Recalling a Political Junkie’s First Fix

Exactly 50 years ago, I became involved in presidential politics. Massachusetts Sen. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a handsome war hero from a wealthy Catholic family, was boldly seeking the Democratic nomination.

I say boldly because he was only 43 years old and because a Roman Catholic had never won the presidency. Gov. Al Smith of New York was nominated in 1928; Smith’s loss to Herbert Hoover was blamed on his faith. Accepted wisdom became “Catholics can’t win.” Kennedy’s task was to prove that shibboleth wrong.

In contrast to Al Smith, Jack Kennedy appealed to many constituencies. His good looks didn’t hurt with women voters. Veterans liked him as one of their own. The Irish wanted the same. Harvard eggheads identified with Sen. Kennedy’s cerebral side, admiring his writing ability. Jack’s first book, “Why England Slept,” examined errors leading up to World War II; his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Profiles in Courage” praised nine senators who voted against the pressures of party politics or public opinion to do the right thing for their country, a quality even rarer in our 21st century. Its title gave his political opponents this easy zing: “Kennedy should show less profile and more courage.”

In August 1960, I was a 27-year-old father of three boys; we lived at Hampshire Heights. I sold new and used cars at our family’s automobile dealership. Our son Chris was only three months old, business was moribund and my father had served his third and, as it turned out, last term as mayor of Northampton.

I was too busy working to get involved in dad’s 1959 re-election campaign, but enthralled by the prospect of a President Kennedy. To follow the action I began reading the New York Times. I found time to distribute colorful Kennedy brochures door to door, although his home state was a lock. All year long strong opinions rang out at Northampton’s Junior Chamber of Commerce meetings, which usually wrapped up over beers at Rahar’s Inn.

Winning the nomination required Jack to beat his Democratic opponents like Hubert Humphrey in primary after primary. When West Virginia, a heavily Protestant state, chose Kennedy over Humphrey the “Catholic question” was answered; Kennedy’s nomination was in reach.

However, the feasibility of electing a Catholic president still loomed large upon the land. Kennedy, like Obama did in his Philadelphia speech on race, resolutely decided to face the issue head-on by addressing the a ministers’ group in Texas in September.

In a serious dialogue he set forth his belief that no Catholic prelate should ever tell a president how to act, nor should any minister advise his or her congregation how to vote. Freedom of religion, to worship or not do so at all, Kennedy said was, “the kind of America in which I believe.”

Jack may not have converted many that day, but he earned respect for standing up to religious prejudice.

Kennedy’s energy, good looks and positive themes, “Let’s get America moving again” and “Leadership for the 60’s,” brought out crowds as he criss-crossed the country in “Caroline,” his propeller-driven plane. His brother, Bobby, managed each campaign day with an abrasiveness that saw him hated by many of the old pols he pushed around in the cause of “Jack,” but Bobby’s single-mindedness paid off as one by one the primary states fell to the Kennedy juggernaut.

The first Kennedy-Nixon debate revealed Kennedy to be far from the novice the GOP had portrayed. He came through as a candidate in tune with the issues and eager to debate Vice President Richard Nixon toe to toe. Oddly, those who heard that debate on radio pronounced Nixon the winner, yet television told another tale. Kennedy was cool, calm and unflustered. Nixon’s makeup was poor; he perspired and looked nervous. We Democrats thought Kennedy won, Republicans chose Nixon. Independents luxuriated in having it both ways with plenty of time to make up their minds by November.

After Kennedy defeated Nixon by the narrowest of margins, one tenth of one percent in the popular vote, everyone could relax and contemplate what had happened.

In 1961, Theodore White’s “The Making of the President, 1960” set a new standard of political inside-baseball and won the 1962 Pulitzer for non-fiction. All election books that followed owe much to White’s innovative look into the gamesmanship of politics.

Which brings me to the book I’m reading now: “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. The hard-fought 2008 primary campaigns of Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama are revealed. We lived through it not all that long ago. Hillary was the confident candidate who promised us she’d be the Democratic nominee; Edwards was John Kerry’s hair-apparent who lived two hopeful years in Iowa; Barack Obama was a first-term Illinois senator who’d made a Kennedyesque impression with his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in Boston.

Just like Yogi Berra says of baseball games, elections are not over until they’re over, and a terrific reporter writes the book. I always look forward to the next chapter.

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