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The Road to the Nomination
The election of Dwight D. Eisenhower to the Presidency in 1952 had signaled a change in the prevailing weather of American politics — a return, in effect, to Republican 'normalcy' after twenty years of Democratic activism. Yet, in losing the 1952 campaign, Adlai Stevenson had left an indelible imprint on the American mind. By giving the tradition of progressive idealism brilliant and exciting expression, he renewed, even in defeat, the vitality of American liberalism. "A whole new generation," said Edward M. Kennedy in later years, "was drawn to take an interest in public affairs when he came on the scene. They were led by him, taught by him and inspired by him."
By 1956 that new generation of Democrats was preparing to claim national recognition. John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been one of its first members to enter politics. Elected to the House of Representatives from Massachusetts after the war in 1946 and then to the Senate in 1952, he was now a contender for the second place on the national ticket. The vice-presidential contest at the Democratic convention that year brought him for the first tine toward the center of the national consciousness — a brief fifty-four months before he took the presidential oath in Washington.
1. CHICAGO: 1956
Kennedy's father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was dubious about his son and the Vice-Presidency. He feared that the Democrats would lose in 1956 and a Catholic running mate would be blamed for the defeat. But the young administrative assistant whom Kennedy had taken on in 1953 at the suggestion of Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois, Theodore C. Sorensen of Nebraska, was all for going ahead. Without finally committing himself, Kennedy decided to let Sorensen test the wind. Through the spring of 1956 Sorensen talked to political leaders, wrote a persuasive memorandum designed to prove from the distribution of the Catholic vote that a Catholic would strengthen the ticket and worked unceasingly to line up support.
In the course of his missionary endeavors Sorensen got in touch with me. I had served on Stevenson's campaign staff in 1952 and, if he were renominated, would presumably do so again. Moreover, I had come to the view that, of the various vice-presidential possibilities, Kennedy would help Stevenson most. I also felt that putting a Catholic on the lower half of the ticket would be the most expeditious way to attenuate the taboo against a Catholic President which had too long disgraced American politics. Accordingly I had told Kennedy in the spring that I wanted to assist in any way I could consistent with my role in the Stevenson campaign. Sorensen came to our place at Wellfleet on Cape Cod early in July to discuss tactics at the convention.
Kennedy already had friends at the Stevenson headquarters in Chicago, notably two Stevenson law partners, William McCormack Blair, Jr., and Newton Minow. But he had opposition within the party, especially from professional Catholic politicians and from the older generation of party leaders. The soft-spoken and sagacious James Finnegan, Stevenson's campaign manager, was convinced that Kennedy would antagonize voters in anti-Catholic areas, as in the rural counties of Finnegan's own state of Pennsylvania. Jim Farley told Stevenson, "America is not ready for a Catholic." And the older party leaders disliked the idea of Kennedy not only because of his religion but because of his youth and independence. Truman dismissed the thought out of hand. Rayburn said to Stevenson, "Well, if we have to have a Catholic, I hope we don't have to take that little — — Kennedy. How about John McCormack?" (Rayburn later changed his mind about Kennedy.) Stevenson was troubled by the reaction of experienced pros like Truman, Farley and Finnegan. On the other hand, he wanted to give the new political generation prominence, and he considered Kennedy its most attractive spokesman. As the Democrats began to assemble in Chicago for the convention, he therefore decided to ask Kennedy to put his name in nomination.
The Stevenson staff had taken on itself to write drafts of all the nominating and seconding speeches in order to make sure that the proper points would be made. Kennedy characteristically rejected his draft, and he and Ted Sorensen set to work to produce a new one. I conducted these negotiations, and it was then that I first saw the Kennedy-Sorensen team in operation. There was no question which was the dominant partner, but there was no question either that in Sorensen Kennedy had found a remarkably intelligent, sensitive and faithful associate. Eventually the two labored together nearly till dawn on the speech.
Kennedy nominated Stevenson the next evening, and Stevenson won on the first ballot. Afterward Stevenson met with Rayburn, Lyndon Johnson, Paul Butler, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Governor Ribicoff of Connecticut and Governor Battle of Virginia to discuss the Vice-Presidency. Wilson Wyatt and Thomas K. Finletter had already proposed to Stevenson that the nomination be thrown open to the convention. A free choice, they argued, would provide an effective contrast to the 'dictated' renomination of Richard M. Nixon by the Republicans. Moreover, it would obviously liberate Stevenson from the embarrassment of having to pick one of the hopefuls and thereby disappoint the others.
When Stevenson broached this idea in the meeting, Rayburn said vigorously and profanely that it violated all tradition and logic. Butler backed Rayburn, and Johnson was plainly cool. But Finnegan spoke resourcefully for the open convention and finally prevailed. Later Stevenson told me that he regarded it as a gamble, since it might put a weak candidate on the ticket (he named a couple of Democratic politicians, neither of whom in the end was a serious contender), but that, in the circumstances, it was a risk he was willing to run.
