AN UNCONVENTIONAL DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION: 1964

In August 1964, in Atlantic City, NJ, the National Democratic Party staged a presidential convention that, even for a political party in the midst of leadership and philosophical changes, was most unconventional. 

To a twenty-one-year-old medical student, the convention provided a close-up view of diverse and fascinating people and events, posed then on a convention hall stage, and remembered now on the stage of history.

My father was a pediatrician in Marshall, Texas; one his patients was the very sick child of Marvin Watson, the executive assistant to E. B. Germany, president of Lone Star Steel in nearby Daingerfield, Texas. The Watson child survived, and Watson formed a close and grateful friendship with my father. Both were also friends and supporters of Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson. In fact, Watson had been doing various jobs for Johnson since they first met on the Baylor University campus in 1948.

When President John F. Kennedy was murdered in November 1963, Lyndon Johnson inherited a presidency and a bureaucracy staffed by men and women loyal to the late president and to his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. These Kennedy supporters also ran The Democratic National Committee and had already selected Atlantic City, New Jersey, as the site of the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

Fortunately for Johnson, he sent Marvin Watson to Atlantic City to evaluate the preparations for this convention. In his book, Chief of Staff: Lyndon Johnson and His Presidency, Watson describes how in Atlantic City he found that Robert Kennedy and John Bailey, the head of the Democratic Nation Committee, had arranged to control completely the convention including the seating of delegates, the program, the speakers, the housing, and the social life. Watson discovered that Kennedy supporters planned to manipulate the convention in order to nominate Bobby Kennedy for president, rather than re-nominating President Johnson; and should they fail at securing the nomination for the presidency, they would then try to nominate Kennedy for vice president.

 When Watson reported the situation, President Johnson convinced Watson, who was not even on the government payroll at the time, to return to Atlantic City and to take over all of the preparations for the convention. Watson reorganized the convention over the next few months, and he must have made a favorable impression on the president, because in early 1965, Johnson made Watson his Chief of Staff at the White House, replacing Walter Jenkins whose star had fallen into a YMCA toilet.

 I was fortunate that one of Watson’s sons, Lee, a student at New Mexico Military Institute, was also involved in the page service. He would have made a good head of the page service because he knew everyone important. He had a natural and pleasant swagger as well as a wonderful personality, but he was only 18. Since I was 21, I was made head, but Lee and I became fast friends and split the leadership, the hours, and the headaches.

I don’t remember just how many pages we had, 10 perhaps, maybe more, and they were mostly little Yankee, city boys, many of whom were too young to be entrusted with the sensitive materials they were sometimes called upon to handle.

Watson or I manned the phones, and dispatched whichever page we had available to perform various tasks, comprised mostly of deliveries of materials and messages inside the convention hall. After a couple of days, we knew pretty much which boys we could trust. Thankfully, we had no responsibility for the pages after working hours. The best page we had was a mature and intelligent blond-headed boy from Dallas named Harlan Crow. He was about fifteen, I would guess, maybe a little younger. I tried to save him for the most important work, especially after one of the Kennedy Irish Mafia’s sons left some sensitive papers on a bench on the Boardwalk. I believe that boy’s name was O’Donnell. Fortunately, the papers were retrieved. As I recall, the papers were related to arrangements for President Johnson’s birthday party that was to be held in the ballroom at the convention center on August 28, the last night of the convention.

I might add that Harlan Crow came to my aid after that birthday party; our page service offices had been locked for security reasons, and I had an early flight to Dallas the next morning. I left in the office a $5.00 umbrella and a half-read copy of “On the Beach.” Crow somehow got the umbrella and book to me in Dallas after the convention. Only then did I find out that his father was the legendary developer, Trammel Crow. I haven’t seen Harlan since, but I understand he has done well in real estate himself.

