Conversations with Kennedyby Ben Bradlee, John F. Kennedy
"Give[s] us a good idea of what Jack Kennedy was really like—probably as good an idea as anything likely to be written about him [him]. . . . Highly informal and readable." —R. L. Tobin, Saturday ReviewSee more details below
"Give[s] us a good idea of what Jack Kennedy was really like—probably as good an idea as anything likely to be written about him [him]. . . . Highly informal and readable." —R. L. Tobin, Saturday Review
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Conversations with Kennedy
By Benjamin C. Bradlee
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1975 Benjamin C. Bradlee
All rights reserved.
Gaps in the Record
There are two significant gaps in this record of conversations with John F. Kennedy, one major, about thirty-six months, one minor, about three months, both important for their implications about the relations between the press and the presidency, and specifically between this reporter and that president.
If my five-year relationship with Kennedy had been purely personal, there probably would have been no gaps, and no written record. If this relationship had been purely professional, there may have been gaps, but there would exist a complete record.
To any man, but especially to a journalist, it is exciting to consider the prospect that a friend and a neighbor might, just possibly, become president of the United States. But it is also vaguely rattling, leading as it does to both subjective and objective considerations of the candidate's talents that normal voters don't make. Living in Europe as I had from 1951 to 1957, I had no firsthand knowledge of the two campaigns that had set the stage for the 1960 presidential elections. I had missed most of the Joe McCarthy period, and all of its national political fallout. I had missed both Stevenson campaigns, and therefore was unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the hold he had on the minds of most of my colleagues and most of my liberal friends. I had not been around to watch the rebirth of the Republican Party under Eisenhower after twenty years of Democratic rule. Most particularly as far as Kennedy was concerned, I had missed JFK's brief and abortive emergence as a national political figure when he tried for the vice-presidency with Stevenson in 1956. And so when I first got to know Kennedy well, no historical precedents inhibited me when I first wondered if he might make president. It seemed so unlikely, if only because one's friends didn't (then) even run for president, much less get elected. Early on, my wife and I often said to him how strange it was for us that he should be a presidential candidate, and asked him often if it didn't seem strange to him. "Yes," he once replied, "until I stop and look around at the other people who are running for the job. And then I think I'm just as qualified as they are."
I remember once, toward the end of 1959, asking him, "Do you really think—way down deep—that you can pull this thing off?" And he paused, for a long time, which was not characteristic, and said quietly: "Yes, if I don't make a single mistake myself, and if I don't get maneuvered into a position where there is no way out." He said he meant by this that he could never finish second in a primary, never get into a situation like the one Stassen got into with Dewey in the Oregon primary of 1948 where everything was riding on a single event, and then blow that.
I'm not sure now that I believed him then. I was working overtime to overcome my lack of political knowledge, but I knew too much already to trust my political judgments and not enough to trust my political hunches. My uncertainties were quickly tested in the primaries. He ran up a record vote in the first of these primaries—in New Hampshire—but he was running there against the west wind, against a political unknown. And in Wisconsin, he never admitted it publicly but he ran substantially behind what he had privately predicted. On the day Wisconsin voters went to the polls, he flew to some town in northern Michigan in the Caroline for a midday political rally before coming back for the returns, and I went with him. During the flight I asked him for his prediction in each of the ten Wisconsin election districts. He wouldn't tell me, but agreed to write them down and put them in a sealed envelope, if I would do the same. We did, and Kennedy put them casually in a drawer on the plane, and switched the subject. Two or three days later, I was back on assignment on the Kennedy family plane and remembered the envelope. He pulled it out and showed me the predictions. I had put down "Kennedy 7, Humphrey 3," out of an abundance of caution; I really thought it would be eight to two. Kennedy himself had put down "JFK 9, HHH 1." But he actually carried only six districts to Humphrey's four, and I was obviously influenced by the disparity between our predictions and the actual outcome.