Whatever else it did, the move brought the convention to life. The vice-presidential candidates spent the next twelve hours in frantic efforts to organize headquarters, track down delegates and plead for support. Estes Kefauver led on the first ballot, Kennedy was second. Then Lyndon Johnson announced that his state was switching to Kennedy (''Texas proudly casts its vote for the fighting sailor who wears the scars of battle"), and Kennedy went ahead. There were a few moments of pandemonium until Albert Gore arose to say that Tennessee was shifting to Kefauver. This set off the stampede, and Kefauver soon was over the top. A few moments later Kennedy, who had been taking a bath in his headquarters in the Stockyard Inn, made a poised good-loser speech asking that Kefauver be named by acclamation.
The open-convention device left a wake of obscure resentments. Both Kennedy and Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota had expected Stevenson's backing (though neither had solid ground for such hopes), and both now felt let down. Stevenson, in Kennedy's case, thought that, in asking him to make the nominating speech, he had already given a thirty-nine-year-old first-term Senator an unexampled opportunity to impress the convention and the nation and that Kennedy should appreciate this. Kennedy instead began to look on Stevenson as indecisive and elusive. Up to this time, the two men, without knowing each other well and divided by seventeen years, had had the friendliest feelings for each other. Now their relationship began to take on a slight tinge of mutual exasperation. In later years, however, Kennedy rejoiced that he had lost in Chicago. Had he won the nomination for Vice-President in 1956, he might never have won the nomination for President in 1960.
2. KENNEDY AND THE LIBERALS
Eisenhower's personal popularity, replenished by his success in ending the Korean War, proved invincible in the presidential contest; but the Democrats came out with control of both the Senate and House. This Democratic success, however, hastened the division of the party into what James MacGregor Burns has called its presidential and congressional wings. In the years after 1952 Stevenson had sponsored a small brain trust organized by Thomas K. Finletter, who had been Secretary of the Air Force under Truman and was now a leader of the reform Democrats of New York City, and John Kenneth Galbraith, the economist, my Harvard colleague and Cambridge neighbor. The Finletter group now became the basis for a new body, the Democratic Advisory Council, set up after the election by Paul Butler. The DAC, as an agency of the presidential party, was regarded with mistrust by the congressional leaders. Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn both declined to join. Humphrey became a member, however, and so eventually did Kennedy, though Kennedy took no very active part. The DAC pursued an aggressive line both in attacking the Eisenhower administration and in developing new Democratic policies. The congressional party was inclined to work with Eisenhower and accept the national mood of moderation. In the meantime, battle lines began to form for 1960.
Early in 1957 Lyndon Johnson wrote me that he understood I was critical of the congressional leadership and suggested that I call on him when next in Washington. Accordingly I dropped by the majority leader's office on a Saturday noon late in March. Johnson was affable and expansive. He began by saying that he was a sick man (his heart attack had taken place in 1955) with no political future of his own. His main desire, he said, was to live. He had no interest at all in the presidential nomination. He did not even mean to run again for the Senate. He planned only to serve out his present term. Being entirely disinterested, he wanted only to do the best he could for his party and his nation in the three, or two, or one year remaining to him.
He then poured out his stream-of-consciousness on the problems of leadership in the Senate. He described the difficulties of keeping the conservative southerners, whom he called the Confederates, and the liberal northerners in the same harness; he analyzed a number of seemingly insoluble parliamentary situations which he had mastered through unlimited perseverance and craft; and he gave a virtuoso's account of the role which timing, persuasion and parliamentary tactics played in getting bills through. Saying, "I want you to know the kind of material I have to work with," he ran down the list of forty-eight Democratic Senators, with a brilliant thumbnail sketch of each — strength and weakness, openness to persuasion, capacity for teamwork, prejudices, vices. In some cases he amplified the sketch by devastating dashes of mimicry. (My notes report him "highly favorable about Kennedy, but no special excitement.")
He went on to express his annoyance over the unwillingness of the organized liberals to accept him as one of their own. "Look at Americans for Democratic Action," he said. "They regard me as a southern reactionary, but they love Cliff Case. Have you ever compared my voting record with Cliff Case's?" Thereupon he pulled out of a desk drawer a comparison of his voting record with those of five liberal Republicans on fifteen issues. On each, he had voted on the liberal side and Case on the conservative. "And yet they look on me as some kind of southern bigot." He added that maybe he was showing undue sensitivity to liberal criticism. "But what a sad day it will be for the Democratic party when its Senate leader is not sensitive to liberal criticism."