One of my most poignant memories of the convention occurred when a fellow named Walter Cronkite taught me about scotch at a party a night or two before the convention opened. I was able to go to this and all of the parties during the convention due to an all-inclusive social pass that Lee Watson got me from a tall red headed boy from Texarkana whose dad was a wealthy donor. This boy had a pocket full of the top social passes available, given only to big donors and then based on the total amount of their contribution. Well, Lee Watson got us both a pass, which meant that we could go to any social event we wished. However, our other passes were even more important; after being investigated by the FBI prior to the convention, we were given security passes which cleared us to go ANYWHERE at the convention, and we did with our passes swinging like priceless jewelry around our necks. We would shut the page service down by about 6:00 PM. Then, we’d take off and look around, usually foraging for something to eat since our boarding house was a couple of miles away down the Boardwalk — too far to walk for a meal. I had been out of money for days, but at least I was able to afford hot dogs when my brother wired me some emergency cash. I ate 8-10 hot dogs each day while I was in Atlantic City. They were tasty, cheap, and ubiquitous, and, as I remember, still the best I’ve ever eaten.

The night I met Mr. Cronkite, I got to a cocktail party early. The occasion for the party was to celebrate the birthday of a Judge Tom Connally, a famous Texas politician and a distant relative of Gov. John Connally. I spied my favorite newsman sitting down on a window seat. I joined him in the window that was close to the bar. He was very nice to me — a gangly, young-looking nobody. He wore a blazer, slacks, and loafers with argyle socks pulled tight. When he found out that I was also a Texan, he taught me that scotch whiskey was a refined drink, more likely to reflect gentility and to prolong sobriety than the national drink of East Texas: bourbon and coke.

While waiting for the crowd to arrive, we had several drinks together. I was pleased to be the gofer. Mr. Cronkite was charming and entertaining, but I don’t remember what we talked about. I was surprised that we were left alone to talk for at least a half hour. Unconventionally, Cronkite was not the CBS Television anchorman that year as he was at every other national convention from 1952 until he retired in 1981. Cronkite’s demotion resulted from the ratings dominance of Huntley and Brinkley from NBC at the Republican Convention held in July, a month prior to the Democratic Convention. The CBS brass felt that Cronkite had suffered a bad convention, and he had worked alone. So, for the Democratic Convention, they replaced him with Roger Mudd and Robert Trout as co-anchors. Unfortunately for CBS, NBC beat them again in the ratings. Four years later, Cronkite was reinstalled as the Convention Anchor for CBS.

1964 marked the end of the New Deal coalition of democrats and resulted in the beginning of the movement of the conservative white Southerners (aka Dixiecrats) to the Republican party. This exodus was too late to help the Republican candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater, in 1964, but ultimately these conservatives fell into the waiting arms of Richard Nixon in 1968. Actually, Johnson had himself speculated that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he signed just before the convention, would likely cause this division to happen. After 1964, Texas and other southern states became true two-party states rather than states comprised only of democrats, be they liberal or conservative.

Additional party chaos was precipitated by events early in the summer of 1964, in Mississippi, under the leadership of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a civil rights coalition comprised of the Nation Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)) launched “Freedom Summer”, also known as the Mississippi Summer Project. The goal of the groups was to register as many Mississippi blacks to vote as possible. In addition, the Mississippi Freedom Delegation Party (MFDP) was formed. This was a political party composed mostly of blacks whose intent was to unseat the regular Mississippi delegation, largely made up by segregationists, at the 1964 Democratic Convention. The MFDP rode busses to Atlantic City and picketed the convention from the Boardwalk. There numbers were said to be in the thousands, but in Atlantic City, I only saw a few hundred of them at any one time.

Sadly, three of their members didn’t make the trip. Rather, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both white boys from New York and James Chaney, a black civil rights worker were found rotting away in an earthen dam after being murdered on June 16, 1964, by Klu Klux Klan members, some of whom were law enforcement officials from Philadelphia, Mississippi. This brutal kidnapping and murder occurred just three days after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the senate; President Johnson signed the act into law on July 2. The bodies of the three boys were discovered August 4, and the Johnson forces were fearful that massive picketing and violence might result at the convention.

Coincidently, I drove through Philadelphia, Mississippi the day after the bodies were found, but I didn’t stop in friendly Philadelphia.

