GREENWOOD — The Road to Camelot ran through Turnrow Book Co. here Thursday evening as veteran political journalists Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie discussed their deeply reported look at the long campaign waged by John F. Kennedy to win the presidency in 1960.
Kennedy “invented modern presidential politics … on the fly,” Oliphant said.
The two, colleagues on the political trail for decades as reporters for the Boston Globe, recounted techniques first used by the Kennedy team and now practiced by most successful campaigns. Among them: an early start to campaigning, use of polls to define issues and help shape where to campaign, working with the rank-and-file party members rather than relying on the endorsements of party bosses and working the arcane world of caucuses to gain grassroots support for their effort.
Their book, The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign, was published this week by Simon and Schuster and brings a new level of understanding about how John F. Kennedy worked for years to secure the 1960 Democratic Party nomination and won the pitched battle with Richard Nixon to become the nation’s 35th president. The book’s release coincides with the 100th anniversary of Kennedy’s birth on May 29, 1917.
Oliphant reminded those listening that Kennedy’s chances five years before the 1960 election were “improbable.” Kennedy had celebrity from a combination of his family name and the acclaim for his heroic efforts to save his PT 109 crew during World War II.
But beyond that, for those who knew Kennedy in the fall of 1955, “to call him a lightweight was an excessive compliment … his accomplishments were essentially zero … there was no clout,” Oliphant said. “So when you say starting from zero, this is what zero looks like.”
But he noted, Kennedy had a rare ability “to look at himself dispassionately.” Realizing he had no record of achievement or expertise in policy areas, he created one.
“He worked so hard (at establishing a record) that he came up with ideas,” Oliphant said, noting that those ideas today are reflected in programs as diverse as Medicare and federal aid to local school districts.
On the theme of how Kennedy campaigned earlier than others contenders, Oliphant noted that “starting very early was central to his approach to politics.” When other candidates such as Lyndon Johnson or Stuart Symington got around to visiting states “they found that Kennedy had already been there … and many times.”
Wilkie recalled how Kennedy even targeted states that might seem impossible to win, such as Wisconsin, neighboring state to Minnesota, whose Hubert Humphrey was a contender. Humphrey did so much for Wisconsin that “he was considered the third senator from Wisconsin,” Wilkie noted.
But Kennedy started early in the state, “and by the time Humphrey went in there he was outnumbered,” Wilkie said. “It was an amazing feat.”
Oliphant was a political writer and columnist at the Boston Globe for 40 years. Wilkie, Inaugural Overby Fellow and Kelly G. Cook Chair of Journalism at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss, covered politics bracketed around an overseas assignment covering the Middle East. Both were among the journalists featured in The Boys on the Bus, Timothy Crouse’s inside look at the press corps covering the 1972 presidential election.
The two approached the book from a shared interest in the 1956 Democratic national convention fight in which Kennedy came close to earning the vice presidential nod after Adlai Stevenson threw his running mate choice to the convention to decide. They noted that on the convention stage that fateful day were more than a dozen political figures who would rise to prominence over the next two decades.
Their interest in pursuing the topic was bolstered by comments to them by longtime Kennedy adviser Theodore Sorensen that no one had explored the true story of how long and deeply Kennedy worked to earn his party’s 1960 presidential nomination.
Oliphant said the two benefited from a vast historical record about Kennedy, but also they “had talked with” and personally knew many of the players in the Kennedy campaign “from our earliest days as reporters,” thus aiding their understanding of what was at play.
At the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library alone there are 25 million pieces of paper and more than 1,600 detailed oral histories given by those who not only knew Kennedy but also worked on the campaign in important positions. They “were interviewed with the understanding that they were talking to history and not some magazine writer,” Oliphant said.
“We were introduced to a wonderful world and it’s the world where history lives” — the nation’s historic archives, he said. And researching the book brought one immediate discovery, Oliphant noted: “The surface of what’s available to be researched (about Kennedy) has actually barely been touched.”
Their research also brought them to realize that many myths had grown up around Kennedy that can be deflated simply through reading and listening to the reminiscences of those who were active in the Kennedy campaign.
For example, their understanding of such topics as Kennedy’s relationship with his father, the presidential debates and Kennedy’s pursuit of African American voters in the north all were altered by the research they did with the book.
The image of Kennedy today is “dominated by myth and self-serving recollections” and is not borne out by the historical record, Oliphant said.
Wilkie noted that the influence of Joe Kennedy, long considered to be the one pulling the strings behind the strategy of the Kennedy campaign, was dispelled through their research.
“They (the Kennedy campaign team) disregarded every recommendation he had from day one,” Wilkie said. “Every idea he had they rejected.”
Both stressed that with the passage of time it is easy to forget today how important Kennedy’s Catholic faith was as a hindering factor in his pursuit of the Oval Office.
Wilkie spoke of an effort by evangelical leaders — Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale among them — who with the blessing of Nixon convened in an effort to stress Kennedy’s religion as a reason to oppose him.
Oliphant noted that he and Wilkie found all of the polling and the accompanying reports done by Louis Harris for the Kennedy campaign — the first extensive use of polling to help determine where to target campaign activities and how to address issues.
It was Harris, he noted, who urged Kennedy to talk about his religion. That advice was followed by Kennedy for years before his famous speech to protestant ministers in Texas. By discussing his faith, Kennedy made the topic one that others felt comfortable asking him about, making it an issue that could be discussed and not seem so foreign, Oliphant said.
Going into the 1960 campaign, Harris’ polling showed that a full quarter of the electorate felt that religion was a legitimate issue to weigh in deciding who to vote for. And among that quarter of the voters, two-thirds were opposed to a Catholic becoming president.
As for Kennedy’s effort to gain the support of black voters, they noted the fine line the Democratic ticket — even with Lyndon Johnson as No. 2 — had to walk to try not to offend Southern Democrats.
They recounted a long internal debate among Kennedy’s top advisers about not interjecting the candidate when Dr. Martin Luther King was jailed before the election. But Kennedy’s brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, waited for a moment alone with Kennedy to convince him to call Coretta Scott King and offer his sympathy. News of that call was credited with gaining Kennedy wide support among black voters in northern states.
For their Mississippi listeners, the two recounted some Kennedy moments pertaining to the state, such as a 1957 speech Kennedy gave at the Heidelberg Hotel in Jackson, followed by spending the night in the governor’s mansion as the guest of Gov. J.P. Coleman. That visit came back to haunt Coleman in a later bid to return to the governorship when opponents passed out handbills noting that “Kennedy slept here” at the governor’s mansion while Coleman was governor.
And they pointed to how split the Democrats in Mississippi were. When Sen. John Stennis aired a 15-minute speech endorsing Kennedy, Rep. John Bell Williams made sure that it was followed by a Democratic Party ad that usually ran just in northern cities of black entertainer Harry Belafonte endorsing Kennedy. Reportedly, Wilkie said, Stennis cried that his political career had been ruined.
And some trivia. Who did Mississippi support in the 1960 election?
Neither Nixon nor Kennedy but an undeclared slate of electors led by Gov. Ross Barnett, Oliphant noted. Those electoral votes went to Sen. Harry Byrd Sr. of Virginia who was on the ballot representing breakaway Southern Democrats who were opposed to Kennedy’s nomination.
Afterward Oliphant and Wilkie dismissed the potential difficulty of researching and writing such a detailed account with another reporter. Oliphant noted that modern technology made it easy to share notes and thoughts and read each other’s drafts of sections of the book.
Noting their long friendship — some 40 years — Wilkie responded: “We never had a single argument.”