Narrator: November 1960, Hyannis, Massachusetts — John F. Kennedy appears in public for the first time since winning the presidency. His victory is not his alone, but the man who made it possible, his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, has forced himself to stay in the shadows.
Twenty years earlier, Joseph Kennedy had been the man of the hour. At the age of 49, he was American ambassador to Great Britain, the richest Irish American on earth. The presidency had seemed within his reach then, if not for himself, then for his firstborn son, Joe, Jr. The same ambition that fueled his relentless rise would ruin his career, then drive his sons on to heights he could never reach himself.
Born in East Boston in 1888, the son of a liquor dealer and ward boss, Joe Kennedy was bright, eager, self-confident. He triumphed at the Boston Latin School, then went on to Harvard, where he was best remembered for the fierce competitiveness he would one day teach his sons; but he was Irish and Catholic and, therefore, not in the running for the most prestigious social clubs. It was the first defeat in his life and he never forgot it.
Professor Milton Katz, Harvard Law School: He never felt himself “fully accepted” when he was an undergraduate at Harvard. I don’t think he ever quite got over the feeling that these were not his people and he liked to put them down whenever he could.
Narrator: At 25, he took over a small bank, billed himself as “the youngest bank president in the world” and set out to capture the most glittering prize in Irish Boston— Rose Fitzgerald, daughter of the mayor.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer: I think there’s no question that Joe Kennedy — young Joe Kennedy — saw Rose as the catch of Boston, maybe even of America at that time.
Narrator: Rose’s flamboyant father, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, was something of a noisy embarrassment to Joe Kennedy, but he left a political legacy his grandsons would one day exploit.
Edward M. Kennedy: He knew everyone in Boston, in Massachusetts, and, quite frankly, people wondered why the Kennedys had got a strong base back in Massachusetts, and in Boston and I think all of us understand the two reasons. One is my mother and two is Grandpa Fitzgerald.
Narrator: When Rose Fitzgerald and Joe Kennedy were married, Kennedy was quick to carry his bride outside her father’s orbit, to a Protestant suburb. She would keep house in Brookline. He would make money in New York.
The unregulated stock market in the 1920’s was made for Joseph Kennedy. With nerve and intelligence, he ruthlessly manipulated the market, using accomplices and pliant journalists to boost a stock artificially. Then, at its peak, he unloaded the stock and reaped the benefit. Kennedy told friends he needed to make this easy money fast— “before they pass a law against it.” All through the Prohibition years, there were stories that he made still more money importing illegal liquor — bootlegging — and he forged alliances with the underworld that would endure throughout his life.
Back in Brookline, Rose barely knew what her husband did for a living. He had begun to live his life in compartments, keeping his wife and growing family walled off from the predatory world in which he was building his fortune.
He had named his firstborn son for himself.
John, frail and sick, was named for his grandfather. Rosemary, born in 1918, was soon diagnosed retarded. Then came Kathleen and Eunice — five children in six years.
In 1926, leaving Rose to cope with the strains of the household, Kennedy moved on — west to Hollywood. He made another fortune turning out low-budget movies with recycled stars and lots of gaudy publicity. Off-screen, Kennedy set his sights on the most seductive Hollywood star of all, Gloria Swanson. Swanson asked Kennedy to manage her affairs. Soon, they were lovers.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer: I have no doubt that Rose knew what was going on, but, in my judgment, she willed that knowledge out of her mind. She didn’t want to lose her marriage. She didn’t want to lose her husband. She didn’t want to lose that family that she had created. It mattered too much to her. And I think, underneath, she knew Joe didn’t want to lose it, either.
Narrator: Joe Kennedy pursued women throughout his life — “consumed them like food,” a friend said — but he always returned to his family, now safely sheltered on a summer estate in the seaside town of Hyannis Port.
By 1928, there were eight children, including Patricia, Robert and Jean. The children rarely saw their mother and father together. When Joe was in Hyannis Port, Rose often left for Europe; but even when they were both at home, the elder Kennedys led largely separate lives.
Slate: I’m for Roosevelt
Narrator: In 1932, Joe Kennedy jumped on the political bandwagon and acquired a powerful patron— Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Kennedy did everything he could to get Roosevelt elected. He raised $200,000 for the campaign and began angling for a Cabinet post.
James Roosevelt, eldest son of FDR: Joe Kennedy wanted political power and so, the best way to get it was to make broad use of his contacts with Father, and he proceeded to do just that.
Narrator: Roosevelt seemed just the sort of languid patrician of whom Kennedy had always been contemptuous, but FDR’s affable manner masked cold political judgment. He would use Kennedy, but he would never trust him.
For nearly two years, Kennedy waited for the Cabinet post he thought he deserved. His family had grown to nine children with the birth of Teddy in 1932.
Finally, Roosevelt gave him what seemed the most unlikely job imaginable, riding herd on Wall Street as Chairman of the brand-new Securities and Exchange Commission.
It seemed to many that Roosevelt had put the fox in charge of the chicken coop.
Frank Waldrop, Editor, Washington Times-Herald: He knew all the ways that these jokers were worked, you see. He’d been there and, of course, he had, so he was going to straighten them up and he did.
Narrator: Yet for all the Kennedys’ wealth and celebrity, the old money and older families of Cape Cod still looked down on them.
Larry Newman, journalist and Kennedy neighbor: Nobody in Hyannis Port at that time, when they first moved here, had anything to do with the Kennedys. They weren’t a part of the neighborhood and Joe Kennedy loved it that way. He didn’t like these people down here.
Narrator: Joe Kennedy gave his sons every advantage to compete in the Brahmin world, sending them to exclusive prep schools and on to Harvard to study law and government. None of them would need to go into business. Trust funds would allow them to follow their father into public life. The son who seemed most likely to succeed was Joe, Jr.
John Kenneth Galbraith, Harvard Tutor, Winthrop House: He was everybody’s favorite student. He was hard-working, concerned with public issues, imaginative. Jack Kennedy, by contrast, was known to have a large social agenda, be much more concerned with ensuring that he enjoyed life.
Narrator: Joseph Kennedy worried about his second son. He knew Jack was witty and well read, but at boarding school, he insisted on acting the clown.
“The happy-go-lucky manner,” his father wrote his headmaster, “does not portend well for his future development.”
Nigel Hamilton, JFK Biographer: How would he ever succeed in life — and he obviously wished to succeed, underneath this facade of rebellion — if he had cast himself as the clown of the family, the one who never gets anything done?
Narrator: Illness also plagued Jack. He caught every childhood disease, nearly died from scarlet fever. He had been born with one leg slightly shorter than the other, giving him the bad back that would be a lifelong curse. He struggled constantly to keep up with his older brother, who, he knew, was his parents’ favorite.
By 1938, Joseph Kennedy’s ceaseless self-promotion had begun to pay off. A national poll placed him fifth among likely candidates to succeed Roosevelt. Kennedy lobbied FDR to appoint him ambassador to Great Britain. The President knew that Kennedy’s loyalty to him was dwarfed by his ambitions for himself and sending him to London would pay off political debts, please Irish American voters and get Kennedy out of the way.
Slate: The Ambassador
British Newsreel Announcer (archival): America’s new ambassador to Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, is welcomed by the Lord Mayor on his arrival in Plymouth. And what do you think he finds all England interested in? You guessed it— his nine children, so much so that, in London, Mr. Kennedy has to issue a public explanation.
Joseph P. Kennedy (archival): Well, not wishing to add to the housing problem of England and make it any worse than it is, I’m bringing them over in installments— five, two and two.
British Newsreel Announcer (archival):And here’s the first installment sailing, charming Mrs. Kennedy and five of the children, ranging from 18 to six years of age. Excited? Why Edward’s speechless, so Mother decides to let older brother Robert do the talking.
Rose Kennedy (archival): That’s all right. Don’t get him excited.
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): This is my first trip to Europe. I was very excited and I couldn’t even sleep last night.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Bye, Rosie.
Rosemary Kennedy (archival): Bye, Jack.
Narrator: By July 4, 1938, as the ambassador played host to London’s smartest society, he felt he had assuaged every social slight his family had suffered, as he saw his older children acquire the polish that would open every door. Jack, Joe and their favorite sister, Kathleen, known as “Kick” were “the pick of the litter,” said a family friend, the ones their father thought would write the story of the next generation.
The Kennedys were a sensation, but Joe Kennedy had entered a world in which even real diplomatic skill could not have averted catastrophe. By the end of that summer, Adolf Hitler had absorbed Austria, swallowed part of Czechoslovakia. Awed by the strength of the Nazi military machine, Kennedy wanted Britain and America to keep out of war. Like most Americans in 1938, he believed the democracies had to coexist with the Nazis.
Joseph P. Kennedy (archival): The horns of the dilemma are economic chaos and war and any step to prevent either of these is worthwhile taking.
Narrator: Kennedy seemed unable to see the moral case against the Nazis. He told the German ambassador that he “understood their Jewish policy completely.” On September 1, 1939, the policy of appeasement Kennedy had championed collapsed. Hitler invaded Poland and World War II began. England would stand and fight. Kennedy’s gold trio — Joe, Kathleen and Jack — joined their father to witness Britain’s declaration of war. The ambassador himself had phoned Roosevelt with the news, choked with emotion and foreboding, but even in his worst fears, Kennedy could not imagine the toll the war would exact on his children and his dreams.
Newsreel Announcer (archival): The British Cunarder Aquitania arrives in New York harbor with two canvas-covered 12-pounders in plain sight, the first armed Merchantmen to steam into port. Among returning notables are Mrs. Joseph P. Kennedy and three of her nine children — Bobby, Eunice and Kathleen.
Narrator: Kennedy sent his family home, out of harm’s way. He remained alone in London, increasingly cut off, even from Roosevelt, who now feared America would have to enter the war. Kennedy, who still thought American intervention would only bring disaster, was now bypassed by FDR in favor of direct communication with a new power in the British government — Winston Churchill.
Michael Beschloss, Historian: Churchill saw Kennedy as the greatest impediment to his aim of getting the United States to help Britain in its struggle against Nazi Germany. He thought that Kennedy was a defeatist, an appeaser, perhaps pro-Hitler.
Narrator: While Londoners endured the German assault, Kennedy spent the nights at a rented country house. The good will he had courted vanished. The British people sensed his defeatism and the British government tapped his telephone and opened his mail in an effort to discredit him.