The Johnson forces did not want any civil rights confrontations in general, and especially, they wanted no riots at the convention. The largely black MFDP requested and got a hearing by the Credentials Committee and asked that they be declared the official Mississippi delegation and to be seated in the hall rather than the segregationist delegation. Unconventionally, the hearing was considered important news and was televised nationally, on a quiet mid-afternoon, after the soap operas. The Page Service was also quiet, so I decided to attend the Credential Committee Hearing. I had time to figured out the likely areas on which the lone TV camera might dwell and sat there, hoping that my mother in Marshall, Texas, might see me and know that I was alive and well. She did.

By this time, having the run of the convention, I was pretty much taken with myself, and I wound up sitting is a box with folks who were due to testify that afternoon. One, a middle-aged man sitting to my left, ran out of cigarettes and started bumming from me. He looked familiar, and I realized that he was Mayor Richard Wagner of New York City. He was said to have vice presidential aspirations that did not come to fruition. It was hot in the room, and he had on a suit and tie and sweated considerably. I don’t recall that he ever testified.

I sat through the now famous testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer, a black woman who talked about the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963; she also described how she had been beaten when she tried to register to vote in Mississippi. I don’t remember much about her, but I do remember a tragic Jewish lady named Schwerner, the young widow of the dead civil rights worker whose body had just been uncovered in Mississippi. Her despair was palpable, and I hope never to forget her and her sad countenance.

The Johnson controlled Credentials Committee decided to let the convention decide which delegation to seat, and ultimately, a deal was made for the convention to seat two of the MFDP in the balcony. It has been speculated, apparently without documentation, that an agreement was made between the Johnson people and the MFDP that in exchange for accepting a minor convention role, that Hubert Humphrey would be the Vice-Presidential nominee. Humphrey, Walter Reuther, and several black civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King and Roy Wilkins were said to have worked out the compromise with the MFDP. Nevertheless, the rank and file of the MFDP was outraged at the perceived slighting of their delegation.

Two days later, at the onset of convention, all but three members of the regular Mississippi Delegation walked out after they refused to sign a loyalty oath to the Democratic Party. Many MFDP members had counterfeit tickets and gained entry into the hall anyway. Also, legitimate delegates from other states slipped the MFDP members extra passes to get onto the convention floor, where they milled around and then sat in the vacated seats of the authorized but absent Mississippi democrats. (The vacant seats were removed after that night.)

 Most of us at the convention were aware of the Mississippi problems, but after the televised hearing, the MFDP Party became old news, just as Watson and President Johnson hoped. Unconventionally, no roll call was ever performed at the1964 convention; Johnson was nominated by acclamation. Neither Mississippi delegation got to answer a roll call.

After the convention officially started on the night of August 24, it didn’t take me long to find that the best seats in the hall, when the convention was in session, were under the massive stage with its large podium at the front of the convention hall. This underneath, hidden space also housed the White House offices. There was a wide hallway with comfortable sofas and chairs along the right wall, with offices off to the left. Speakers waiting to go up to the podium, Secret Service men, various convention functionaries, Johnson cronies, and I hung out there at night.

 It was here that I met the nicest person that I remember from the convention: Phillip H. Hoff, the first Democratic governor from Vermont since 1854. Hoff was a handsome fellow with blond hair, a nice smile, an athletic build, and a nicotine habit. Cigarettes brought us together. He invariably ran out of cigarettes and smoked mine.

He was being groomed for national attention by the party, and accordingly, he had been requested to wait in the downstairs offices until he could be worked into the program for a short speech, at which time he would be seen by millions of TV viewers. Alas, apparently the time never got right for the Governor to speak, and he and I sat together under the stage nightly for three nights. We sat just inside the main entrance leading in from the convention hall, just across from the office of Walter Jenkins, then Johnson’s Chief of Staff. He had three television sets on his office wall that we could watch from where we were sitting if his door was open, as it usually was. Mr. Jenkins never said a word to the governor or me, but he did smile pleasantly at us more than once.

Hoff was nervous about having to speak in front of the convention, but he was a smart, friendly man. I started carrying two packs of cigarettes to the hall each night. If he ever figured out that I was a complete nobody, he never let on. He was never called to speak at the convention.