Maybe I had communicated some of my doubts to the editors of Newsweek, although they had plenty of their own, having covered many more presidential elections. Once I arranged to have Kennedy meet with these editors for dinner at the Links Club in New York, and later with some of the editors at the home of my friend, Blair Clark, then a CBS news executive. They gave him the hardest of times, slamming questions at him, obviously skeptical of the chances of a man who was too young, too Catholic, too eastern, too urbane. Crusty Hal Lavine, who had been covering presidential campaigns for Newsweek before Kennedy was a junior congressman, asked him what he was going to do that would convince the skeptics, what could he pull off that would impress the skeptics that he wasn't "just another pretty boy from Boston and Harvard." Kennedy was enjoying himself, despite the heat he was getting, and he turned to Lavine and stopped him cold by saying, "Well, I'm going to fucking well take Ohio, for openers." Not only had none of the editors heard a presidential candidate express himself exactly that way, but all of them knew that taking Ohio would in fact impress the skeptics, and they were impressed with Kennedy's conviction.
That line never appeared in print. The press generally protected Kennedy, as they protected all candidates, from his excesses of language and his sometimes outspokenly deprecatory characterizations of other politicians. Kennedy sometimes referred to Lyndon Johnson, and truly without hostility, as a "riverboat gambler," and often as "Landslide," a reference to the time when LBJ was first elected to the Senate by a majority in the primary of eighty-seven votes. He liked Stuart Symington as a human being, and felt the 1960 Democratic convention would most likely turn to Symington if they stopped him, but he stood in less than awe of his intellectual ability and said so often and bluntly to reporters. Other politicians said the same thing about Kennedy of course, but the press appreciated Kennedy for his openness and protected him, while the press reacted skeptically to other candidates.
Vice-President Nixon attracted at least as many reporters, many of them, including myself, who were spending most of their time covering Kennedy. The difference was the difference between night and day. In the first place, the men around Nixon, with the exceptions of Bob Finch, the campaign director, Herb Klein, then as later in charge of Nixon's press, and New York political operator Len Hall, when he was allowed into the Inner Sanctum, cordially disliked the press and simply spoke a different language, where the men around Kennedy genuinely liked the press and spoke the same language.
At any time during the Kennedy campaign, a reporter could get to Larry O'Brien, Ken O'Donnell, Ted Sorensen, Bobby, all of them, often for a drink, always for a bull session. During the Nixon campaign, it took an all-day siege to get a few minutes with the men around Nixon, and they made reporters feel like lepers during those few minutes. And of course, Kennedy himself genuinely liked reporters. Some of his best friends—as the saying goes—were in fact reporters. He even had been a newspaperman once, himself—as another saying goes. (He covered the San Francisco conference which founded the United Nations in 1945 for the Hearst syndicate.)
Kennedy loved to shoot the breeze with reporters. He knew about the politics of each newspaper and magazine, the political politics and the office politics. And he knew this instinctively, without briefings. Nixon, on the other hand, then as later, was plagued by his discomfort with the press. On the rare occasions when he tried to be "one of the boys," the boys and girls of the press felt he was putting on an act, as he was. And all of this, despite the fact that the Nixon press operation was far smoother than the Kennedy operation. On the Nixon press plane, there was order; press releases were issued in good time; schedules were issued well in advance, and adhered to rigidly. And the press grumbled, openly hoping for assignment to the JFK camp. On the Kennedy press plane there was informal, friendly chaos, and the press loved it. In short, Kennedy was stimulated by reporters; Nixon was annoyed by them.
It was—and is—all an elaborate, ritualistic mating dance, this vital relationship between the press and presidential candidates and presidents. The whole purpose of a campaign from the point of view of the politicians is to give the press something favorable to write about the candidate, and the press is vaguely resentful of being so used. The whole purpose of the campaign from the point of view of the press is to get to know the candidate as he really is, not as his public relations operation says he is, and the candidate is vaguely resentful of being such a target. These are the rules, and they must be followed with complete understanding by both sides, and with as much humor as possible. It is not the great adversary relationship it is cracked up to be, provided these rules are understood.
A case in point involves crowd estimates, always a bone of contention between the press and the presidential candidate. Once the Kennedy apparatus had announced that some JFK rally had been attended by 35,000 people, a figure which seemed to the traveling reporters to be substantially high. I asked Kennedy how they arrived at that figure, and he said to me and half a dozen other reporters: "Plucky (press secretary Pierre Salinger's nickname) counts the nuns, and then multiplies them by 100." By so deprecating the crowd count, and making a joke about a subject that was sensitive, to say the least, Kennedy made the reporters laugh, and probably avoided a story about inflated crowd counts by his staff.
Questioning of a crowd count given the press by a member of the Nixon team usually brought a lecture about bias.
