wage a vigorous campaign, if he received the nomination. Angered by this query, Ike responded that it was a “funny kind of question to put to a man who spent 40 years of his life fighting.” The question was asked because the 70-member Pennsylvania delegation was split: 20 liked Ike and 18 favored Taft. The choice resided with 32 uncommitted delegates. By now, Senator Duff had persuaded his successor, Gov. John Fine, to back Eisenhower.
On the 11 o’clock news that night, I predicted Pennsylvania would go for Ike — this based largely on the control held over the unpledged delegates by Duff and Fine. When the state roll call vote came, Pennsylvania’s delegation helped Ike win a first-ballot victory.
The 1952 conventions were the swan song of radio’s monopoly on gavel-to-gavel coverage. I can still see NBC’s stilt-like booth, dominated by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, rising high above the delegates’ heads. And the radio reporters on the convention floor pushing microphones into the faces of governors, senators, judges, bankers and industrialists — trying to discover which candidate their state would support. Their words were broadcast live, and the tally-keepers, up in the booth would announce the latest numbers to a national radio audience.
A roll call of names, accompanied by familiar voices and faces, drifts back across the years. Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Thomas Dewey, Harold Stassen, Douglas MacArthur, Adlai Stevenson, Nelson Rockefeller, Alben Barkley, Hubert Humphrey, and the supporting cast of players from the two Chicago conventions of 1952 rise, like liberated ghosts from the mists of memory, anxious to play a return engagement in the theater of the mind.
Those were the exciting days of political giants, days when national party conventions mattered, days of suspense, days of horse trading and back-room deals in smoke-filled rooms, days when stars strode across America’s political stage — not the understudy pygmies of today.
Richard Kepler Brunner is a longtime seasonal visitor to the Vineyard. A retired editorial page editor of a Times-Mirror newspaper, he lives in Emmaus, Pa., and contributes occasional commentary pieces to the Gazette. He adds the following author’s afterward:
Coincidentally and unbeknownst to three of the men in that Chicago hotel corridor, each was engaged in seeding the turf torn up by Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s exposure of Washington’s fictive closet Reds, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities consigning suspected “comrades” to the motion picture industry’s blacklist. Elmer Davis’s book But We Were Born Free and my Hollywood novel Portrait of the Damned both came out in the spring of 1954. For months Born Free led The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list. Portrait, my own sling shot at McCarthyism and the senator’s ditto-heads on the House committee (written, for family reasons, as Richard McKaye) never acquired The Times cachet. However, the New American Library Signet paperback edition sold 137,500 copies. But it was Ed Murrow’s See It Now seminal broadcast — that more than any other single effort — helped write the obituary to the senator’s reign of terror.