The Kennedy faction finally got a little TV time, on the last day of the convention. Robert Kennedy was to narrate a film about his brother. This film and other “Kennedy Day” activities had been moved by Marvin Watson to a terrible time slot—late at night and late in the convention—after both the President and the Vice President had been nominated. Thus, it was not possible for the convention to become overwhelmed by Kennedy and to put him on the ticket.

That night, Mr. Kennedy came to the door in the bowels of the convention center, and security and the official greeter let him in. Kennedy walked past all of us who were loitering there under the stage. Governor Hoff and I were in our usual seats, and various speakers and Johnson men were in the room. Kennedy was a small man, only a bit larger than tiny, but he walked directly through all of us, ramrod straight, looking neither to the left nor to the right. He didn’t smile; he didn’t say one word to anyone in the room. Without stopping, he climbed the stairs at the end of the hall and went onstage. Once introduced, he received twenty-two minutes of thunderous applause. When the crowd finally quieted, he made a short speech, and showed a film to honor of his dead brother. The speech and the film were well received by the convention.

Then Kennedy exited through the downstairs offices, again without a word to or glance at anyone. He had not one single confederate in the room. Kennedy was crying as he left. The convention that his folks had hoped to hijack was firmly in Johnson’s control, thanks to Marvin Watson. Shortly thereafter, his presidential aspirations squelched, Kennedy announced that he was going to run for the U.S. Senate from New York, as other carpetbaggers have been known to do since then.

Governor George Wallace made an appearance at the convention hall early in the week. He was a small man, well dressed, surrounded by large Alabama Highway Patrol agents. He pranced around like a little terrier for a few hours, and then I never saw him again. He had run well in some of the Democratic Primaries early in the year, but he had no real chance of securing the Vice-Presidential nomination. Ultimately, Wallace ran for President. He ran three times as a democrat and once as an independent without success. In 1972 he was paralyzed during an attempted assassination attempt.

When Wallace came in, the MFDP was picketing outside the main doors, and Peter Paul, and Mary, a famous and liberal folk singing group was holding court just inside the hall. The sun was shining, beautiful people were in and out, and the world seemed pretty right. Just out in the Atlantic was a Barry Goldwater sign that said: “In your Heart, you know he’s Right.” Someone had affixed a second sign to Goldwater’s that said: “Yes, Far Right”

One night during the convention, I got into one of the small elevators at the old convention building only to find Lady Bird Johnson and Frederick March, the famous actor, inside. Ironically, March, a well-known liberal, was at that time playing the President of the United States in the movie, “Seven Days in May.” I introduced myself to both and told Lady Bird that I was from Marshall. She grew up in nearby Karnack and had gone to high school in Marshall. She asked me if Dr. Harris, the Pediatrician, was my father, and when I replied that he was, she said, “Please give him my warmest and fondest personal regards.” He was later pleased at her greeting, and I was more than a little impressed that she remembered him. What a gracious and charming lady she was.

President Johnson became visible the last days of the convention. He was nominated for President on August 27, with Hubert Humphrey as his choice for Vice President. The following day, on his 56th birthday, the convention closed. Johnson later went on in the November general elections to score a victory by the then largest margin in history (61.2%) over Barry Goldwater and William E. Miller.

The Convention was one of the high points of my youth. Now, looking back, it seems strange that I never saw Billy Don Moyers, from Marshall. For a while, he was one of Johnson’s closest operatives and speechwriters. He was there. I just didn’t see him. Nor did I see the Johnson daughters, with whom my younger brother and I’d been paired for about 10 minutes at some political function in Marshall several years before. James Farmer, the founder of CORE, was also a former college student in and resident of Marshall, Texas, but I never saw him at the convention either. Wright Patman, Congressman from the First Congressional District of Texas from 1929-1976, a friend of my father’s and a devotee of my mother’s fried chicken, most likely was present, but I didn’t see him. It’s heady to say, but at a big convention, mere Congressmen didn’t amount to much in the pecking order. Finally, at the Convention, I never saw Senator Ralph Yarborough who had also been a Sunday guest at our home in Marshall, nor did I see Texas Governor John Connally.

