The 1964 Democratic National Convention - A Half-Century Later Atlantic City Finds Itself in a Similar Situation – By William Kelly
The 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City – 50 Years Ago, that took place from August 24-27th, was an historic watershed event for the island resort – a crossroads that led to the revitalization of the city – and it could be a cautionary tale as Atlantic City reaches another, similar crossroads, where it must once again reinvent itself.
That such a convention could be held on the boardwalk at all was the vision of Nucky Johnson, who was a driving force behind the construction of the Convention Hall – now Boardwalk Hall – which opened in 1929, the same year that he was the host for the first major meeting of mob bosses from around the country.
Some of them were business partners with Joe Kennedy, Sr., who held major ownership interests in major Canadian and European whiskey distillers, and didn’t mind doing business with the bootleggers during prohibition. Kennedy also held hidden interest in the Cal-Neva Lodge that startled the border between California and Nevada, with a casino on the Nevada side, which was purchased by Giancana and Sinatra, who brought in Atlantic City’s Skinny D’Amato as the manager.
In 1960 Joe Kennedy touched base once again with Sam Giancana, the mob boss who controlled the rackets in Chicago, Las Vegas and California, and got him to support his son Jack’s 1960 bid to be elected president of the United States.
Giancana’s good friends Frank Sinatra and Skinny D’Amato were quick to oblige, Sinatra contributing the campaign theme song “High Hopes,” and he introduced JFK to Judith Campbell Extner, who served as a mistress and courier between Kennedy and Giancana.
Skinny D'Amato confers with JFK during the 1960 campaign
Skinny D'Amato confers with JFK during the 1960 campaign
Skinny D’Amato and Camden attorney Angelo Malandra took suitcases full of cash to West Virginia that was liberally distributed to Skinny’s friends in the West Virginia Sheriff’s Association, who counted the votes and often visited his 500 Club when they had their annual convention in Atlantic City.
One of Kennedy’s last hurdles to being nominated as the Democratic candidate at the 1960 Convention in Los Angeles was the West Virginia primary, where the Irish Catholic Kennedy was up against Hubert Humphrey, a protestant, so that became the major issue of the primary, which Kennedy won and dispelling that as an issue.
A couple of major decisions were made at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, including the addition of Lyndon Baines Johnson to the ticket as the Vice Presidential candidate, said to be done on the advice of Joe Kennedy, and naming Atlantic City as the site of the 1964 Democratic Convention, which some said was a payback to D’Amato and Sinatra for their support during the primaries.
Actually H. Hap Farley was the primary mover behind bringing the 1964 Democratic Convention to Atlantic City. As the political boss who took over after Nucky Johnson went to prison, Farley is best known for having the Atlantic City Expressway built, but he also lobbied extensively to bring both the Republican and Democratic Conventions to the boardwalk, but succeeded, despite being a staunch Republican, of only enticing the Democrats.
After winning the nomination and then the election, President Kennedy asked Sinatra to arrange for the entertainment for the Inaugural Balls, which he did, and Sinatra was looking forward to organizing a similar party for Kennedy in Atlantic City when Kennedy would be renominated for his second term at the 1964 Convention.
But then things went terribly wrong.
Kennedy appointed his younger brother Robert F. Kennedy as Attorney General and RFK targeted the mob bosses as part of a war against organized crime, and he singled out Sam Giancana, New Orleans don Carlos Marcello and Santo Traficante, of Tampa, Florida, despite their assistance in getting JFK elected and working closely with the CIA in trying to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
When J. Edgar Hover, the head of the FBI told RFK the attorney general that his brother the president was receiving phone calls and visits at the White House from Judy Campbell Extner, the mob moll who was also in bed with both Sinatra and Giancana, the president cut off his contacts with Giancana and began to distance himself from both Extner and Sinatra.
Then, rather than Castro being assassinated, JFK was shot and killed while riding in an open car through the streets of Dallas, and instead of JFK being renominated for a second term, LBJ was the president who was nominated to be the Democratic candidate at the 1964 convention on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.
