Editor’s Note: Chris Matthews talked about his new book, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, at the National Constitution Center on November 3rd, 2011. The podcast can be heard by clicking the play button below.:
We once had a hero for a president.
As a young Navy lieutenant, John F. Kennedy saved his crew in World War II. He carried one man on his back for four hours as he swam through Japanese-held waters of the South Pacific.
As president, he may well have saved far more lives. Faced with evidence that the Soviets had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, Kennedy faced pressure to attack.
Had he done so, a world calamity might well have occurred. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs of his intention to strike at New York with whatever missiles survived. He’d also warned that any attack on Cuba would be matched by a Soviet grab of West Berlin, then a trip wire for WWIII.
Jack Kennedy’s leadership saved the day in the most harrowing moment of the Cold War. But there’s far more to JFK’s enduring legacy.
A poll published last year asked Americans to choose the president they most would like to see joining Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore. They chose JFK.
One reason, no doubt, was the horror of the assassination in 1963. Many of us have never forgotten where we were when we first got the news. That moment remains as close to us as if it happened this morning.
But there’s another factor. Consider the nostalgia for the period Jack Kennedy personified, the early 1960s. It’s the era of Mad Men and now Pan Am. We cheer for those days of can-do excitement and blue-skies possibilities. Everything seemed gleaming in those days and we want them back.
None of that was inevitable. Not the excitement of the New Frontier, the race to the moon, the Peace Corps, a young president’s gutsy commitment to civil rights. It happened because John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in November 1960.
Pennsylvania had a lot to do with it. Back then, the state had 32 electoral votes, the same number as California. Pennsylvania had gone with war hero Dwight Eisenhower in both 1952 and 1956. To win, Kennedy needed it in 1960.
Philadelphia was the key. Big-city Catholics had been raised with the legacy of how New York Gov. Al Smith had been beaten for president in 1928. We were told his religion, which was the same as ours, was the reason. My mother said that when she graduated from John W. Hallahan Catholic Girl’s High School, before WWII, and applied for a job at a big milk company, the application asked for the person’s religion. Write “Catholic,” and you didn’t get the job.
Despite the yearnings of Catholics and others, especially Jewish and African-American voters, Kennedy faced obstacles. Chief among them were Democratic leaders – including a small group of governors who shared Kennedy’s religion – who feared a Catholic presidential candidate would hurt the party ticket.
Pennsylvania Gov. David Lawrence was one of them. He wanted Adlai Stevenson to win the Democratic nomination. As the first Catholic to be elected governor of the state, he feared a Protestant backlash if he favored Kennedy.
To win the Pennsylvania delegation at the convention, the Kennedy people needed someone to get to Lawrence. They needed an inside man.
That man was U.S. Rep. William J. Green, boss of Philadelphia’s Democratic organization. Green was a Kennedy man, not just by background, but by shrewd inclination. He believed the young WWII hero was the one man who could beat Vice President Richard Nixon. He figured Stevenson would lose, just as he had in ’52 and ’56.
Green began to pressure Lawrence, the man he had personally steered into the governor’s chair. Yet even a strong write-in victory for Kennedy in the Pennsylvania primary – JFK won with 70 percent of the vote – failed to do the trick.
The candidate himself had to make the final sale. Invited to meet with delegates from the western part of the state, Kennedy didn’t like what he heard. Lawrence introduced him as if he were “auditioning” for the job he’d already earned in the primary.
JFK aide Ken O’Donnell described what came next:
“He got up and laid it out cold and hard to them, that these political leaders better think what was going to happen to the Democratic Party if the candidate who’d won all the primaries and amassed all the delegates could be denied the nomination simply for being an Irish Catholic.
“Then he ended with a tough – and I mean tough – attack on Lawrence, kicking him good and hard where it hurts the most.”
When Kennedy was done, the delegates stood up and cheered. Sometimes it takes a little hardball for the people’s will to be heard.
At the convention, Pennsylvania backed Kennedy. Kennedy won Philadelphia, thanks to Billy Green’s machine and a lot of gung-ho Catholics, Jews, and African Americans who wanted that door swung open and opened wide. The plurality in the city was 330,000 votes, giving Kennedy a 100,000 majority statewide.
The New Frontier was about to begin. It’s amazing what happens when the backroom boys and the popular will are in perfect accord.
Chris Matthews is the author of Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero (Simon & Schuster) and host of MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews and NBC’s The Chris Matthews Show. This post first appeared in the Oct. 30 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.