Eyewitness 1962: Pittsburgh's GOP fills arena for Eisenhower


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President John F. Kennedy drew 8,500 cheering Democrats to Fitzgerald Field House when he visited the University of Pittsburgh for a campaign speech on Oct. 12, 1962.

Allegheny County Republicans struck back two weeks later with an event that the Post-Gazette on Oct. 26 said required "almost military-like planning by County GOP Chairman Paul Hugus." As a result of his work, "more than 17,000 persons, a crowd that far exceeded the fondest dreams of GOP planners," filled the Civic Arena to hear former President Dwight D. Eisenhower deliver "a slashing attack on the Democratic Party and [endorse] all Republican candidates for statewide office."

While Eisenhower was the big draw, event planners offered entertainment that included singer Vaughn Monroe, the Ink Spots, KDKA bandleader Maurice Spitalny and Indiana, Pa.-native James Stewart as master of ceremonies.

"Emcee Stewart nearly brought down the house when he observed, 'I was told the Republican party hereabouts was so anemic it couldn't fill a phone booth.'

" 'Well,' he drawled, surveying the standing-room-only crowd, 'this is quite a phone booth.' "

Eisenhower agreed. Before he began his speech, the former president looked out over the crowd in mock surprise and repeated, "Quite a phone booth."

Meteorological conditions were bad the evening of the GOP extravaganza. When Eisenhower's plane landed at Greater Pittsburgh Airport, dignitaries waiting to greet him had to brave "the damp snow and the cutting wind." They were facing "weather ordered by the Democrats," according to the newspaper.

The former president's Oct. 25 visit came in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Post-Gazette had two banner headlines the next day: "Ike Calls For Unity In Time Of Crisis" and "JFK Okays U.N. Talks on Cuba."

"The present crisis in our foreign affairs demands of all Americans a visible and genuine unity against those who threaten the security of the Republic," Eisenhower said in his opening sentences. Then he went on the attack.

In remarks that would not have seemed out of place during the 2012 presidential debates, he lambasted the Kennedy administration. "For 21 months the new frontiersmen ... have produced sluggishness in the economy; continuing unemployment; deficit spending; mounting debt, and of course, abusive ridicule, by the ream and by the hour, for all who oppose them."

He urged Pennsylvanians to vote for William Scranton for governor and James E. Van Zandt for U.S. senator. Both men were members of Congress. (Scranton went on to win; Van Zandt lost.)

The crowd at the Civic Arena was described as "probably the largest crowd ever assembled under the retractable roof, and thus the largest indoor crowd in Pittsburgh's history." All 12,500 permanent seats were filled and an additional 4,000 seats were set up on the arena floor. Other people crowded into aisles and stairwells.

While the crowd for Eisenhower was much bigger than the one that turned out for JFK, it trailed well behind the estimated 50,000 who filled Forbes Field on Oct. 1, 1936, to see Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaigning for a second term.

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Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. Additional stories in the "Eyewitness" series can be found by searching the terms "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.


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