 I saw President Johnson a couple of times at the convention, and a few months later, after the election, I saw him in Mt. Pleasant, Texas at a gathering at the local armory in honor of Marvin Watson, a man who that night Johnson described as “…as wise as my father, as gentle as my mother, as loyal and dedicated and as close to my side as Lady Bird.” Johnson had gone to considerable trouble to get to the function. He borrowed Governor Connally’s DC3 in order to land at the small local airport in bad weather as I recall.

I saw Mr. Johnson later at the football stadium at the University of Texas when we occupied urinals in close proximity under the watchful eye of the Secret Service.

The last time I saw President Johnson was the most memorable. He was in his casket. I was the physician in attendance at his burial at the graveyard on his ranch just north of Austin.

I was an Internist in the Army Medical Corp stationed at Darnall Army Hospital at Ft. Hood, Texas, in 1971-73. Periodically, consultants from Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonia, and other doctors from Austin who saw military and federal dependents would regale our doctors with stories about what a good guy but a terrible patient the retired president was. In a good-humored way, they revealed that the former president smoked, drank alcohol, and didn’t follow a diet. At any rate, his chosen lifestyle caught up with him and he died at his ranch at Stonewall, January 22, 1973. He was only 64 years old.

After funeral services in Washington D.C., at which Marvin Watson presented the eulogy, his body was flown back to Texas and bussed from Austin along with Billy Graham, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the cabinet, about every legislator from Washington and Austin, and many of Johnson relatives to the family cemetery at Stonewall, on his ranch, which is now part of The Lyndon B. Johnson National Park.

My commanding officer at Ft. Hood (near Stonewall) knew of my connections with the Johnson family, so he had me take a MASH (portable) Hospital and the associated troops to the graveyard for the burial. Actually, all I really had to do was to show up. The real soldiers put up the hospital.

The weather was bitterly cold, and it was alternately raining and sleeting. It was a long walk from the parking area to the graveyard. I remember Senator Edward Kennedy with his wife who was beautiful but obviously ill as she tottered along in high-heeled shoes; she had trouble keeping up with her unsmiling husband as they walked in a long line of dignitaries down the narrow country road. At the graveyard, twenty or so friends and relatives, too old to make the walk, had already been seated inside the rock-walled cemetery. The old folks, and indeed, all of us, suffered mightily from the cold. The service was slow to start because of the size of the crowd and the long walk to the cemetery. Billy Graham preached too long for the weather, and John Connally talked too long as well.

Our large hospital tent, which housed a large stove, was just outside the cemetery. Periodically, mourners would slip into the tent to warm up. I went in only once to check things out, and I recognized Price Daniel Jr. who I knew from American Legion Boys State. His dad had been a Governor of Texas. At the time of the funeral, he was himself speaker of the Texas House of Representative. He and his wife were arguing loudly around the fireplace in the tent hospital.  I didn’t say hidey.

There was not enough room in the tent for all the old people to warm up, and I heard later that a couple of the mourners died of “the old man’s friend,” pneumonia.

The sleet got worse; I stood under a scraggly piece of a tree with a Secret Service agent. We were far enough away from the grave that we could visit a little bit. I had used my army uniform allotment to buy furniture, so I was clothed in my only dress uniform, a lightweight summer green uniform with a little dinky folding hat. The fancy army hat with the braid on the bill that, as a major, I was entitled to wear, was way out of my price range at about $50 used. I had on a $7.00 raincoat, but at least I had thought to put on a pair of long underwear. I should have put on two or three pairs. While I shivered intermittently in the midst of driving sleet, and while Billy Graham was speaking, the secret service agent looked over at me, fingered my shoddy raincoat, and shook his head dismissively. Then he said, “Doctor, you got to do better.”

In the years since, I have done some better, and after many years of medical practice and ranching, I am now retired with enough time for reflection about an unconventional but wonderful and exciting time in August 1964, and about a courageous president who has not been given adequate acclaim for the noble and far sighted legislation that he enacted.

And especially, I remember again with great fondness, a decent and loyal man who history should not forget—Mr. Marvin Watson.

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