Professor Milton Katz, Harvard Law School: [reciting satirical verse] Joe, Joe, Kennedy, Kennedy / Went to the Court of St. James / Where he was frequently seen with the King and Queen / At cricket and other games.
But when the bombs began to fall / All over London town / Said Joe, Joe, “I must go / England has let me down.”
Narrator: In October 1940, Kennedy returned home, convinced the President was secretly plotting to get America into the war. In a sensational interview he thought was largely off the record, he predicted that democracy was finished in Britain, perhaps in the United States. The interview ended Joseph Kennedy’s political career. Even in an America reluctant to go to war, his defeatism set off a storm of controversy that would not be forgotten. In February 1941, Kennedy submitted his formal resignation. He was 52 years old.
His own presidential ambitions in ruins, Joe Kennedy now had extravagant hopes for his eldest son. He was convinced that now Joe, Jr. would be the first Catholic president and he would do all he could to make it happen.
Jack Kennedy, fresh out of Harvard, continued his active social life, but he had begun to show an interest in foreign policy and his father saw an opportunity in Jack’s undergraduate thesis, “Why England Slept.” Joe Kennedy arranged for a friend to do extensive editing and promoted it hard.
Around this time, Joseph Kennedy made a decision about one of his children that would haunt him the rest of his life. The retarded Rosemary had begun to behave unpredictably, out of control.
Rose Kennedy (archival): Well, sometimes she’d go to the Post Office with them and then, she’d decide she didn’t want to come home with them. Well, that would be all right with an ordinary child, but with her, you couldn’t tell in which direction she might wander off or whether she’d be picked up in car by someone.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer: Joe found out about this newfangled operation called a lobotomy and what the lobotomy promised was that if you could take away the part of the brain that controls where you anticipate the future and worry, that you could make a person happy, living day to day. So, if they could take away that sense of her limitations, that she wasn’t measuring up to her sisters and brothers, she could just be happy being Rosemary.
Narrator: Kennedy ordered the risky operation performed. It went badly.
Rosemary emerged more seriously retarded and was sent to live in a nursing convent in the Midwest. During Joseph Kennedy’s lifetime, no hint of what had happened to his daughter was ever made public.
The world Joseph Kennedy had carefully built to shelter his children was blown apart on December 7, 1941, when war came to America.
Joe and Jack had enlisted in the Navy. Joe became a flyer. Jack’s poor health forced him to settle for a desk job in Washington, but he lobbied hard for active duty and, by April 1943, was in the Pacific, commanding a patrol boat. His vessel, PT-109, was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. Two crewmen were killed. Kennedy towed a third man to safety, surviving 16 hours in the ocean, furthering injuring his back. He spent the rest of the war struggling to recover from his injuries and malaria.
In London, Kathleen volunteered for the Red Cross and fell in love. Defying her staunchly Catholic mother, she married a Protestant, the English Lord Hartington. Within months, Hartington would be killed at the front.
Joe’s tour was up, but, determined to match his younger brother’s exploits, he volunteered to pilot a bomber crammed with explosives toward a German rocket site on the coast of France, aim the plane at the target, and bail out.
Just before take-off, Joe said to a friend, “If I don’t come back, tell my dad I love him very much.” Kennedy’s plane exploded in mid-air.
On a warm Sunday afternoon in Hyannis Port, Joseph Kennedy learned that his beloved oldest son was dead.
Slate: The Second Son
Narrator: When the war was over, Jack was not sure what he wanted to do. He toyed with journalism, but his father, slowly stirring from his grief, began to urge a more ambitious course. Joe, Jr. had hoped to run for office in 1946. Now, Jack would take Joe’s place and run for his grandfather’s old seat in Congress.
Hon. Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., Massachusetts Legislature, 1936-52: This pasty-looking faced kid, he didn’t look any more like a Boston politician that was going to go to Congress than the man in the moon, to be perfectly truthful.
Dave Powers, campaign secretary: I would meet him at six o’clock and start off at the Boston Navy Yard and he would position himself at the main gate, shaking hands until they were all in there and I’d be passing out Kennedy campaign buttons.
Billy Sutton: He was like everybody’s son, you know. The women said they loved him, the girls all thought they might marry him — I don’t know — and he hooked on to a lot of people. When I think that he had the Kennedy charm, maybe that’s what it was, the ability to be liked instantly.
Narrator: The long campaign days left the frail candidate exhausted and in pain, but all the hard work was paying off.
Billy Sutton: Jack said, “Billy,” he said, “would you be kind enough to take Mother to the airport? She has to be there at 12 o’clock for New York.” So I said, “Sure,” you know.
Going down towards the North End, she said to the driver, she said, “I was wondering if you had any inkling as to who might be the next congressman from this district.” He said, “Well, I think I’d like to vote for that young fella from the North End, that young Kennedy fella,” he said. “He’s in Navy. I was in the Navy,” he said, “and his grandfather and his mother came from here.” She said to me, “That’s remarkable, isn’t it? They’re young, they know already.” So, he’s rather hip. He’s driving and he looks back and he said, “Are you some sort of a relative, Miss?” She said, “My name is Rose Kennedy. I’m Jack’s mother.” Bang went the brakes. We went bing-bang. He said, “Boy, am I glad to know you. You know, your son owes me $1.85 since Wednesday.”
Narrator: Rose basked in her son’s new celebrity, Honey Fitz returned to the campaign trail, but it was Joe Kennedy who ran the show.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer: Joe understood that whatever Jack’s qualities — which he was beginning to respect more and more — were, that he had to be marketed. And I suppose he thought he had to be marketed the way any stock was marketed, the way anything in business was marketed. And he used that to make sure that the people understood he was a war hero, even more of a war hero than he actually was, and that he had these kinds of family qualities that people were going to want to see in their politicians.
Narrator: Jack Kennedy, only 29 years old, won an overwhelming victory, but as a congressman, he seemed unserious, easily bored, adrift.
Sen. George Smathers, U.S. Congress 1946-48: Well, he first impressed me as a fellow who ought to have been in the hospital. He was emaciated, he was weak looking and he was weak.
Narrator: Kennedy was diagnosed with Addison’s disease, an illness of the adrenal glands causing circulatory failure, even death. When his condition temporarily stabilized, he seemed more determined than ever to enjoy life.
Hon. Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., Massachusetts Legislature, 1936-52: To be perfectly truthful, he wasn’t much of a congressman. As a matter of fact, he was kind of resented by his colleagues. And there would be a very important debate on and his staff people and his speechwriters would give him a speech. Here were fellas on the committees that had worked for months on the bill and Jack Kennedy would get up and make a speech in Congress and the press would cover Jack Kennedy’s speech, who would know less about the subject than any member of the committee. And they resented it.
Narrator: In April 1948, at the Greenbriar Resort, the Kennedys gathered for a vacation. Kick came over from England to tell her family that she was in love again. He was a Protestant and married. Rose threatened to break with Kick forever, but Joe agreed to join his daughter in Europe and meet her lover, Lord Fitzwilliam. A month later, Fitzwilliam and Kick left England for a weekend in the South of France.
Pamela Churchill Harriman: I went and put them on the plane together. And he had chartered an aircraft — I think it was a Dove, I think it was called in those days — and, apparently, they got into turbulence over the Alps and the plane crashed.
Ella Logan (Singing): How are things in Glockamorra?
Narrator: Early that morning, Jack was at home in Washington, listening to a record he and his sister both loved.
Billy Sutton: It was “Finian’s Rainbow” and he had the records. And we had International News Service call up and he was — you know, he kept listening to the music and he said, “Ask them if this is confirmed and if it’s confirmed, will they call back?” So, they said, “Well, we have no confirmation right now, but we’ll call you back.” So, he continued to talk about Ella Logan, what a great voice. Then, when the news came that the fatal accident happened, he — you know, his eyes filled up with tears and I — you know, when they say that the Kennedys never cry, don’t believe that. They do. I saw them. He cried that morning for his sister, Kathleen.
Ella Logan (Singing): How are things in Glockamorra this fine day?
Slate: The Senator
Narrator: Hyannis Port, Thanksgiving 1948. Of the nine Kennedy children, two were dead and one had vanished into permanent medical care. The survivors were learning to draw strength from one another. Soon, they would focus all their energies on Jack’s career. He was now preparing for a new political battle.
Sen. George Smathers: One day, he came over to talk to me and said, “You know, I’m going to run for the Senate against Henry Cabot Lodge.” I said, “Jack, I don’t think you can win.” He said, “Oh no, I’ll win. Don’t worry about that.” I said, “Well, he’s too tough. He’s got a pretty good record and you know you have not been an outstanding congressman” — nor was I — “but, you know, I don’t think you can do it.” And he says, “Oh no, I can do it all right, but I’m going to run.”
Singers (JFK campaign song): Who can fight and fight till he wins? / Kennedy can, Kennedy can
Narrator: Jack worked the streets and struggled to master a new medium, television.
John F. Kennedy (archival): [filming campaign ad] Hello, ladies and gentlemen. You have just seen one of the federal government’s low-income—
Director (archival): Cut it.
John F. Kennedy (archival): [filming campaign ad] And if elected to the Senate of the United States this November, I will fight for the New England industry which is so vital — fight for the people of this state and for the future of our country-Oh…
Narrator: Robert, the third of Joseph Kennedy’s sons, was brought in as campaign manager. He was just 26, fresh from law school and relentlessly single-minded. “Bobby,” his proud father boasted to a friend, “is hard as nails.”
Hon. Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., Massachusetts Legislature, 1936-52: Bobby — here he was, a young upstart. He didn’t know anything about politics. Well, he wanted to know the figures on this and he wanted to know, well, what the organization was or, “How many people do you have in this precinct?” “How many people are you going to have? You have your own Kennedy organization. Who the hell do you think you are?” Well, anyway, there was a feeling.
Narrator: The Kennedys were building their own political machine separate from the state party and very much a family enterprise. The Kennedy women hosted lavish tea parties across the state, pulling in thousands of voters.
Jack’s opponent, Henry Cabot Lodge, heir to a distinguished Republican family, was caught off-guard by the Kennedy onslaught, but Lodge had a potential savior, then at the height of his powers — Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy (archival):Even there are only one Communist in the State Department, that would still be one Communist too many.
