ST. LOUIS • On two raucous nights in September 1960, Lambert Field was alive with up-close presidential politicking.
U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate, was mobbed by 20,000 supporters, many of them giddy students, as he stepped onto the tarmac from his campaign plane on Sept. 13. He had to retreat back into the twin-engine Convair until police could clear a path.
The following night, 10,000 cheering Republicans greeted their candidate, Vice President Richard M. Nixon. Because of the previous evening's crush, police commanders assigned more officers to a tighter security detail. Many Nixon supporters cheered from an observation deck atop the concourse, but hundreds were outside the gate behind a rope line. They pushed forward to shake his hand after Nixon and his wife, Pat, descended from a four-engine DC-6.
The assassination of Kennedy three years later and other attacks on presidents and candidates put an end to close contact with the people. Nowadays, only a lucky few are cleared through security to shake hands with a candidate or president.
Not so in 1960.
Kennedy flew here from Dallas after assuring Protestant ministers that, as a Catholic, he wouldn't take orders from the Vatican. He and Nixon took turns spending the night at the Park Plaza Hotel near Forest Park and giving morning speeches to the national convention of the International Association of Machinists, meeting at Kiel Auditorium downtown.
Both speeches were open to the public. But it was the intimacy of the arrivals that demonstrate, prudently but regrettably, how different presidential campaigns are today.
After Kennedy returned to his plane, U.S. Sen. Stuart Symington, D-Mo., used a bullhorn to persuade people to make way. Twenty minutes of glad-handing later, Kennedy finally reached a stage and said, "I think this campaign is picking up."
Then it was on to a jam in the hotel lobby.
Nixon arrived on Sept. 14 to another energetic welcome. "When this many people come out at 11 o'clock at night, in a state which is supposed to be on the other side, things are happening," he said. At the hotel, the Nixons waded through a noisy crowd to reach the elevator.
Kennedy's speech at Kiel was New Deal boilerplate, accusing Republicans of opposing "every single progressive measure designed to improve human welfare." Nixon said he wouldn't always support labor but added, "I respect your sincerity, and I hope you respect mine."
Nixon received his biggest applause by mentioning former President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Afterward, the convention endorsed Kennedy.
In the election Nov. 8, Kennedy won Missouri by 9,980 votes, winning big only in heavily Catholic St. Louis. He took Illinois by a scant 8,858 votes.
Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series.