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How JFK's campaign invented modern presidential politics


THE ROAD TO CAMELOT: Inside JFK's Five-Year Campaign

By Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie

Simon & Schuster

448 pages, $28

We can only imagine the meeting between Joseph P. Kennedy and his son, John F. Kennedy, in a small study off their Cape Cod living room on that Thanksgiving afternoon in 1956.

While dishes were washed in the kitchen of the "Kennedy compound," father and son huddled. It was like that with the Kennedys, little transpired without an approving nod from Old Joe.

Kennedy's son – Jack – was an ambitious U.S. senator just coming off an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination. But bigger things always weighed on the mind of Jack Kennedy, not to mention his father's.

And by the time the pair emerged from that small space, Jack Kennedy had embraced the challenge his father presented.

"Well, Dad," Jack Kennedy declared, "I guess there's only one question left: When do we start?"

That's how Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie recount the beginning of the remarkable 1960 campaign for president. In their terrific new study: "The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK's Five Year Campaign," the pair of veteran Boston Globe reporters delves deeply into the philosophy, nuts and bolts, challenges, disappointments and triumph of Kennedy's quest for the nomination and ultimate victory in the general election over Republican Richard Nixon.

This ranks as an important analysis of the 1960 campaign for myriad reasons. In many respects, it marked the beginning of the modern presidential campaign with its reliance on polling, and especially, television.

Yet Kennedy dwelled with one foot in the old ways of Boston politics too, like working to dominate his own state's political structure. How else could he take on the whole Democratic establishment, he asked, if he couldn't first dislodge old archenemy William "Onions" Burke as state chairman.

Burke, a Western Massachusetts onion farmer, acted as then-House Majority Leader John McCormack's front man for an organization dating to Mayor James M. Curley, no friend of the Kennedy clan for two generations since helping to drive out his grandfather – John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald – as mayor of Boston.

The authors point to the pros and cons of a U.S. senator plunging into the blood and guts of precinct politics, but they also quote the future president's top advisers, Dave Powers and Kenny O'Donnell, as labeling the effort a necessary "turning point in his career."

"Those of us who were closely associated with Kennedy regard his fight with Burke and McCormack as his coming of age as a party politician," Powers and O'Donnell wrote many years later.

Still, 1960 marked the dawn of television as a powerful campaign force. And while over the decades volumes have studied the impact of the Kennedy-Nixon debates and the influence of TV, Oliphant and Wilkie delve into it better than anyone. They analyze poll data from the time, question the "myth" that Nixon won among radio listeners, and still conclude that the three encounters between the candidates proved critical.

"The original concerns of some Republicans were well-founded," the authors write. "By agreeing to debate, Nixon gave Kennedy a chance to shed what remained of his image of inexperience."

"Even a draw, if it was a draw, was a Kennedy victory," Kennedy aide Ted Sorensen later said. "Millions of voters now knew Kennedy and knew him favorably."

Indeed, inexperience loomed as a major drawback. In his early 40s, Kennedy emerged as a national name among far more veteran and seasoned opponents like Hubert Humphrey, Stuart Symington, Adlai Stevenson and Lyndon Johnson. And the authors pull no punches in pointing out Kennedy brought nothing in particular – no overarching cause or theme – to at least the early stages of his campaign.

"It's not that I have some burning thing to take to the nation," he remarked at a Washington meeting 60 years ago. "It's just, 'Why not me?' "

But if there is one constant theme – one continuing element that dominated the campaign -- it was the candidate's Catholicism. It's hard to believe now (even though no Catholic has been elected since), that religion loomed as such an impediment. But it did – big time.

Religion dogged Gov. Al Smith in 1928 too, looming as a major factor in his loss to Herbert Hoover. Kennedy recognized and coped with it all along, never wavering in his faith, but never wavering in his assertion that he could govern without interference from Rome.

The Kennedy team first addressed the issue in 1956 in a report largely researched by Sorensen but spearheaded by Connecticut Gov. John Bailey, a close ally. The document showed at least some attitudes were changing, and that which was deemed unthinkable – a Catholic president – could be possible.

Yet the issue persisted to the end, with top Protestant leaders like Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham fueling fears of a Catholic in the White House. Sorensen and others found a way to make the flip side work, drawing enough of the ethnic and old Democratic coalition vote in the big cities to carry the day for Kennedy.

That included Buffalo, where the authors cite the early and strong support of Erie County Democratic Chairman Peter J. Crotty, one of the first big city chairmen to pledge the strength of his organization behind JFK. Veterans of that era also will find themselves engrossed in New York State's warring Democratic factions, as if anything has really changed.

This is an important work for any JFK student or fan. Oliphant and Wilkie never shy away from Kennedy's faults (they seem almost incredulous that he was not derailed by his womanizing) and approach the situation in the analytical and unbiased way of two veteran political reporters.

There's much more to this – JFK's interactions with LBJ (especially a fascinating tale of his negotiations for the vice-presidency filled with captivating "what ifs?"), the development of the New Frontier theme, and the roles of Robert, Jacqueline and Edward Kennedy.

Put this one on your book shelf – you'll want to return to it often.

Robert J. McCarthy is the News' Senior Political Reporter.


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