He talked for an hour and a half without interruption. I had carefully thought out in advance the arguments to make when asked to justify my doubts about his leadership; but in the course of this picturesque and lavish discourse Johnson met in advance almost all the points I had in mind. When he finally paused, I found I had little to say. It was my first exposure to the Johnson treatment, and I found him a good deal more attractive, more subtle and more formidable than I expected. After nearly two hours under hypnosis, I staggered away in a condition of exhaustion. Later I gathered that this was part of a broader Johnson campaign to explain himself to the liberal intellectuals. In a few weeks, when Kenneth Galbraith visited him on his Texas ranch, Johnson told him, "I had a good meeting with Schlesinger. I found him quite easy to get along with. The only trouble was that he talked too much."
As for Kennedy, he too was having his problems with the liberal intellectuals. The Chicago convention had made him a national figure; and it was increasingly clear that the vice-presidential nomination would not satisfy him the next time around. In 1958 he came up for his second term in the Senate. His hope was to return to Washington by the largest possible vote in order to lay the basis for a presidential try two years later. His wife later remembered it as "the hardest campaign ever ... just running, running." He won by 875,000 votes, the greatest margin up to that point in Massachusetts history. Now his presidential campaign was starting in earnest.
Many liberal Democrats regarded him with suspicion. In part this went back to the days of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early fifties. Kennedy at first had not taken the Wisconsin Senator very seriously. "I think that the stories of communism within the executive branch of the government have more or less died out," he had said optimistically on Meet the Press in December 1951, "and I think that determined efforts have been made to rid the executive branch of the government of the communists, and I think it's been done on the whole." But by 1953 it was impossible to dismiss McCarthy any longer. When I mentioned him from time to time those days to Kennedy, he referred to the McCarthy Committee with articulate dislike but showed no interest in saying so publicly. He put this to me on political grounds — "Hell, half my voters in Massachusetts look on McCarthy as a hero" — and the political grounds were, I suppose, compelling. No one in the Senate in 1953, except for Herbert Lehman and, on particular occasions, Estes Kefauver and J. W. Fulbright, showed much courage about McCarthy. Even Senators like Paul Douglas and Hubert Humphrey kept out of McCarthy's way; and the fate of Millard Tydings and William Benton, who had taken him on and lost their seats, presumably in consequence, remained instructive.
One might have hoped that Kennedy, another Irish Catholic Senator and a genuine war hero, would have seen himself in a particularly strong position to challenge McCarthyism. But there were perhaps deeper reasons for his lack of involvement. His family's relations with McCarthy were certainly an important factor. His father liked McCarthy and invited him once or twice to Hyannis Port. The Wisconsin Senator could be engaging in the Victor McClaglen manner, and the Ambassador even perhaps saw the campaign against this fighting Irishman as one more outlet for the anti-Catholic sentiment which had so long oppressed the Irish-American community. Moreover, Robert Kennedy worked for a time on the staff of the McCarthy Committee, though he soon found himself in disagreement with the Committee's procedures and resigned, returning later as counsel for the Democratic minority.
As for John Kennedy himself, McCarthyism simply did not strike him as one of 'his' issues. This diffidence was no doubt related to his exasperation with the ideological liberals of the day and what he regarded as their emotional approach to public questions. A writer in The Saturday Evening Post in 1953 quoted him as saying, "I never joined the Americans for Democratic Action or the American Veterans Committee. I'm not comfortable with those people." Liberalism for him still existed mainly in terms of social and economic programs. As he later said to James MacGregor Burns, "Some people have their liberalism 'made' by the time they reach their late twenties. I didn't. I was caught in cross currents and eddies. It was only later that I got into the stream of things."
Still, Kennedy's actual position was no better and no worse than that of most Democrats, including those more clearly in the liberal stream of things. It was always a puzzle why the liberals took so long to forgive him when they forgave Hubert Humphrey immediately for his sponsorship of a bill to outlaw the Communist Party — an act of appeasement in excess of anything undertaken by Kennedy. Certainly, in spite of the whispering campaign against him in 1960, Kennedy never gave the slightest support to McCarthyism. He had no sustained social relations with McCarthy (his wife never even met him), did not question the motives of people who advocated unpopular policies and voted consistently as Senator against McCarthy on matters close to McCarthy's heart, such as the confirmation of Charles E. Bohlen as ambassador to Russia and of James B. Conant to West Germany. He prepared a speech in August 1954 explaining that he would vote for McCarthy's censure, though he planned to rest his case on rather technical grounds; when the vote finally took place in December, he was gravely sick in the hospital, awaiting a critical operation on his back. If he did not join Americans for Democratic Action, he always served as sponsor for ADA's annual Roosevelt Day dinners in Boston. And, if he kept out of the public debate, he did not hesitate to intervene privately. About this time John Fox of the Boston Post, who had backed Kennedy for the Senate in 1952, scheduled a series of articles exposing the reds at Harvard. My name was high on Fox's list. Hearing about the series, Kennedy protested on my behalf. "Fox didn't like it much," he told me later. "He probably suspects me of being a Communist now."
Excerpted from "A Thousand Days"
Copyright © 1993 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr..
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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