Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Roundhouse Roundup: My First Political Rally

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
July 28, 2011

I recently digitized a whole box of 8mm home movies, mostly from the 1950s and a few from the early ’60s.

There in living color were herky-jerky moving images of my brother, my sister and me as babies and toddlers; both of my parents when they were in their 20s; and my late grandparents when they were younger than I am now.

There are soundless clips of Christmases, birthdays, trips to Yellowstone National Park and San Diego and glimpses of everyday life in the Terrell family. I hadn’t watched any of these in well over 30 years.

No, I’m not going to bore you with all my home movies. Just one reel. In that box of forgotten memories is footage of my very first political rally. And even though we didn’t live in Santa Fe back then, it took place here on the Plaza.

Kefauver, left, Stevenson, right, in Santa Fe
The date was Aug. 27, 1956. Former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for President, and his running mate, Sen. Estes Kefauver, D-Tenn., opened their national campaign here in Santa Fe. I was less than a month shy of 3 years old. My family was there in the crowd, which was estimated to be 8,000, according to that day’s The New Mexican. Like good 1950s tourists, we brought the family movie camera.

The reel begins with me apprehensively approaching a donkey — it’s a Democratic Party rally, remember — decked out in a homemade “Adlai-Estes” banner. The man holding the reins gently takes my hand and lets me pet the donkey.

All the way with LBJ in Santa Fe
Cut to my brother, then 11 months old, and then all of a sudden there’s a 1950s state police car cruising down Palace Avenue in front of the Palace of the Governors.

It’s a political motorcade, convertibles stuffed with waving politicians. In the back seat of the first car behind the police is a man holding a white cowboy hat. This would be future President Lyndon B. Johnson, who at the time was Senate majority leader. (I had to pause the video several times to be sure.) A couple of cars behind was a yellow Cadillac convertible carrying Stevenson and Kefauver.

What were they doing in Santa Fe?: Checking 1956 microfilm of The New Mexican, I learned that these were just a few of the Democratic bigwigs in town that day. House Speaker Sam Rayburn was there as were various senators and governors from around the country. Santa Fe Mayor Leo Murphy was on hand as were Gov. John Simms, Lt. Gov. Joe Montoya and Sen. Clinton P. Anderson.

After the rally there was a regional Democratic conference for the campaign at La Fonda “to discuss New Mexico’s problems and the problems of other Southwestern states,” the newspaper said. It was the first of several such events around the country.

Among those participating in the conference was Robert McKinney, identified in the article as chairman of the Citizens Panel on the Impact of Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy. He also was publisher of The New Mexican.

A few weeks later on a return campaign trip to New Mexico, Kefauver would stay at McKinney’s home in Nambé.

Ultimately, Stevenson lost New Mexico and the election to incumbent Dwight Eisenhower later that year.

Back to the video: The quality of the film gets iffy for the remaining few seconds of the rally on the reel. But you can see the crowd gathered around the bandstand, a mariachi strumming a guitarrón Méxicano, somebody speaking at a podium, someone crossing the stage, flags waving in the breeze.

In other words, it doesn’t look that much different from the other political rallies I’ve seen on the Plaza.

Yes, political rallies can be tedious and, Lord knows, predictable. But as a political reporter, I have a strange fondness for them. Maybe there’s some flickering subconscious memory of hearing happy mariachi music and petting a donkey that keeps me going back.