Americans love to take note of anniversaries, both good and bad. We remember the ends of World Wars I and II, the exact moments of the Sept. 11 terror attacks — and events less momentous. We note the birthdays of our most noted presidents, Washington and Lincoln for example, as a national holiday. We’re about to mark what would have been the 100th birthday of President Ronald Reagan with an observance at his presidential library in California.
And today, many are remembering President John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration, 50 years later. For a president who served less than three years in office, it is an opportunity to reflect on what it was that has proved so enduring.
I spoke today with someone who watched Kennedy up close when he was still a U.S Senator, to try to answer the question still being asked today: what was it about him?
Harry McPherson, then a young counsel to Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, recalls that of the five men seeking the Democratic nomination in 1960, 42-year-old John F. Kennedy “was the least auspicious.” All the others, McPherson recalled, had special experience or standing that was “quite substantially greater” than Kennedy’s. Johnson was viewed as the second most powerful man in the country, after President Eisenhower. Hubert Humphrey was the “brilliantly articulate leader of the liberals.” Stuart Symington had a great deal of business experience, as well as running major government programs. Adlai Stevenson had been governor of Illinois, and twice the Democratic nominee for president.
But what Kennedy lacked in “heft,” McPherson told me, he more than made up for in planning, ambition and resources.
One of McPherson’s weekly assignments was to clean out and organize Johnson’s desk on the Senate floor. One Friday, late in 1959, after Johnson had loaned the desk to Kennedy for a few days so the junior senator could better manage the debate of a labor bill, McPherson saw that the desk contained a black notebook, carefully labeled “Indiana.” It was full of well-organized, detailed notes about meetings the Kennedy team had held with mayors, school board members, labor leaders, business people and others — all part of a careful plan to win this key 1960 primary state. He returned the notebook to Kennedy’s office. He thought his boss, Sen. Johnson, who relied on a Texas-based political machine, wouldn’t be interested.
Besides a wealthy father, industrialist Joseph P. Kennedy, who was determined to see a son elected president, Kennedy had a few other key qualities McPherson cites: “a wit and ease, an ability to shrug things off,” and “to a much greater degree than anyone else: glamour.” So much so that McPherson and seven of his young friends, who had not backed Kennedy among the Democratic contenders, piled into a tiny Renault on the eve of his Inauguration and drove in a blizzard to an invitation-only gala. Among them, they had only three tickets, but McPherson says “the air was so exciting,” we figured a way to get those tickets back outside, so that “all eight of us eventually got in.”
The next morning, they found a bench on the Capitol grounds, “blown by icy winds,” in freezing temperatures, “the coldest I’ve ever been in my life.” There, they sat and listened to poet Robert Frost, followed by an “interminable prayer” from Cardinal Cushing, and, finally, the new president.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” was then, as it is now, the line that stuck with them. After the ceremony, McPherson and pals headed for the warmth of the Capitol building, only to spot a group of the-then “old bulls” of the Senate: among them, Mississippi’s James Eastland and John Stennis, and Louisiana’s Allen Ellender.
McPherson repeats what he wrote in his 1972 book, “A Political Education:” “When I handed Senator (Mike) Mansfield a memo on the filibuster, it was like going home to mother after spending a weekend with a chorus girl. Outside poetry, inside prose.”
Part of the reason we continue to celebrate the promise of John F. Kennedy, magnified by his assassination, is the excitement that McPherson still so easily recalls.
Follow Judy Woodruff on Twitter.