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posted: 10/25/2013 5:00 AM

Hooked on politics after one night in '60

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On Nov. 4, 1960, I was a freshman at the University of Illinois-Navy Pier. I was not very political, though I had been following the presidential campaign between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. That night it all changed.

My friend Larry and I decided after our 10 a.m. class to walk (yes, walk) to the Chicago Stadium for that night's big Kennedy rally.

When we got to the stadium, only a handful of people were there and we learned that the big show would not start until 8:30 p.m. -- eight hours from then. What to do? We talked, we met new friends as the crowd began to trickle in and I purchased two Kennedy buttons, both of which I still own.

Little did we know that Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and his Cook County Democratic organization had purchased not only national television time on NBC but that The Mayor had made sure the candidates' parade route to the stadium would be flanked by thousands of Democrats from the city's 50 wards.

The stadium personnel were very cordial, allowing us to use the washroom during the long wait, but food -- that was another story. In 1960, West Madison Street was filled with cheap saloons and liquor stores, but no restaurants.

About an hour before showtime we were allowed to enter the stadium. The main floor was reserved, so we raced to the first balcony with a perfect view of the stage. The rest, as they say, was magic.

Without much fanfare, around 8:30 p.m. John Kennedy, escorted by Mayor Daley and others entered the stadium, walked the length of the floor to the podium. The yelling and cheering was nonstop as spotlights flashed bright beams throughout the stadium.

In all honesty, I remember little about JFK's speech. In reality, it did not matter very much. For us young folks who waited many hours to see him, his words were largely irrelevant. Why? For us, national politics had meant old men talking like Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower (oddly, both are viewed today as top-echelon presidents), and here was Kennedy -- young, cool and, most important of all, representing the future.

Over the years, I have attended 14 national conventions and have listened in person to countless political speeches, but for me Nov. 4, 1960, was the political event of my life for the sheer tingle of joy it gave me.

Unbeknown to us at the time, the man who made this lollapalooza happen, Mayor Daley, was experiencing a similar tingle. As I have researched over the years, 1960 was "hizzoner's" coming of age not only as a mayor, but as an Irish Catholic politician. All the hurdles this ethnic group faced climbing the political/economic and social ladders in America (many of which Daley faced himself) were now being blown away by the presence of this Irish prince from Boston. Though much has been written about Daley's political motives in going all out for JFK (there were many), for me, remembering the look on Daley's face as he escorted Kennedy to the stage trumped them all. The Irish had finally arrived.

Back to the rally. It did not last long, and when it was over the excitement continued as we congratulated each other for sticking out the wait-to-see the spectacle. This fervor made our decision to walk back to State Street to catch the subway (in my case the Howard A or B train) an easy one. We strolled east on Madison Street. The locals were out panhandling for change to buy their whiskey of choice, Four Roses. Amazingly, as I was told later, these folks were not seen during Kennedy's earlier parade march to the stadium.

As I have often said, when you reach a certain age people are more interested in what you remember than what you know. So be it. This night is forever etched in my memory. I was young, fairly innocent, hopeful and filled with energy, and I was now hooked on politics. Though JFK's moral flaws have become common knowledge, his image remains untarnished in my memory.

And despite the usual cynicism that often kicks in with maturity, I can always think back to a time when everything good was possible and for a moment relive and re-experience the "tingle."

• Paul Green is director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University in Chicago and Schaumburg.

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