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RFK | Article

The 1960 Democratic Presidential Race

Courtesy: John F. Kennedy Library, Boston

John F. Kennedy was relaxing by a Palm Beach pool in December, 1959, when his brother Robert, who had just taken the reins of his presidential campaign, approached. After enduring RFK's long harangue about how little work had been done on the campaign, JFK turned to a friend, Paul "Red" Fay, and asked, "How would you like looking forward to that high whining voice blasting into your ear for the next six months?"

Brothers' Roles
This snapshot captures the essence of the two brothers' public personas. Bobby: intense, single-minded in pursuit of a goal, not worried about being liked. Jack: cool, detached, quick with a humorous jab to defuse tension. Each man would play his role to perfection in the coming months, and the candidate would be the first to credit the "high whining voice" for guiding him to the Democratic nomination the following summer. The Kennedy brothers' relationship would also be at the center of a fateful incident at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles the following summer.

Hard Work Ahead
The handsome young senator from Massachusetts would have his work cut out for him if he was to even make it to Los Angeles. Despite fourteen years in Congress, Jack Kennedy had not established much of a power base in Washington, and was known more as a witty playboy than a political heavyweight. His religion also presented a major stumbling block, since no Roman Catholic had ever been elected to the nation's highest office.

Impressing Party Bosses
Historian James Hilty writes that the Kennedy campaign "began earlier, spent more, and was better organized than any previous Democratic campaign." Their strategy was to win primaries to demonstrate John Kennedy's electability to the party bosses. There were only sixteen primaries in 1960, and most of them were in smaller states with relatively few delegates at stake. So they handpicked states where they thought they could win impressively, while working behind the scenes building support elsewhere.

"Brilliant Improvisers"
The vaunted Kennedy "well-oiled machine" may not have been perfect — historian Arthur Schlesinger called them "brilliant improvisers" — but it was well-lubricated by patriarch Joseph Kennedy's money. Thefamily frotune paid for elements of a "new" politics the Kennedys were helping to invent (television ads, opinion polls), as well as old fashioned political techniques ("walking around money" in West Virginia and elsewhere).

State by State
Their first test came in Wisconsin, where Kennedy edged out Hubert Humphrey, the well-liked senator from neighboring Minnesota who had once been considered the favorite. Attention next turned to overwhelmingly rural and Protestant West Virginia, where Kennedy needed to defuse the Catholicism issue in order to prove that he was electable.

The "Black Prince"
Driving the machine was Robert Kennedy, whom Adlai Stevenson privately referred to as the "Black Prince." Building on his reputation as a tough proecutor in the Senate Rackets Investigations, Bobby was not afraid to make enemies if it would help his brother win the presidency.

Looking for a Fight
"Whenever you see Bobby Kennedy in public with his brother," columnist Murray Kempton observed, "he looks as though he showed up for a rumble." Someone else noted that Robert Kennedy carried himself like "the hit-man in a prep-school gang." He drove the campaign staff mercilessly and engaged in hardball with the opposition. While this cemented his reputation as the "ruthless" Kennedy brother, it allowed the candidate to remain above the fray.

All-Out Push for Delegates
The Kennedys came to Los Angeles with 600 of the 761 delegates needed to secure the nomination. Bobby was everywhere at the convention, commanding the Kennedy forces in an all-out attempt to swing undecided delegates their way.

Last-Minute Opposition
Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson had planned to sit out the primaries and present himself as a powerful compromise candidate at the convention. But the strategy backfired; Kennedy managed to win just enough delegates for a first-ballot nomination, despite last minute "Stop Kennedy" movements led by Johnson and others. That left Kennedy's choice of a running mate as the last major decision of the convention.

Courtesy: Hank Walker/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Tripped Up
At around 11 a.m. on the day a nominee was to be presented, John Kennedy visited Johnson in his hotel suite and offered him the job. Robert Kennedy maintained afterward that his brother offered the job to Johnson only as a courtesy, and then felt trapped when he accepted. "Now what do we do?" the candidate asked, then answered by sending Bobby back to talk Johnson out of it. Around 4 p.m., with tensions running high all around, John Kennedy called Johnson to assure him he was the one. Ignore Bobby, he said, because "he's been out of touch and doesn't know what's happening."

Reversal or Revolt
The fact that Lyndon Johnson ended up on the ticket is about the only thing everyone can agree on. Historian Jeff Shesol, in his 1997 book on the RFK-LBJ feud, concludes that John Kennedy really did regret the choice, but simply changed his mind while his brother was trying to talk Johnson off the ticket. "The nominee decided a reversal would do him more damage than an anti-Johnson revolt."

Walking the Tight Rope
Others make a convincing argument that John Kennedy had decided on Johnson well in advance, and made his brother an unwitting dupe in order to assuage liberals unhappy with the choice. "John used Robert to probe the situation, counting on his combative instincts and defensive inclinations to stir the political cauldron," Hilty writes. "The episode not only cast doubt on [Robert's] presumed status as his brother's closest political confidant, it also damaged his credibility when his personal guarantees to the liberal wing of the party proved worthless."

Politically, however, it proved an astute choice. Lyndon Johnson was an enthusiastic campaigner who gave the ticket credibilty in the South. But the success of their political collaboration would never erase the enmity between the vice president and the president's brother. "Forever afterward," wrote Shesol, "LBJ was absolutely convinced that Robert Kennedy had acted alone, with premeditated spite, to destroy his political future." It was a rift that grew steadily, and came to define one of the major political fault lines of the 1960s.

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