Narrator: McCarthy was Irish and Catholic and had a big following in Boston, but he also had close ties to the Kennedys, so when the Republicans begged him to campaign for Lodge, he hesitated.
William F. Buckley Jr., author: Joe McCarthy said to me, “If I were to do that, Cabot Lodge would definitely beat Jack Kennedy,” he said, “but I would find it extremely difficult to do, because it would offend Jack, who’s a very good friend of mine, and it would offend the old man and the old man gave $5,000 to my own campaign.” And, in fact, it was a pretty close election and probably, if McCarthy had gone to Boston and campaigned for Cabot Lodge, Kennedy would have been defeated. As it was, he won by only 70,000 votes.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Well, I guess you’re glad it’s over, aren’t you, Bobby?
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): I am, Jack.
John F. Kennedy (archival): OK.
Narrator: Jack had won, in spite of a national Republican landslide and the Kennedys had settled an old score with the Brahmins.
Singers (JFK campaign song): Who can fight and fight till he wins? / Kennedy can, Kennedy can / Who can do the job he begins? / Kennedy can, Kennedy can / Who can do America proud? / Who’s the number one man?
Narrator: Now, they would be joined by a newcomer, who would not always play by their rules.
Singers (JFK campaign song): Who can crack the elephant’s back? / Jack Kennedy can.
Slate: A National Figure
Narrator: The marriage of John Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier was a union of two stars. Joe Kennedy delighted in his elegant, accomplished new daughter-in-law. She had grown up in a world of privilege and pedigree, was fluent in French and Italian. Just 24, she was the Inquiring Photographer for a Washington newspaper when she met Jack.
Priscilla McMillan, researcher for Senator John F. Kennedy: I was sitting next to him at a dinner party and he said, “No, I only got married because I was 37 years old, I wasn’t married and people would think I was queer if I weren’t married.” That’s what he said, but the whole time he was talking to me, he was looking across the table at Jackie. He couldn’t take his eyes off her.
Narrator: Jackie Kennedy soon discovered what the family had always concealed. Her new husband was often desperately ill, with a damaged back and Addison’s disease.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer: My sense is that the Kennedys feared that if Jack’s illness were known, that his political career would be cut short, that if people understood that he needed medicine to live, it would make him seem vulnerable and fragile. And they had a perfect candidate to work with, because Jack himself wanted to appear robust and healthy. This is someone who appears healthy, unless you look carefully and see the color of his face, see how skinny he is.
Narrator: Kennedy decided to undergo spinal surgery to repair his back and end his constant pain. The operation failed and infection set in. He received the last rites of the Church. Joe Kennedy told a friend his second son was dying.
Jack slowly rallied. Six months later, Kennedy returned to the Senate, still frail, but convinced now that he had a future after all.
Hon. Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., Massachusetts Legislature, 1936-52: Suddenly, he became an active person. Suddenly, he became a person with a future in the Democratic Party.
John Kenneth Galbraith, Harvard Tutor, Winthrop House: We went through three stages. First, he would call up and say, “How should one vote on this?” And I would give him my thoughts. At a later stage, he would call up and he’d say, “Explain this to me. I want to know the background,” and I would give him the best professorial explanation I could. And the third stage was when he didn’t feel it necessary to call at all, when he knew himself.
Narrator: Kennedy set out to make himself a national figure. Early in 1956, he appeared on television, promoting his new book, Profiles in Courage.
John F. Kennedy (archival): When you’re talking about political courage, you mean somebody who’s willing to go against the wishes of his constituents for what he considers the best interests of the country.
Narrator: Although there were rumors he had not written the book himself, it became an immediate bestseller and, after heavy lobbying by his father’s friends, went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. The book helped set him apart from his political rivals. And at the 1956 Democratic Convention, Kennedy was invited to introduce the presidential nominee.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Fellow delegates, I give you the man from Libertyville, the next Democratic nominee and our next president of the United States, Adlai E. Stevenson.
Narrator: Stevenson threw the choice of his vice president open to the convention. Kennedy decided to try for it. Joe Kennedy thought his son was making a big mistake. “Don’t touch it,” he said, “Stevenson is a loser.” But many delegates saw Kennedy as an exciting balance to Stevenson. On the first ballot, the young Catholic senator showed surprising strength. Kennedy led on the second ballot, only 33-1/2 votes shy of the nomination, but after the third ballot, he was forced to concede to the more experienced Senator Estes Kefauver.
John F. Kennedy (archival): I want to express my appreciation to Democrats from all parts of the country — north and south, east and west — who have been so generous and kind to me this afternoon. I hope that this convention will make Estes Kefauver’s nomination unanimous. Thank you.
Narrator: It was Jack Kennedy’s first political defeat and it would be his last.
Ted Sorensen, Legislative Assistant to Sen. John F. Kennedy: He became nationally known because of those television appearances and the drama of that race. And what also helped was the fact that he lost, because had he been nominated for vice president, no doubt the ticket would still have gone down to defeat and it would have been blamed on Kennedy’s religion.
Slate: He Cannot Say No
Narrator: At Thanksgiving in 1956, after a long talk with his father, Jack decided to make a run for the presidency. Joe Kennedy knew that his own reputation could blight his son’s chances, but from behind the scenes, he would do everything he could to help his son make it to the top. Then, suddenly, Jack’s campaign was under threat. The rumors about his book,Profiles in Courage broke on television. It was said that a Kennedy aide, Ted Sorensen, was the author, not Jack Kennedy.
Clark Clifford, personal counsel to Sen. John F. Kennedy: And Senator Kennedy said, “It’s been very disturbing to us.” He said, “It reflects on my honesty and on my character.” And about that time, the phone rang in my office and it was Ambassador Kennedy, Senator Kennedy’s father. So I picked up the phone and he said, “Clark,” and I said, “Yes, Mr. Ambassador?” He says, “Sue the bastards for $50 million.” “Well,” I said, “we’re considering—” he says, “Don’t consider anything,” he says, “Sue 'em.”
Narrator: Joseph Kennedy forced the network to back down. ABC issued a statement that John Kennedy had, indeed, written the book.
Ted Sorensen, Legislative Assistant to Sen. John F. Kennedy: Well, the author of Profiles in Courage was John F. Kennedy. The author is the man who stands behind what is there on the printed page. It’s his responsibility to put his name to it and to put it out.
Narrator: In 1958, Jack Kennedy was reelected to the Senate by a record margin. He was now a serious presidential contender. Joseph Kennedy helped the select the best photographers to portray his son with his wife and daughter, Caroline. But these carefully crafted portraits of a close, happy family were at odds with the private reality.
Priscilla McMillan, researcher for Senator John F. Kennedy: One day, I said to him, “Jack, when you’re straining every gasket to be elected president, why do you endanger it yourself by going out with women?” I think I just put it like that and he said— he looked at me a long second and he said, “Because I just can’t help it.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer: Once you marry that sort of fellow and that roving eye continues and — as the stories are told — sometimes he actually leaves you at a party, as he did with Jackie, to go off with another woman, it must have been very hard.
Priscilla McMillan, researcher for Senator John F. Kennedy: I thought that Jack Kennedy lived his life in compartments, that there was one compartment having to do with his marriage. There were compartments having to do with his family. I thought ambition was the glue that held the compartments of his personality together.
Narrator: In 1960, Jack Kennedy began a relationship with Judith Campbell. They had been introduced in Las Vegas by Frank Sinatra, whose cronies included Kennedy’s brother-in-law, actor Peter Lawford. They called themselves “the Rat Pack,” and John Kennedy thoroughly enjoyed their company. Judith Campbell would soon be introduced to another of Frank Sinatra’s friends, Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana. In this compartment of his life, Kennedy was making friends inappropriate for a presidential candidate.
Nigel Hamilton, JFK biographer: His father had dealt with gangsters and mobsters all through his career. Jack never had and he was charmed with the idea of dealing with the “Rat Packs” and the seamier side of life. This is part of his curiosity about life. He cannot say no.
Slate: High Hopes
Narrator: John Kennedy officially announced his candidacy on January 2, 1960. No one so young had ever been elected, and many Protestants were fearful a Catholic president’s first allegiance would be to the Pope. He faced an uphill fight. His campaign would be managed by his brother Robert.
Robert Kennedy was smaller and shyer than his brothers and he felt he had the most to prove. “He was the most religious boy in his class,” a school friend remembered, “and the dirtiest fighter.” He had been Assistant Counsel to Joe McCarthy’s Senate Investigation Subcommittee and Chief Counsel of the Senate Rackets Committee, displaying a harsh, unremitting zeal that made him a host of enemies. Now, he would bring that zeal to making his brother president.
Wisconsin was Kennedy’s first test outside New England. His main opponent was Senator Hubert Humphrey from neighboring Minnesota.
Sen. Hubert Humphrey (archival): I feel like an independent merchant running against a chain operation.
Narrator: As the Kennedys plunged into the primaries, filmmaker Robert Drew was given unprecedented access to the candidate.
Robert Drew, producer, “Primary”: I think he liked the idea of something new and I think the idea of something new in which he would be the star or, at least, one of two stars. Somebody’s going to win, somebody’s going to lose. He said to me, “You know, if I lose in Wisconsin, it’s all over.”
Radio Commentator (archival): Kennedy, of course, is a Roman Catholic, Humphrey a Congregationalist and Nixon a Quaker and some observers think that the election has resolved into a religious struggle.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Ignore that religious thing.
Narrator: Kennedy carried Wisconsin, but he did lose key Protestant districts and the next contest was in an overwhelmingly Protestant state, West Virginia. To win there, Kennedy would have to confront the religious issue at every public appearance.
West Virginian woman (archival): Senator Kennedy, how can we stop the religious issues that keep coming up to confuse the public? [audience boos]
John F. Kennedy (archival): Well, I think that — [audience boos] oh, I don’t mind — I must say that we shouldn’t boo because it’s a — I am running for the presidency, which is a powerful office, given great power under the Constitution and it is a matter of concern to a good many people. And the best way to get it answered, it seems to me, is to ask the question openly. And permit me to say that I support strongly the Constitution. I support strongly the separation of Church and State. I believe it’s the best arrangement for our society. I’m associated with it. [audience applause, cheers]
Narrator: West Virginia was not only Protestant, it was notoriously corrupt. Once again, the Kennedys left nothing to chance.