After the resolution of who would represent the racially divided Mississippi delegation, the three biggest questions going into Atlantic City in August 1964 were who would be the Vice Presidential nominee, what was the still unreleased Warren Report on the assassination of President Kennedy going to say, and what was Robert Kennedy going to do?
No one knew who the Vice Presidential nominee would be until LBJ invited liberal Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey to accompany him on the flight to Atlantic City. Humphrey, who Kennedy defeated in the West Virginia primary, had presidential ambitions himself, but would do LBJ’s bidding, and sold his soul to resolve the Mississippi issue.
As for the Warren Commission Report, LBJ knew what was ready to go to press, and that it would conclude that JFK was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, a deranged loner, and there was no conspiracy, so that only left one big question – what was RFK going to do?
LBJ later said that from the moment JFK was murdered, he felt that RFK didn’t think he deserved to be president, and Johnson considered the possibility that RFK would try to lead a revolt at the Convention and attempt to hijack the nomination from him. If the convention atmosphere presented the opportunity, RFK’s name could have been introduced, and if LBJ didn’t win on the first ballet, anything could happen.
In order to avert this possibility, President Johnson took some unprecedented steps. As Kennedy family historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote, “The tribute to the fallen President was originally scheduled for Tuesday night. Johnson had it moved back to Thursday, by which time the nomination would be completed. He took other precautions, the most extraordinary of which was to send Cartha DeLoach and and FBI team of thirty snoops and wire tappers to Atlantic City. The ostensible purpose was to gather intelligence ‘concerning matters of strife, violence, etc. The real purpose, according to William Sullivan of the FBI, was to gather political information useful to President Johnson, particularly bottling up Robert Kennedy – that is reporting on the activities of Robert Kennedy.”
LBJ also thought that Robert Kennedy would try to wire tap his boardwalk hotel room, so he secretly moved to a more secure location – the nearby Margate beach house of Carroll Rosenbloom, the owner of the Baltimore Colts football team.
As RFK joined the other dignitaries on stage, Jackie Kennedy handed him a note.
As Schlesinger relates, “Finally Senator Henry Jackson, who was presiding, motioned him (RFK) to the rostrum. When Scoop introduced him, it hit, I mean it really hit, it just went on and on. I stood on the floor in the midst of the thunderous ovation. I had never seen anything like it. Ordinarily an organ in the background controls the pandemonium of a convention. This time they stopped the organ after a moment or so. But the demonstration roared on, reaching a new intensity every time that Robert Kennedy, standing with a wistful half-smile on his face, tried to bring it to an end. As Kennedy once more raised his hand to still the uproar, Jackson whispered to him, ‘Let it go on, just let them do it Bob, let them get it out of their system.’ He repressed his tears. Many of the audience did not. He seemed slight, almost frail, as the crowd screamed itself hoarse. It went on for twenty-two minutes. Finally he began to speak. At the end, the quotation: ‘When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine, that all the world will be in love with night, and pay no worship to the garish sun.’”
Bobby Kennedy Convention Speech About John F. Kennedy 1964 ElectionWallDotOrg - YouTube
These words, from Romeo and Juliet, were handed to him by Jackie, and preceded a short film about the life of John F. Kennedy, who would have certainly been renominated for a second term if fate and destiny did not intervene.
To commemorate the occasion, the city of Atlantic City named the plaza in front of the hall “Kennedy Plaza,” and a bust of JFK by renown sculpture Evangelos Frudakis was unveiled, a bust that was unveiled, a bust that is now partially hidden by a stage where summer concerts are held.
Though young people today know Kennedy Plaza as the scene of free concerts and a nightly lightshow, the statute that stands there remains the last vestige of another era and a reminder of what might have been if Kennedy had lived to serve a second term.
William Kelly is a freelance writer and regional historian from Browns Mills, N.J. He can be reached at Billkelly3@gmail.com