Smiles and Steel In Snapshots of JFK
After reading about the Kennedy family celebrating what would have been John F. Kennedy's 80th birthday, I dug out from my collection of pictures one of a young JFK chatting with a young reporter who looks fairly familiar. Kennedy is sitting in the back seat of an open-topped limousine that has just picked him up and is preparing to whisk him away from a tiny airport outside Milwaukee. The reporter is standing alongside the car, looking down into Kennedy's face as they talk. Kennedy looks thoughtful as he fingers some dark glasses he has just taken off. He is slightly smiling, apparently enjoying the conversation.
That was the fall of 1957. Senator Kennedy had come to Wisconsin to campaign for a Democratic candidate. For the two of us (yes, I was the reporter, if you haven't already guessed) it was a private, brief interview. Only after Kennedy was assassinated did I receive this picture in the mail: An onlooker had sneaked in a candid shot.
What I was asking Kennedy that sunny but windy afternoon was what all reporters were beginning to ask him: Was he going to run for president in 1960? And - more specifically - was he campaigning for other Democrats as part of his lining up support for a bid for the presidency? I'm sure he was telling me that he simply had come out to Wisconsin to help a friend.
Kennedy had emerged as a "hot" prospect for 1960 at the 1956 Democratic National Convention in Chicago where he had come within a hair of winning an open contest among the delegates that determined the vice presidential nominee.
I "covered" that 24-hour Kennedy effort to nab Adlai Stevenson's No. 2 spot. That is, I was outside the hotel room where Kennedy was meeting with heavy hitters in the party - like Carmine DeSapio, Jake Arvey, and David Lawrence - as he tried to line up the support of leaders who were then in a position to shape the outcome of the convention. Several times during the long night before the next day's vote I was able to grab Kennedy's attention for a moment. "How you doing?" I remember asking. All I can recall in his answer was that warm grin that he always gave to reporters. He liked reporters, felt at home with them - and they with him.
My first up-close glimpse of young Kennedy was in the early '50s when Congressman Kennedy went after Henry Cabot Lodge's Senate seat. I attended a debate in Boston between the two men where no one gave Kennedy much of a chance. Lodge was stiff and, I thought, a bit disdainful. Kennedy was surprisingly well informed in world affairs as well as on domestic matters. Lodge was humorless; Kennedy was often witty. Kennedy clearly won the debate and was on his way to the Senate.
I later had a ringside seat at the most famous political debate in history (except the Lincoln-Douglas debates, of course) when Kennedy took on Richard Nixon in Chicago in the 1960 campaign. Nixon was supposed to wipe out Kennedy. And once again Kennedy, the underdog, was the winner. From there he went on to campaign victory. Those of us who had seen Kennedy perform years before in that Boston debate weren't surprised at what he did to Nixon.
Just before the 1960 presidential primary in Wisconsin, I sat with Kennedy for a two-hour interview in his private plane as we returned to Washington from the Midwest. Of that upcoming primary JFK said: "There are real hazards. A loss there would hurt me terribly, perhaps eliminate me." I asked, "Will you run scared in Wisconsin?" He replied: "I don't like the term 'run scared.' I'm going to work very hard. There will be no overconfidence."
I still remember that steely look in his eyes. That steel was always there - along with his easygoing way and geniality and his reputation as a good-time fellow.