Hon. Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., Massachusetts Legislature, 1936-52: I tell the story about Eddie Ford. Eddie Ford went out there, a pocket full of money. He’s see the sheriff and he’d say to the sheriff, “Sheriff, I’m from Chicago, I’m on my way south. I love this young Kennedy boy. He can help this nation. By God, he’s got the feeling for it, you know. He’ll do things for West Virginia. I’ll tell you what,” he said, “here’s $3,000,” or “here’s $5,000,” he said. “You carry your village for him,” or “your county for him, and I’ll give you a little reward when I’m on my way back.”
Narrator: FBI wiretaps would later show that underworld figures, said to have old ties to Joe Kennedy, were also distributing funds on behalf the Kennedy campaign.
Kennedy won West Virginia and all of the primaries. Going into the convention, he was confident of a first-ballot victory, but some of his rivals still thought he could be stopped.
Lyndon Johnson, the Senate Majority Leader, posed the greatest challenge. He believed that when the Kennedy bandwagon faltered, the convention would turn to him. Johnson asked Tip O’Neill to support him on the second ballot.
Hon. Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., Massachusetts Legislature, 1936-52: And he says, “I know you’re with Kennedy.” He didn’t mention the word, “Kennedy” — “I know you’re with the boy.” And he said, “You know, I expect you to be with him.” He said, “I love loyalty,” and he said, “Everybody in Massachusetts will be with the boy. But,” he said, “on the second ballot,” he said, “I’d like to have you with me.” I said, “Mr. Leader, there won’t be any second ballot.” He says, “You know better than that.” He says, “You know,” he said, “the boy doesn’t have a chance.” I says, “You don’t understand the long arm of the Kennedys.”
Narrator: Robert Kennedy counted and recounted every delegate. Big-city bosses, including Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, were reminded of Jack’s appeal and past favors from his father.
New Mexico delegation Chairman (archival): New Mexico, the land of enchantment, casts 13 votes for Lyndon B. Johnson, four votes for Jack Kennedy.”
Narrator: It would be close, possibly coming down to the last state in the roll call. Wyoming had 15 votes, but only 10 1/2 were committed to Jack. Robert Kennedy sent his brother Ted to lock up the others.
Edward M. Kennedy (archival): He asked me to speak to the chairman and I said, “Look, if finally count comes down and the difference is going to be those votes to put my brother over the top, will you agree to go for it?” And the chairman said, “You must be crazy. That’ll be decided. You have 10 1/2. Are you saying to me that you think it’ll be in that four votes? That’ll make, really, the difference in your brother getting the nomination?” I said, “Yes,” He said, “If it comes to those four, you’ve got 'em.
Wisconsin delegation Chairman (archival): Wisconsin casts 23 votes for Senator Kennedy.
Narrator: Robert Kennedy had been right on target. Wyoming’s vote could bring victory if the state chairman made good on his promise.
Convention Chairman (archival): Wyoming?
Wyoming delegation Chairman (archival): Wyoming’s vote will make the majority for Senator Kennedy.
Frank Sinatra (archival): [singing campaign version of “High Hopes”] Everyone is voting for Jack / 'Cause he’s got what all the rest lack—
Narrator: The campaign stressed Kennedy’s youth and vigor. He had Jackie’s enigmatic glamour and Frank Sinatra to sing his song.
Frank Sinatra (archival): [singing] Jack is on the right track / 'Cause he’s got high hopes / He’s got high hopes.
Narrator: To help hold the South, he selected Lyndon Johnson as his running mate. Kennedy faced a formidable Republican opponent in Vice President Richard Nixon. He was far better known than Kennedy and admired by many as a fierce anti-Communist. Kennedy pursued an even harder line, attacking the Republicans for letting America fall behind the Soviets.
John F. Kennedy (archival): I believe, not in an America that is “first, but,” “first, if,” “first, when,” but “first, period.”
Narrator: Kennedy’s greatest impact came from the medium he had now mastered. Nixon was vastly more experienced on television, but the cameras did not do him justice. Kennedy seemed a natural. At the first of an unprecedented series of debates, Nixon, who normally had excellent health, was in pain from an injured knee. Kennedy, so often ill, had never been better, thanks to a new drug treatment, cortisone.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer: Cortisone was probably a critical event for Jack Kennedy, both in the treatment of the his illness and in his perception of himself. Suddenly, he filled out. He became a larger man and a much healthier-looking man. Probably, the handsome Jack Kennedy that we remember is, in part, a tribute to the cortisone.
Narrator: The debates were inconclusive, but Kennedy now seemed Nixon’s equal in substance and his superior in style. On Election Day, the race was too close to call, as the Kennedys secluded themselves to watch the results at the family compound in Hyannis Port.
David Brinkley, NBC News (archival): And while we wait for the sunrise, we might take a look at our total boards and see what the figures show now. On the total popular vote for president, they show this. They show Kennedy’s lead down to just about 700,000, the closest election of this generation.
Narrator: The family waited into the early morning hours. In the end, it all came down to Lyndon Johnson’s Texas and Mayor Daly’s Chicago, where crime boss Sam Giancana controlled key wards. Together, they helped put Kennedy over the top. It was the narrowest win of the century, a margin of one-tenth of one percent.
Joe still kept quiet in public, but in private, as the president-elect chose his Cabinet, he made his wishes known. He wanted his son Robert appointed Attorney General. Fearing charges of dynasty, Jack asked Clark Clifford to see if the old man could be talked out of it.
Clark Clifford, personal counsel to Sen. John F. Kennedy: I talked to his father and I’d prepared very well. I gave a historical perspective of the importance of the Attorney General and the impact that it had on a number of administrations and I praised Bobby for the splendid job he’d done as manager of his brother’s campaign and yet said, “This would be a serious mistake, Mr. Ambassador and I want so for this administration to be a success.” He listened very politely. He didn’t interrupt me in any way and then, when I finished, very pleasantly, he said, “Well, now, thank you, Clark,” he said, “I’m interested in what you’ve had to say.” And he said, “You’ve presented it very well.” He said, “I want to leave you with just one thought. Bobby Kennedy is going to be Attorney General of the United States.”
Slate: The Magic Touch
Narrator: A rare Washington snowstorm on the eve of the inaugural gave the capital an otherworldly glow. In years to come, some would see it as an omen of a presidency set apart, but at the time, the weather only threatened the festivities. The Hollywood-style gala hosted by Frank Sinatra finally began, two hours late.
Emcee, Inaugural Gala (archival): The 1961 inaugural gala, starring Frank Sinatra, Helen Traubel, Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante, Harry Belafonte, Ella Fitzgerald, Joey Bishop, Mahalia Jackson—
William Walton, Kennedy family friend: We went down the mall and there was a marvelous sight, because stranded motorists and people were all the way along and lots of them had built bonfires to keep warm. It looked as those there’d been a revolution. And the President says, “Oh, turn on the lights” — to the driver — “inside, so that people can see Jackie.” She looked like the Snow Queen, you know, very glittering and marvelous. We made her sit forward so that they could see her.
Frank Sinatra (archival): [singing at inaugural gala] That old Jack magic had them in its spell / That old Jack magic that he weaves so well / The women swoon, it seems a lot of men did, too / He looked a little like I used to do.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer: Jack Kennedy, growing up Irish Catholic as he did, had this profound sense of the importance of ritual, that the American people want pomp and circumstance when their president is about to be made president. When you add to that his father’s experience in Hollywood, you have the sophisticated, modern-day techniques, combined with this old-world Catholic ritualism and it’s an incredible combination.
John F. Kennedy (archival): I, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, do solemnly swear…
Earl Warren, Chief Justice, U.S. Supreme Court (archival): That you will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States….
Narrator: Watching in the cold, Joseph P. Kennedy quietly gloried in his triumph. His second son, whose cool detachment had always been a mystery to him, had become President of the United States.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed and to which we are committed today, at home and around the world.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer: I was a freshman in college when JFK ran for the presidency and there was such a sense of excitement about that campaign. He made you feel like things were going to change, the country was going to be different. I can still remember when he gave his speech proposing the Peace Corps and saying to myself, “I want to do that.”
John F. Kennedy (archival): And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer: He was passing by the reviewing stand, where his parents were standing. And Eunice recalled that she was standing behind her father at that moment and she saw him take the top hat off his head and tip it, in a gesture of deference to his son, Jack, the now-President of the United States. It was the first time that this authority figure in the family had ever deferred to one of their generation and it seemed so out-of-place.
Just as the father got his hat off to tip to his son, Jack took his hat off and tipped it to his father, the only person he did that to that entire day. And it was almost like there was this moment where he understood what it meant for his father to do that and he wanted his father to know, “You helped me to get here and I want you to appreciate that.”
John F. Kennedy (archival): I found myself writing, “With very best wishes.”
Edward M. Kennedy: He first walked into the Oval Office, he and a very good friend of his were sure that someone was going to come around the corner, one of the guards, and say, “Won’t you boys get out of here now? Don’t you know that this is the Oval Office?”
Narrator: The men Kennedy surrounded himself with were mostly young, highly educated, eager to take charge. At home, the Kennedy team promised to support civil rights and push for aid to education, health care for the elderly. Abroad, they would meet the Communist challenge on every front, with the Peace Corps in the third world, with the biggest arms build-up in peacetime history, even in outer space, where Kennedy vowed to beat the Russians to the moon. “Those were the days,” Robert Kennedy recalled, “when we thought we were succeeding because of all the stories on how hard everyone was working.”
Richard Goodwin, Assistant Special Counsel to the President: I think was really that sense, that, you know, each just tackle any subject, any kind of problem. And there were plenty of people around to say no. We were the people that said yes.
Ted Sorensen, Special Counsel to the President: There is a certain feeling of headiness in the first days of a new administration. “You’re the President of the United States, you defeated the opposition, which was favored. You have the magic touch. You can’t make any mistakes.” That’s a very dangerous feeling to have.
Narrator: Shortly after his election, Kennedy had been told of a secret CIA plan to send an army of Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro and rid the western hemisphere of its first Communist regime. To Kennedy, it seemed an opportunity to regain the initiative in the Cold War. Instead, it would bring his presidency to the brink of disaster only weeks after it began.
Some advisers argued that even a successful invasion would brand the United States an aggressor and risk Soviet retaliation, but the CIA and Joint Chiefs assured Kennedy the invasion would succeed without revealing United States participation. Kennedy gave the go-ahead for a landing at the Bay of Pigs.