The major gap is in fact the absence of any intention to keep a written record of my contacts with JFK. When I first realized that chance was going to give me a special access to this bright and graceful and witty man who hungered to have a special impact on his times, and who seemed to be coming closer to his goal every day, I naively saw no conflict of interest between friendship and journalism. I was not sure he would become that significant a historical figure, and I was completely ignorant of my ultimate access and relationship to him.
As best I can now remember, that first moment came on the afternoon of a sparkling late summer day in 1958. My wife and I had bumped into the Kennedys during an afternoon walk in Georgetown. Already casual acquaintances, they now were new neighbors. We talked then for an hour or so in their garden, a few doors from our house, and we drew each other as dinner partners later that night. The subject of those conversations—like so many that followed—was the private lives and public postures of politicians, reporters, and friends.
This major gap in my written record lasted until August, 1961, when I first recorded a meeting with Kennedy, but it really lasted longer—until February, 1962, when I started making a record of every meeting with him. A gap, then, of some three years, during which I was groping for the answer to a question that has plagued Washington journalists since the birth of the Republic: What is the dividing line between friendship and professionalism? Closeness brings the access that is essential to understanding, but with closeness come potentially conflicting loyalties.
By 1960 I had been a cub reporter, a police reporter, a court reporter, a foreign correspondent, and a political reporter for fourteen years. I had spent a majority of these years outside Washington, in New Hampshire and in Paris. As a result, I had fewer politicians as friends than most of my colleagues and all of my competitors, and I worried about it. This thing I had going with the junior senator from Massachusetts was very seductive. He had the smell of success, and my special access to him was enormously valuable to Newsweek, in whose Washington bureau I was then working. And I truly liked him; our wives were becoming friends; we ate and drank together.
I never wrote less than I knew about him, filing the good with the bad. But obviously, the information Kennedy gave me tended to put him and his policies in a favorable light, even though all such information was passed through special filters, in the first instance by me, and to a greater extent by Newsweek's editors. If I was had, so be it; I doubt I will ever be so close to a political figure again. If I should get that close again, there will be nothing missing from my record of conversations.
The minor gap in the record began in August, 1962, when Look magazine published an article by Fletcher Knebel entitled "Kennedy vs. The Press," and subtitled "Never have so few bawled out so many so often for so little, as the Kennedys battle reporters." In the light of the Nixon experience, and in light of the simple, historic fact that John Kennedy enjoyed better relations with the press than any president since Mergenthaler invented the linotype, the hyperbole here is hard to believe. But the immediate problem for me centered on two paragraphs in the story, plus some bit of graphic hyperbole by Look's art director, entitled "They've Dueled With Kennedy" beneath an old woodcut of a bearded man in a three-quarter-length coat, left hand behind his back, right hand with pistol raised high at the ready.
The paragraphs at issue read as follows:
Even a good friend of the President, Benjamin C. Bradlee, Washington bureau chief of Newsweek, felt the presidential fire. Kennedy phoned him to take him to task for a Newsweek story about an old Massachusetts aide of Kennedy's being considered for a federal judgeship. Also ticked off later by Attorney General Kennedy for another story, Bradlee takes the rebukes philosophically and not too seriously.
"It's almost impossible," he says, "to write a story they like. Even if a story is quite favorable to their side, they'll find one paragraph to quibble with."
Would anyone believe I thought that quote was off the record? Anyway, I said it, and of course it was true. Kennedys by definition want 110 percent from their friends, especially their friends in the press, and feel cheated by anything less. I do remember Kennedy calling to complain about the "old Massachusetts aide." That was Francis Xavier Morrissey, a municipal (pronounced MU-ni-SIP-ple in Boston) court judge, whose legal abilities were taxed by parking ticket cases, and whom Kennedy was trying to slip unnoticed onto the federal bench. And I remember what the president of the United States said: "Jesus Christ, you guys are something else. When I was elected, you all said that my old man would run the country in consultation with the pope. Now here's the only thing he's ever asked me to do for him, and you guys piss all over me."
I have no recollection of the particular incident that ticked off the attorney general.
The graphics included two boxes containing lists of names of journalists, one called "Jumped on by Jack," and the other "Bawled out by Bobby." My name was the only one to make both lists.
Excerpted from Conversations with Kennedy by Benjamin C. Bradlee. Copyright © 1975 Benjamin C. Bradlee. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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