JFK Transformed: From the Senate to the White House

On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, with bookstore shelves overflowing with reexaminations and conspiracy theories, John T. Shaw takes a look at an important but under-reported period of President Kennedy's life in.
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On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, with bookstore shelves overflowing with reexaminations and conspiracy theories, John T. Shaw takes a look at an important but under-reported period of President Kennedy's life in JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency.

Shaw, a Capitol Hill correspondent for Market News International, focuses on the period from Kennedy's first campaign for the House of Representatives in 1946 to his campaign for the White House in 1960. During those years, Kennedy built his foreign policy expertise, won a Pulitzer Prize, and became a media star.

Shaw and I discussed his book last week by email, which I lightly edited below.

You wrote that the Senate was "a forum, a platform and a launching pad" for Kennedy to become president, but President Obama is the only other president in modern history to get elected from the Senate. Is that a historical accident, or is there more to it than that?

I believe that both Sen. Kennedy and Sen. Obama had a very shrewd sense of both the opportunities and limitations the Senate offered for those running for president. They both saw that it was wise to use the Senate's visibility as a campaign asset but it was important to avoid getting ensnared in protracted legislative battles that almost always ended with messy results.

I'm convinced that then Sen. Obama and his campaign team in 2007 and 2008 looked at Sen. Kennedy's 1960 campaign, at least in its broad themes if not its exact details. Obama saw that it was possible for a relatively junior senator to get his party's nomination and win the general election without having an extensive legislative record. Obama also saw, as did Kennedy, that being viewed as a Senate insider, was an electoral liability rather than a political strength. Obama saw in 2008 as Kennedy did in 1960 that the political moment allowed for a different kind of candidate to run and win. Each sensed, I think shrewdly, that he had a unique opportunity to run for, and win, the presidency in the year they choose which might not be available four years later.

Even before Kennedy was in the Senate, he had higher aspirations. Why didn't he run in 1956 when the Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson, who had already lost to Eisenhower four years earlier?

Democrats generally agreed that Adlai Stevenson ran a strong and principled campaign against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, deserved a rematch in 1956, and would be their best candidate against the politically formidable incumbent.

It's important to recall that Senator Kennedy's political career took off in 1956 - especially the second half of the year. Before then he was a little known junior senator from Massachusetts. But in 1956 his book, Profiles in Courage, was published and became a bestseller, and he was the star of the 1956 Democratic convention. He narrated the film opening the convention, nominated Stevenson to be the Democratic Party's presidential candidate, and came within a handful of votes of becoming Stevenson's vice presidential selection. And within weeks of Stevenson's defeat in November of 1956, Kennedy decided to run for the 1960 nomination.

By the end of 1956, JFK was a political rock star, but he was relatively unknown at the start of the year. Kennedy may have also sensed that Eisenhower was going to be get re-elected in 1956, probably by a landslide, and there was little to be gained by leading a Democratic ticket that got trounced.

There's a fair amount of controversy about whether Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage, which won a Pulitzer Prize. Did he write it?

Kennedy loved to read history and also aspired to write it, first as a Harvard undergraduate when he turned his honors thesis about England's foreign policy into a best-selling book, Why England Slept. Nearly 15 years later, while convalescing in Palm Beach after major back surgery, Sen. Kennedy decided to expand an article he had written about political courage into a book. Kennedy assembled a small research team of academics for the project, overseen by his aide Ted Sorensen.

Sorensen's group gathered background materials and sent Kennedy memos and draft chapters which JFK honed into a manuscript. As I see it, Kennedy acted more as an executive editor of Profiles In Courage than a traditional author. Sorensen, in his 2008 memoir, credits JFK with playing a large role in writing the first and final chapters of the book, suggesting others did much of the work on the rest of the book. Allegations that Sorensen effectively wrote Profiles in Courage were first made in the spring of 1957 and they made Kennedy furious. So did Sorensen's very carefully worded denials.

One thing that jumped out at me in the book is how good Kennedy was in his congressional campaigns at what we would now call grassroots work -- knocking on doors, sending thank-you notes, keeping detailed contact information, etc. Was that a surprise to you?

It was. In many ways, JFK was not a natural politician. He was a quiet, reserved, sometimes even shy man. He once said that when sitting on a plane he would prefer to quietly read a book than banter with the person sitting next to him. But when he decided to enter politics he swung for the fences. Even though he had ample family financial resources - and he used them - Kennedy worked from morning to night on his campaigns, shaking hands, speaking to political and civic groups, meeting with potential supporters, and making phone calls to party leaders. Both his brother Bobby and his top political aide, Larry O'Brien, built first class political organizations that were the gold standard of their time.

I came away from the book with a sense that Kennedy wasn't much of a senator in the traditional sense but that his years in Congress were a phenomenal preparation for the White House -- particular on foreign policy. Was that your take?

Yes. Kennedy never had any desire to be a traditional senator. He never aspired to be a "Master of the Senate" such as Lyndon Johnson who drove the institution. Kennedy was much more interested in being a "Statesman-Scholar" along the lines of Winston Churchill who shifted between the worlds of ideas and action -- and helped frame the policy debate.

As a senator, Kennedy made surprisingly rich and interesting contributions to the foreign policy debate. For example, his speeches on France's policies toward Indochina and Algeria were remarkably impressive and stand the test of time. And he saw about thirty years before many others did that Poland was the weakest link in the Soviet Empire.

But there is little dispute that JFK's youngest brother, Ted, was easily the best senator in the family. [Robert Kennedy was elected to the Senate in 1964 and served until he was assassinated in 1968.] Ted was more far more patient than either JFK or RFK and seemed to genuinely relish the back-and-forth of legislative and Senate life.

How was your experience researching presidential history in the internet age? Has the Kennedy Library largely moved online, or did you have to spend a lot of time in Boston?

I'm still edging my way out of the 20th century and so while I did take advantage of the growing availability of online resources I conducted a lot of my research the old fashioned way. I read biographies about JFK, memoirs by Kennedy's contemporaries, and the three major books that JFK wrote. I also spent a lot of time reviewing original documents in the Senate Historical Office, the Senate Library, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.

The Kennedy Library offers some of its collections online and I found important information there. I spent a week at the Library in Boston and stumbled into a number of valuable documents, including a speech that Sen. Kennedy gave to the Mississippi Valley Historical Association in 1958 in which he described his love of history in a remarkably clear and vivid way. I've never seen this speech quoted before and I just stumbled into it as I thumbed through a JFK speech file. Sometimes good accidents happen!

What were the best Kennedy books you came across?

My research into John F. Kennedy's Senate career propelled me into the seemingly endless, always expanding, universe of Kennedy literature. The books that best help me understand Sen. Kennedy were: John Kennedy: A Political Profile by James MacGregor Burns (1961), Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy by Herbert Parmet (1980), An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek (2003), The Strategy of Peace by John F. Kennedy (1960), Counselor by Ted Sorensen (2008), Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye by Kenneth O'Donnell and David Powers (1970), My Twelve Years With John F. Kennedy by Evelyn Lincoln (1965), Master of the Senate by Robert Caro (2002), The Passage of Power by Robert Caro (2012) and Kennedy Versus Lodge by Thomas Whalen (2000).

Are you working on anything now?

I have become deeply interested in the Senate of the 1950s. What an incredible cast of characters: Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Mike Mansfield, Robert Taft, Richard Russell, Everett Dirksen, etc. My next book will return to this world but I haven't settled on a specific topic yet.

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