Richard Goodwin, Assistant Special Counsel to the President: They wanted to do it so badly, you know, and, as we saw on a much grander scale in Vietnam, if you really want to do something, you can talk and persuade yourself that it can be done.
Narrator: But everything went wrong. When the landing foundered, Kennedy, fearful of revealing American involvement, refused to provide air support. 1,189 men were captured, 114 were killed.
Critics denounced Kennedy as indecisive. Many now wondered whether he was simply too young, too inexperienced, too impetuous for the job. The Bay of Pigs had been a humiliating failure. Behind the scenes, Kennedy was furious. Believing he had been misled, he would replace the head of the CIA and come to rely more heavily on his own advisers than on the Joint Chiefs or the State Department. And, most important for the future of his presidency, he resolved to involve his brother Robert in all major decisions. “Now, I realize how right Dad was in wanting Bobby in the Cabinet,” he said, “In a crisis, family members are the only ones you can count on.”
John Seigenthaler, Administrative Assistant to RFK: His brother’s presidency was the most important thing in his professional life. He was willing to be the villain, he was willing to take the attacks, and I honestly believe that he would have taken a bolt of lightning for Jack.
Larry Newman: He was his brother’s keeper, there’s no question about it. Nobody could pull anything in Washington that Bobby couldn’t hear about, some way or another. Bobby had an awful lot of run-ins in Washington.
Narrator: It was Robert Kennedy who would incur white hostility in the segregated South by demanding action on voting rights, Robert Kennedy who declared war on organized crime. Now, his brother asked him to continue the effort to overthrow Castro. He was put in charge of a new clandestine plan, Operation Mongoose. “Ousting Castro is the top priority of the United States government,” he said. He ordered hit-and-run raids, destruction of roads and bridges, sabotage.
At the same time, the CIA was using mobsters, including Sam Giancana and Johnny Rosselli, in a plot to assassinate Castro. This strange alliance had begun during the Eisenhower administration and continued unbroken through the Kennedy years. Kennedy clearly wanted the Cuban leader eliminated. “We were hysterical about Castro at the time,” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara later admitted.
Richard Bissell, Deputy Director of Plans, CIA: The way these things happen — and which I saw very clearly, in a different case in the Eisenhower administration — is that the President very much wants to have a certain individual “immobilized” and isn’t— doesn’t care too much how that is done.
Narrator: Precisely how much the President knew of the assassination plots or about the connection between the CIA and the Mafia is impossible to prove more than 30 years after the fact. When Robert Kennedy learned the CIA had hired the Mafia to kill Castro, he protested the means, but not the ends. Assassination plots continued. At the same time, he pursued his war on organized crime, gathering evidence against Giancana and Rosselli.
Michael Beschloss, Historian: Kennedy may well have known that the Mafia was trying to kill Castro at the same time as his brother was trying to prosecute the Mafia. It remains an historical question. It may well be that Kennedy just considered his ability to hold two opposing ideas in his brain to be something that was required of the President.
Slate: A Very Mean Year
Narrator: In May 1961, Kennedy’s stubborn resolve to appear vigorous in public betrayed him. A tree planting in Canada required only a ceremonial gesture, but Kennedy dug in and badly strained his injured back. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. He would be dependent on massive injections of painkillers as he faced Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. Kennedy had hoped this summit meeting would change the course of the cold war.
But Khrushchev was in no mood to bargain. The Bay of Pigs had convinced him that Kennedy, who was younger than Khrushchev’s son, could be intimidated. The Soviet premier threatened to cut off access to West Berlin and stem the tide of refugees fleeing Communism for freedom in the West. Kennedy emerged from the meeting appearing composed, but, in fact, he was shaken. Khrushchev had warned the President, if he tried to intervene in Berlin, there would be war.
Henry Brandon, London Sunday Times: I stood on the doorstep with others when Kennedy came out and Kennedy seemed to me absolutely dazed. And, as it happened, he came out and he looked me into my face, but I had a feeling that he didn’t even recognize me, he was so dazed.
Narrator: Kennedy returned home, still stunned by his encounter with Khrushchev. He called up the reserves and warned the country to prepare for nuclear attack. “Talking to him that summer,” an aide remembered, “was like talking to a statue.” Instead of seizing West Berlin, Khrushchev built the Berlin Wall to stop the flow of refugees. The crisis eased. “A wall,” Kennedy said, “is hell of a lot better than a war.”
Still, the President feared he had failed to convince Khrushchev of American resolve. “We have a problem in making our power credible,” he told a newspaperman, “and the place to do it is Vietnam.” In a decision that would be among the most fateful of his administration, he tripled the number of military advisers sent to South Vietnam.
In the fall of 1961, American troops were on alert in Berlin. American advisers were on their way to Vietnam, and Operation Mongoose continued against Cuba, as what Robert Kennedy called “a very mean year,” drew to a close.
Narrator: In September 1961, Joseph Kennedy seemed to have fulfilled all his ambitions. Surrounded by 17 grandchildren on his 73rd birthday, he had one son in the White House, another in the Cabinet, but still, he wanted more, this time for Ted.
Edward Moore Kennedy was just 29 years old, 15 years younger than Jack. He had attended Harvard, scored a touchdown in the Yale game, married Joan Bennett and managed his brother’s campaign in the West. But he had held just one real job since law school, as one of 26 Assistant District Attorneys in Suffolk County.
Nonetheless, his father was determined to make him a United States senator. “You boys have what you want,” he told his older sons. “Now, it’s Teddy’s turn.”
Midge Decter, political essayist: Then, there was Teddy, who was going to the Senate. You know, there are people who would kill to get into the United States Senate — that’s a very big job — and here is this not very bright, not very strong, not very imposing or impressive kid who was going into the Senate only because his name was Kennedy.
Narrator: Ted was still too young to qualify. He would not turn 30 until 1962, but he began making hurried trips abroad, to demonstrate that he, too, had an interest in foreign affairs.
Sen. John Tunney, friend of Ted Kennedy: President Kennedy had a saying that, as a politician, “If you see blue sky, go for it.” And, in Teddy’s case, the “blue sky” was a seat that had been vacated by Jack when he’d taken over the presidency and so, Ted had a real opportunity that might not get again.
Narrator: Jack Kennedy had arranged for an old friend to hold his vacant Senate seat until Ted was old enough to run, but the President also moved to defuse an embarrassing episode in his brother’s past. Ted had been temporarily expelled from Harvard for having a friend take a Spanish exam for him in 1951.
Clark Clifford, personal counsel to Sen. John F. Kennedy: I went to New York and saw the fellow that had been in the conspiracy with him. He remembered it exactly. I then came back, had a meeting with President Kennedy and Bobby again and said, “This is not going to hurt him. He was only 19 at the time. There isn’t a man in the country who, at 19, didn’t make a mistake this bad or worse. I suggest that you break it yourselves and not have somebody else break it.” They liked that idea and Teddy told the whole story.
Narrator: Just 15 years after he had persuaded Jack to plunge into politics, Joseph Kennedy was about to see all three of his surviving sons holding high office. Then, suddenly, just before Christmas, the Ambassador suffered a massive stroke. Joseph Kennedy’s active life was over. The restless, driven, self-made millionaire, the father whose blazing ambition had fueled his sons’ climb, the power broker who had always seemed able to get anything he wanted, had lost the ability to shape events. He would live on for eight more years, a mute and helpless witness to all that lay ahead.
Slate: The First Family
Roger Wilkins, Agency for International Development: The Kennedys were everything everybody wanted to be. They had this aura of glamour and brains and power and energy — and they were having fun. And in this town, there is always the desire to be in and be close, no matter how dull the President, but when the President is not dull, but is glamorous and exciting and his wife is beautiful and his kids are gorgeous and everybody’s playing touch football, and there are movie stars, holy smokes.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer: Both Jack and Jackie had an enormous sense of their own presence and it’s almost as if they both created this image of this handsome couple — attractive, well-clothed, well-mannered, funny — that was partly true, but partly not true at the same time. When Jackie was courting Jack, it probably was exciting to see how much he liked other women, but after a while, she adopted a pattern very similar to Rose’s. She knew if she obsessed about it every day, it would destroy herself and destroy the marriage, so she became Jackie Kennedy, something quite apart from Jack Kennedy.
Jackie Kennedy gives interview in French and speech in Spanish (archival)
Interviewer (archival): Mrs. Kennedy, this is the East Room, pretty much as Americans have known it now for 60 years.
Jacqueline Kennedy (archival): That’s right. This is the end of the room where Pablo Casals played for us, where we had a portable stage built when we had the Shakespeare players.
George Reedy, Special Assistant to Vice President Johnson: Jackie gave it real class. Jackie was the one that redecorated the White House. Jackie was the one responsible for all the very fine entertainment. And Jack was not quite like that himself. You know, Jack, at a piano, could sing “The Wearing of the Green” as well as any Irish revolutionary you ever came across in your life, but Jackie, Jackie sort of gave the- this kind of fragile, delicate Limoges china feeling to the White House.
Evelyn Lincoln, Personal Secretary to President Kennedy: He loved politics, she hated politics. She didn’t want any part of politics. She didn’t like the political people, but when it came to being out there, all dressed up in her evening gowns, she was right there.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer: She got enormous pleasure from the celebrity of being First Lady, but then, at certain moments, when she wanted her privacy back, she would turn it away. And I think she legitimately wanted to keep her children free from that kind of celebrity, so she would find herself, alternately at times, wishing the press would write her up and other times, saying, “Don’t touch me. I want you out of here.”
Pierre Salinger, White House Press Secretary: Jackie had gone on a trip and she had been trying to control how much picture there could be taken of the kids. And the President called me in one day and said, “She’s gone now. Now’s the time to get the kids.”
Narrator: Caroline and John Junior were the youngest children to live in the White House in the 20th century, and the President, like his father before him, fed the press irresistible photographs of his family.
Slate: Making Their Own Rules
Midge Decter, political essayist: The Kennedys were clearly making their own rules, so that Bobby Kennedy could be Attorney General. No one would ever dream of appointing his brother to the Cabinet, but Jack did it and he could get away with it. And then, there was the other brother they had to take care of.
Narrator: Ted Kennedy turned 30 in February 1962, now old enough to run for his brother’s old Senate seat. But when Edward McCormack, nephew of the Speaker of the House, challenged Kennedy’s right to the nomination, the President sent Ted to ask Tip O’Neill to intercede.
Hon. Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., U.S. Congress 1952-87: He said, “Gee, I don’t want to run against Eddie,” he says. “You know,” he says, “it’s not good for the party, it’s not good for the relationships in Washington,” and he said, “I’ll pay- we understand Eddie owes $100,000. We’ll take care of his expenses. My father will see that he gets a good client.” He said, “Anything that he’s interested in,” he said, “he can have,” he said, “an ambassadorship or something of that nature.” And I listened to the story and I went back and told John McCormack and John talked to Eddie and I talked to Eddie and Eddie made the decision that he was going to run, anyway.
Narrator: The Kennedys failed to buy off McCormack and, when Ted was challenged to a televised debate, the President feared his inexperienced younger brother might give in to his emotions, if attacked.
Edward M. Kennedy: And I remember sitting in the Oval Office, being peppered by questions by my brother and by a couple of his aides, which was quite intimidating, certainly, to say the least, but I was being asked by the master.
Narrator: The President had Ted rehearse his responses and warned him to stay calm, no matter what McCormack said.
Edward McCormack, Democratic Senatorial Candidate (archival): I ask, if his name was Edward Moore, with his qualifications — with your qualifications, Teddy — if it was Edward Moore, your candidacy would be a joke, but nobody’s laughing. Nobody’s laughing. Nobody’s laughing, because his name is not Edward Moore. It’s Edward Moore Kennedy and I say it makes no difference what your name is….
Narrator: McCormack’s attack backfired. Ted Kennedy won the sympathy of the audience and the primary. He would go on to face Republican George Lodge, son of Henry Cabot Lodge, the Boston Brahmin John Kennedy had defeated a decade earlier.
Slate: Private Lives
Marilyn Monroe (archival): [singing] Happy Birthday to you / Happy Birthday to you / Happy Birthday, Mr. President / Happy Birthday to you.
Everybody, Happy Birthday!
John F. Kennedy (archival): Thank you. I can now retire from politics, after having had “Happy Birthday” sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome manner.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Special Assistant to the President: It was his 45th birthday, a big rally at Madison Square Garden, climaxed by Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday to You.” Afterwards, Arthur Krim, who was a film producer, gave a small party in his apartment on the East Side.
William Walton, Kennedy family friend: People have always made such a great to-do over Marilyn’s associations with the Kennedys. I have never believed they were very deep, actually. Maybe there were plenty associations. There were— there were some I could have put my finger on, but in that family, there had been no traditions of monogamy.
George Reedy, Special Assistant to Vice President Johnson: There was plenty of talk about Kennedy’s womanizing and the talk was just universal. In those days, however, there was a sort of an understanding in the press that a responsible, conscientious journalist would not write about anybody’s private life.
Judith Campbell Exner: Everyone in the press really loved him and he worked them, like an entertainer works a room. And he really did, he used them every single minute, so that they were very hesitant to dwell into his private life or to write about it.
Narrator: But, in the spring of 1962, Kennedy’s risky behavior began to catch up with him. The FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, asked to see the President alone. He told Kennedy the FBIwas aware of his relationship with Judith Campbell and that Campbell was also friendly with crime boss Sam Giancana. Hoover warned of possible blackmail.
Judith Campbell Exner: Jack called me after the meeting. First, he asked me to come back to Washington and I said no, that I couldn’t. And then, he said, “Go to my mother’s,” and call him. And that’s when he told me, he said my phone probably wasn’t safe.
Narrator: Despite Hoover’s warnings, Kennedy kept in telephone contact with Campbell for several months, but he stopped his public association with Frank Sinatra, his longtime Hollywood friend who had ties to the Mob and who had introduced him to Judith Campbell in 1960.
Michael Beschloss, Historian: Kennedy’s womanizing was a ticking time bomb throughout that presidency, because if ever one of these women was used by a hostile organization to blackmail the President, it could have brought everything crashing down.
Slate: We Are All Mortal
Film Director (archival): Scene 1A, take 1, copy with Kennedys at Hyannis Port.
Narrator: By October 1962, Ted Kennedy’s campaign for the Senate was in full swing.
Rose Kennedy (archival): Here is Ted, our youngest son, in front of his father. You can see Jack — the President now — you can see Bobby, the Attorney General, and my daughters. On either side, of course, are the Papal Guards. I thought, with all these spiritual advantages, Ted might grow up and be a priest or even a bishop, but he met a beautiful blonde one night and so that was the end of my ambition in that direction.
[to grandchild] Hello. Tara, how are you dear? Have you got your book to read to Grandma this morning?
Narrator: But as Rose Kennedy campaigned for her youngest son, her second son was facing the most serious crisis of the entire cold war era. The details of that crisis and Kennedy’s handling of it would be examined and reexamined for decades and its impact upon him would profoundly change the way he and successors waged the cold war in the coming years.
On October 16th, Kennedy was shown photographs taken by a U-2 spy plane. The Soviets were secretly building bases in Cuba for nuclear missiles capable of striking New York, Chicago, Washington. The Bay of Pigs and Kennedy’s continuing secret campaign to overthrow Castro had convinced Soviet Premier Khrushchev another American invasion of Cuba was imminent.
Sergo Mikoyan, son of First Soviet Deputy Premier: So Khrushchev came to the conclusion that the only way to save Cuba was to install there several Soviet missiles, which would deter a potential American invasion.
Narrator: But, to Kennedy, Soviet missiles so close to the United States were intolerable. They would have to be removed. The question was how to do it with provoking nuclear war. Kennedy secretly assembled a group of seasoned counselors from inside and outside his administration. His experience with the Bay of Pigs had taught him not to rely only on the military and CIA, but most advisers initially favored a military response
C. Douglas Dillon, Secretary of the Treasury: And those of us who had had previous experience with the Soviet Union were all in favor of a quick attack at first. Robert Kennedy took a different approach. He said that this would be a terrible thing in the world, because this would be an unprovoked assault and a lot of other people would get killed that were not necessarily the Soviets that were putting up the bases.
Roger Hilsman, Intelligence and Research, State Department: Bobby was very eloquent. He said, “I do not want my brother to be the Tojo of American history. I do not want us” — the United States — “to pull a Pearl Harbor.” He wanted us to be tough and all of that, but not to strike without warning or so on and so forth.
Narrator: For six days, as Kennedy’s advisers argued in secret over what should be done about the missiles, the President did his best to act as if nothing unusual were happening.
John F. Kennedy (archival): And I ask for the election of a distinguished governor, Mike DeSalle, who recognizes the problems of this state and country and wants to do something about it.
Narrator: Even the President’s press secretary was unaware of the missile crisis when Kennedy instructed him to tell the press he had a cold and would return to Washington.
Pierre Salinger, White House Press Secretary: And we headed out of the hotel, went to the airport, got on the plane and, about halfway through the flight, I found myself alone in the President’s cabin with him. I said, “Mr. President, you don’t have a cold. There’s something else going on.” He said, “You bet. There is something else going on.” And he said, “When you find out, grab your balls.”
John F. Kennedy (archival): Good evening, my fellow citizens. This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military build-up on the island of Cuba.
Narrator: Kennedy revealed the crisis to the world on October 22nd and declared a naval blockade of Cuba, to remain in force until the missiles were removed. The Kennedys had resisted pressure from the military to bomb the missile sites. They would give the Soviet Premier the opportunity to withdraw peacefully, but no one knew what Khrushchev would do. The nation braced for the possibility of nuclear war.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: I remember there being a discussion at home with my father about whether or not we should be moved. There was a bunker under Camp David, where there was room for us. But there were two considerations that I remember my father articulating at that time. One was that we shouldn’t be moved, because it would cause other people to panic if we were moved out of Washington; and the other one was that, if there were a nuclear war, none of us would want to be around afterwards, anyway.
Narrator: In the end, both sides pulled back from confrontation. Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles in exchange for Kennedy’s public pledge not to invade Cuba and his private promise to remove American missiles from Turkish bases near the Soviet border. The gravest crisis of the cold war was over. Kennedy had shown a blend of toughness and diplomatic skill scarcely imaginable when he first took office, but he also recognized how close the world had come to disaster, how large a part luck had played in its survival.
Richard Goodwin, Assistant Special Counsel to the President: “You know, it’s absolutely crazy,” he says, “that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, have the power to destroy all of western civilization.” And it was really at that point— I think that was the turning point of Kennedy’s presidency.
Narrator: Kennedy moved to reduce the possibility of future confrontation. In the ensuing months, he negotiated the first arms agreement of the nuclear age, installed the first direct communication link to the Soviet premier and, at American University in June 1963, called for a new era of tolerance.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Let us reexamine our attitude towards the Soviet Union. No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s futures, and we are all mortal.
Slate: As Old as the Scriptures
Narrator: Kennedy was hailed as a hero during his visit to Berlin in the summer of 1963. The outcome of the Cuban missile crisis had helped relieve doubts about the young president.
John F. Kennedy (archival): All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, Ich bin ein Berliner.
Narrator: But for some at home, Kennedy’s talk of freedom abroad rang hollow. John Kennedy had been elected partly because of his promise to secure equal rights for black Americans, yet once in office, he had sought to avoid too great an involvement in the politically divisive struggle— but events overtook the Kennedys. In 1961, they were forced to send federal marshals into Alabama to protect the freedom riders. In 1962, they were forced to send in the National Guard to restore order at the University of Mississippi. Still, Kennedy resisted sending strong civil rights legislation to Congress, unwilling to risk further alienating the powerful southern conservatives blocking his domestic program.
Roger Wilkins, Agency for International Development: I was not sympathetic with the Kennedys’ political problems. I was sympathetic with the problems that black people were having, and it seemed to me the Kennedys wanted both ways. They wanted to appear to be our friends and they wanted to be the brake on our movement.
Narrator: Kennedy watched, along with the country in May 1963, as racial violence erupted in Birmingham. Horrified by what he had seen, he polled his political advisers about sending a broad new civil rights bill to Congress.
Burke Marshall, Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights: Most of his advisers in the White House — maybe all of them — told him that’s a terrible political mistake. Many thought that the bill could not be passed and they were thinking, “Well, the President’s going to put his presidency on line for this bill and he’s going to fail.”
Narrator: Robert Kennedy disagreed. His duties as Attorney General had demanded he focus on the inequities in American society. He would come to champion civil rights for the rest of his life.
Burke Marshall, Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights: He thought it was not just the future of the presidency, but the future of this country that was at stake, and so, he urged the President very strongly to go ahead with the bill.
Narrator: In June, White House advisers met with the President to discuss whether he should deliver a television address to rally support for his civil rights bill. A film crew was present in the Oval Office.
Robert Drew, Producer, “Crisis”: They got into whether or not Congress would be put off by a president making a speech about civil rights and so forth.
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): I don’t think you can get by now without saying— having an address on television, at least during this period of time, giving some direction and having it in the hands of the President.
Narrator: In the end, Kennedy sided with his brother. That evening, for the first time in history, a president would declare civil rights for black Americans a moral issue.
John Lewis, Civil Rights Activist: And that night in June when he spoke, he spoke, I think, to the heart and to the soul of America. I would never forget that speech.
John F. Kennedy (archival): We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities.
Narrator: Within weeks, Kennedy sent the long-awaited bill to Congress. It was the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.
Roger Wilkins, Agency for International Development: If you look back at who John Kennedy was when he came to the United States Senate and you see who he was on racial issues when he died, you have to say that’s what you want. You know that most white Americans are racist. You can’t help but be racist in this culture, unless you have superb parents. What you hope is that white Americans can be educated, and that they can be purged to some real degree, of their racism, and that they can be brought to do decent things. That’s what happened to this man.
Narrator: Labor Day, 1963. The Kennedys gathered at Hyannis Port. Later that day, Kennedy prepared to be interviewed by Walter Cronkite about the growing American commitment in Vietnam, where Kennedy had now sent some 16,000 military advisers. For decades to come, his words that afternoon would be used by some to prove he had already decided to pull out of the war.
John F. Kennedy (archival): In the final analysis, it’s their war. They’re the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them — we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers — but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam against the Communists.
Narrator: But what the President said next would be used by others to prove the opposite — that Kennedy planned to continue America’s commitment.
John F. Kennedy (archival): But I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That’d be a great mistake. That’d be a great mistake. I know people don’t like Americans to be engaged in this kind of an effort — and 47 Americans have been killed in combat with the enemy — but this is a very important struggle, even though it’s far away.
Narrator: Kennedy’s ambiguous answer reflected deep divisions in his administration. The war was going badly and, two months later, he secretly encouraged a military coup, hoping to install more effective Vietnamese leadership. The new regime proved just as flawed. The war in Vietnam would grow and become the most controversial legacy of the Kennedy presidency.
Edward M. Kennedy (archival): This dinner marks the beginning of a great effort which we are going to make in New England in 1964. New England is the birthplace of this administration and we are proud of it.
John F. Kennedy (archival): I, first of all, want to express my appreciation to my brother, Teddy, for his offering me his coattails. My last campaign, I suppose, may be coming up very shortly, but Teddy’s around and, therefore, these dinners can go on indefinitely.
Ted Sorensen, Special Counsel to the President: Kennedy, in the fall of 1963, was looking forward to the campaign of 1964. He was beginning to travel in parts of the country where he knew he needed to shore up his popularity, which was sagging because of the civil rights legislation. He was implored to come to Texas, where two factions of the Democratic Party were at each other’s throats.
Narrator: Before heading for Texas, Kennedy flew again to Hyannis Port for a Sunday with his father.
Dave Powers, Special Assistant to the President: And now, we’re leaving Monday and the helicopter would take off from the field there where we played touch football. And the Ambassador would be wheeled out to the porch, so that we’d be able to watch him all the way. The President put his hand on his father’s shoulder, you know, and kissed him on the head and, as we take off, he’s looking down — he has the picture window on the helicopter — and he said, “Look at him, Dave, and he made it all possible.”
Sen. George Smathers, U.S. Congress 1946-1968: I came back to Washington with the President. He was lying down. They had a bed in the Air Force One for him to lie on. So he said, “Gee, I really hate to go to Texas. I got to go to Texas next week and it’s just a pain in the rear end and I just don’t want to go. I wish I could get out of it.” And I said, “Well, what’s the problem?” He said, “Well, you know how Lyndon is.” Lyndon was Vice President. “Lyndon wants to ride with me, but John Connally is the governor and he wants to ride and I think that protocol says that he’s supposed to ride and Johnson wants Jackie to ride with him.” And Connally was, at that time, a little bit jealous of Lyndon and Lyndon was a little jealous of him, so it’s all these fights were going on. He said, “I just don’t want to go down in that mess. I hate to go. I wish I could think of a way to get out of it.”
Narrator: After lunch, on Friday, November 22, 1963, Joseph Kennedy was resting quietly in his bedroom.
Rita Dallas, Joseph P. Kennedy’s Nurse: I heard the screaming and I knew it was Dora, the downstairs maid, screaming. And she was yelling, “Mrs. Dallas, Mrs. Dallas.” So I ran out down the long hall, past Mrs. Kennedy’s room and I said, “Dora, be quiet. What is it?” And she started screaming, “The President was shot. The President was shot.”
So then, Mrs. Kennedy came out and she said, “Will you please stop all this noise,” she said. And she said, “Mrs. Dallas, you should know better,” she said, “with my husband down the hall.” And she said, “Stop this noise.” And so, I said, “There’s been an accident with the President,” and I didn’t want to be the one to tell her. And I said, “It’s on television,” so she just looked at me and she went into her room.
Narrator: Ted Kennedy was presiding over the Senate when word reached him that his brother had been wounded.
Robert Kennedy was at home when the telephone rang. It was J. Edgar Hoover. The President had been shot, he said. He would call back when he had more details.
Walter Cronkite, CBS News (archival): From Dallas, Texas, the flash — apparently official — President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago. Vice President Lyndon Johnson has left the hospital in Dallas….
Charles Spalding, friend of Jack Kennedy: Finally, everybody— everything settled in the Lincoln Room, I think it was, the big [room]— when you turn left when you come in the door. And it came time to go to bed and I was with Bobby then and most of time, they went upstairs and I went to get some sleeping pills for him. And I gave them to him and talked with him for a while and then, he seemed to be ready to go and so, I closed the door and I waited outside, just — and I heard him, just sobbing. He was talking directly and he was saying, “Why?,” you know. “Why, God, why? We were doing so well. Everything was really poised so well. Why? Why?” And he repeated it and repeated and repeated it and finally quieted and I left.
Rita Dallas, Joseph P. Kennedy’s Nurse: And that evening, Eunice and Teddy came. And Eunice fell down on the side of the bed, which she never did, and she put her head down on her father’s knees and she said, “Dad, Jack has been shot.” She said, “Jack’s in Heaven. Jack’s in Heaven, so he’s all right.” And it was so confused that, really, I don’t think Mr. Kennedy got it all together for a while.
In the morning, when I brought the paper in— and I wasn’t going to give to him, I couldn’t, so I put it on the dresser. So, he pointed to it and I said, “There’s bad news in it.” I said, “Do you remember?” And he just looked at me and I said, “It’s about the President.” I didn’t say, “your son.” I said, “It’s about the President.” And he just went like this to the paper. And he took the paper and he looked at the headlines and he put his head back on the pillow and it was just horrible, I mean, the silence there. And then, I looked at him and this man that rarely cried, I saw the tears coming down his cheeks.
Slate: In Love With Night
Narrator: On Sunday, November 24th, the Kennedy family accompanied John Kennedy from the White House for the last time. For the next 18 hours, the flag-draped casket would lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, awaiting Monday’s funeral.
Michael Beschloss, Historian: The funeral of John Kennedy was modeled on the funeral of Lincoln— the lying in state in the East Room, the movement of the coffin on a caisson down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Narrator: A quarter of a million mourners filed through the Capitol Rotunda in a line that stretched three miles.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer: I just remember feeling that sense that it was impossible that it could have happened, that somebody in the middle of the vitality of his life was struck down. It made all of us, including myself, just feel more vulnerable. You’re young, you can’t ever imagine you’re going to die and somehow, when John Kennedy died, there was that sense of the arbitrariness of fate, as if you could die, too.
Narrator: In the coming weeks and months, Americans would be unwilling to let go of the president who had been taken from them. Less than half of all American voters had cast their ballots for Kennedy. Now, 65 percent claimed they had. He had become, in death, what he never was in life, and the President’s widow added to his legend.
Michael Beschloss, Historian: She gave an interview to Theodore White, the journalist at Thanksgiving at Hyannis Port, just after the assassination, during which she referred to the fact that she and her husband, late at night, used to listen to a phonograph record of the musical, Camelot. White saw his lead, he wrote up the interview and, thenceforth, the Kennedy legend had its name.
Narrator: John Kennedy’s legend was already settling upon Robert Kennedy, but he was shattered. The brother to whom he had devoted his life was dead.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., RFK biographer: He looked and acted devastated. He seemed, at times, to be as if in a dream. I think he was engaged in a great internal struggle to reconcile his belief in God with what had happened to his brother.
John Seigenthaler, RFK Advisor: He was in physical pain. If you were around him, you knew that sometimes not really with it. I mean, he was really hurting, bruised, emotionally and spiritually.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: My father became more quiet at that time and more introspective. He started reading a lot of the Greeks. He read Camus. He read a lot of the existentialists. He read a lot of poetry, Emerson and Thoreau and he became very interested in poetry, then— Alfred Lord Tennyson, the heroic writers, the people who explained human tragedy.
Narrator: No longer the second most powerful man in Washington, Kennedy stayed on as Attorney General, but he could not conceal his disdain for the new president, Lyndon Johnson.
Clark Clifford, Counsel to President Johnson: It was a terribly bitter experience for Bobby, to see this man he hated come in and replace his brother in the Oval Office in the White House. It was almost more than he could bear.
George Reedy, Special Assistant to Vice President Johnson: The basic fact is those two men simply didn’t like each other. That’s all there was to it. Everybody has seen two dogs come into a room together and, all of a sudden, there’s a low growl from each one and the hair starts rising on the back of the neck. That was a real situation between Bobby and Lyndon Johnson.
Narrator: At odds with the new president, unsure of his own future, Robert Kennedy also had to carry out his responsibilities to his family— his own eight children, the widow and children of his murdered brother, his grieving parents.
Then, in June of 1964, the family was dealt still another blow. Senator Edward Kennedy was seriously injured in a plane crash. His back was broken. For a time, the family feared the youngest Kennedy would not live. “Is it ever going to end for you people?” a reporter asked Robert Kennedy. “I was just thinking,” he answered, “if my mother hadn’t had any more children than her first four, she would have nothing now. I guess the only reason we’ve survived is that there are more of us than there is trouble.” The Senator would remain hospitalized for six months.
Robert Kennedy was present as Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It had been President Kennedy’s bill, but it had taken Johnson’s skill to push it through. The tension between the Attorney General and the President was obvious, and at the Democratic Convention, to make certain the delegates were not stampeded into drafting Robert Kennedy to the vice presidency, he moved the planned tribute to John Kennedy to the very last night.
Chairman Henry “Scoop” Jackson: And now, it is my privilege and honor to introduce the man who stood closer to him in times of crisis and in times of fun than anyone else — his brother, Robert Kennedy.
Narrator: Johnson’s fears had been well founded. In the nine months since John Kennedy’s death, his legend had only magnified. Robert Kennedy was its clear beneficiary.
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chairman— Mr. Chairman—
Narrator: The demonstration went on for 22 minutes before Kennedy was able to speak.
George Reedy, Special Assistant to Vice President Johnson: I once heard the Kennedys described as “a court looking for a king.” I think you always had some of the Kennedy supporters who thought that it wasn’t legitimate unless a Kennedy was in the White House and Bobby was the obvious one at that point.
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): When I think of President Kennedy, I think of what Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet. “When he shall die, take him and cut him out into the stars and he shall make the face of Heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.”
Narrator: The door to the vice presidency had been closed, but Robert Kennedy had already decided on his next move.
Slate: The Carpetbagger
Narrator: By the fall of 1964, Robert Kennedy was back in the bare-knuckled political world he knew best. He would run for the United States Senate from New York. But since he did not yet even live in New York State, some called him a “carpetbagger.” Liberals remembered he had once worked for Joseph McCarthy and Jewish voters were suspicious of any son of Joseph Kennedy.
Peter Edelman, RFK campaign: It was not very good when he first went you on the stump. He seemed to not project very well. You couldn’t tell whether he wasn’t very good at it or maybe even that he was still carrying around some psychological baggage in terms of thinking about his brother.
Narrator: In the past, Robert Kennedy had managed campaigns for his brother. Now, he was the candidate and the transition was difficult.
1st Reporter (archival): Listen, what about this tour of the Fulton Fish Market? What are your impressions?
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): Well, they have a lot of fish and the—
Ed Guthman, Press Secretary to RFK: I remember, up in Buffalo, New York — and it was about 11 o’clock — we got, finally, up to the room in the hotel and I said, “God, Bob, that crowd, that was incredible. I’ve never seen any like that.” And he turned on me and said, “Well, don’t you know?” And I said, “Know what?” And he said, “That was for him, not for me.”
Crowd (archival): We want Kennedy! We want Kennedy —
Narrator: Large crowds turned out in every city and town Kennedy visited, but he ran behind in the polls. New Yorkers seemed more interested in seeing a Kennedy than in voting for one.
2nd Reporter (archival): How are you going to vote?
Woman on Street (archival): I’m afraid I’m going to vote for Mr. Keating.
Narrator: The Kennedy forces were out in two states that political season, campaigning in Massachusetts for Ted, still hospitalized, and converging on New York to help Robert — his wife Ethel, expecting their ninth child; his sisters, Pat Lawford and Jean Smith; and the candidate’s 74-year-old mother.
Rose Kennedy (archival): This is an honor and a pleasure that I’ve never had before, to introduce my son on a platform. I can tell you, of course, a great deal about him. I used to spank him with a ruler. It gives me great pleasure to introduce my seventh child, Robert Francis Kennedy.
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): I want to thank my mother for that kind introduction. That’s what we’ve gotten down to, in this campaign. After some of these polls came out that we were not doing too well, we took Mother.
Rose Kennedy (archival): Well, I helped my father and I’ve had a lot of experience, since I did it 74 years ago.
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): Yeah, I know. I’m going to tell them you did. So, why don’t you give your own speech? You see, that’s it. We don’t— my brother and I— the reason she’s never introduced any of us before is because we never go on the same platform with her. We couldn’t possibly compete with that.
Narrator: November 3, 1964 — Election Day. Robert Kennedy couldn’t vote in New York. He didn’t meet the state’s residency requirement. Nonetheless, he became New York’s Senator, thanks largely to an overwhelming landslide for Lyndon Johnson.
Midge Decter, political essayist: Nobody, for one minute, expected that he was going into the Senate to stay there. It was understood that that was the next move on the way to reclaiming what was rightfully the Kennedys’, namely, the White House.
Narrator: The same night Robert Kennedy won his relatively narrow victory in New York, in Massachusetts, Edward Kennedy was swept back into office by a landslide.
Edward M. Kennedy (archival): [From hospital bed] I think I asked him whether he was as ruthless in New York as—
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): No. I was just saying that he’s getting awful fresh since he’s been in bed. His wife has won the campaign for him.
Edward M. Kennedy (archival): He’ll make a speech, if you don’t look out.
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): Any of you from New York?
Earl Warren, Chief Justice, U.S. Supreme Court (archival): You, Lyndon Baines Johnson, do solemnly swear…
Lyndon B. Johnson (archival): I, Lyndon Baines Johnson, do solemnly swear…
Earl Warren, Chief Justice, U.S. Supreme Court (archival): ...that you will faithfully execute…
Lyndon B. Johnson (archival): ...that I will faithfully execute…
Earl Warren, Chief Justice, U.S. Supreme Court (archival): ...the Office of the Presidency of the United States.
Narrator: Joseph Kennedy’s surviving sons watched from the sidelines as the man who inherited their murdered brother’s presidency assumed office in his own right, and one was already positioning himself to run for president.
Slate: The Heir
Narrator: Around the world, Robert Kennedy was seen as the inheritor of his brother’s legacy.
Sen. Fred Harris, U.S. Senate 1964-1973: If you ever traveled with Robert Kennedy, you found that he was like an American rock star — people grabbed at him and touched him and so forth — so that is indicative of sort of the way he was treated, too, by the press, as a senator. Normally, a new senator would sort of be seen and not heard. He had no opportunity for that, had he been so inclined. He was a national figure already and that made him very different from any other senator.
Narrator: Kennedy had always been relentless in pursuit of his brother’s policies and his brother’s enemies. Now, he would be just as relentless in carving out a constituency of his own to the left of Lyndon Johnson, drawn from the dissatisfied, the poor, the young, blacks, Indians and the migrant workers of California.
Cesar Chavez, National Farm Workers Association: We were like the forgotten. No one identified with us of any consequence. And then, of course, after he did that, a lot of people began to identify, which is what happens, you know.
Dolores Huerta, National Farm Workers Association: He was very sincere, very intense, you know, made everything seem very personal to him. He went right out into the fields, talked to the workers. The workers just really loved him.
Cesar Chavez, National Farm Workers Association: And then, he went from our headquarters to the hearings, so he wasn’t hiding the fact that he was pro-farm worker.
Sheriff, Kern County, California (archival): If I have reason to believe that there’s going to be a riot started and somebody tells me that, “There’s going to be trouble if you don’t stop 'em,” then it’s my duty to stop 'em and I—
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): And then, you go out an arrest them?
Sheriff, Kern County, California (archival): Well, absolutely.
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): And charge them?
Sheriff, Kern County, California (archival): And charge them.
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): What do you charge them with?
Sheriff, Kern County, California (archival): Well, violating unlawful assembly.
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): Now, this is the most interesting concept, I think, that you suddenly hear talk about the fact that somebody makes a report about somebody’s going to get out of order, perhaps violate the law, and you go in and arrest them and they haven’t done anything wrong. How can you go arrest somebody if they haven’t violated the law?
Sheriff, Kern County, California (archival): They’re ready to violate the law. In other words— [laughter, jeers from audience]
George Reedy, Special Assistant to Vice President Johnson: There was no real give to him. Bobby lived in a heaven-and-hell world. You were either on the side of God or you were on the side of Mephistopheles.
Narrator: More and more, Robert Kennedy found himself listening to advocates for the disadvantaged. Marian Wright was a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Marian Wright Edelman, NAACP: I wanted him to see the suffering and I wanted him to see the hunger. I mean, it was very hard to get people to understand that people were literally starving in Mississippi at that time, that there were people with no income.
Narrator: Robert Kennedy went down to the Mississippi Delta with Marian Wright. As usual, the press followed, in force.
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): What’d you have for lunch?
Boy (archival): We ain’t had lunch yet.
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): You haven’t had lunch yet?
Boy (archival): No.
Marian Wright Edelman, NAACP: He walked in and saw, in a dark back room, a child that was obviously malnourished, with a bloated stomach, that was not very responsive, that was- and he stooped down and began to try to get the child to respond. Touching and feeling and talking to the child. The child did not respond. He was obviously deeply moved and deeply outraged and conveyed that when he walked back out again into the light of the day and the light of the cameras.
Reporter (archival): Senator, what do you make of the problem of poverty in this, our poorest state?
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): Well, I think it’s obviously as great a poverty as we’ve had in our country. I think that, considering we have a Gross National Product of some $700 billion and that we spend $75 billion on armaments and weapons, that you would think that- we spend almost $3 billion each year on dogs in the United States, as American citizens, that we could be doing more for those who are poor and, particularly, for our children.
Roger Wilkins, Assistant Attorney General: Robert Kennedy became a man who was connected to the world’s pain after his brother’s death and he could learn about the world’s pain.
Narrator: Robert Kennedy had already left behind his father’s views. Now, he had moved beyond his dead brother, too, bringing all of his old zeal to a new, risky kind of politics, mounting a liberal challenge to the liberal president of his own party.
Peter Edelman, Legislative Assistant to RFK: So here, you had this man who was conducting, in the end, a kind of an alternate government-in-waiting or shadow administration on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue from Lyndon Johnson. It was really quite extraordinary.
Narrator: As America’s divisions over Vietnam deepened and the cost of conflict weakened Johnson’s War on Poverty, the Kennedy brothers were caught up in the national agony. Ted Kennedy began to criticize the war obliquely, seeking to alleviate the suffering of refugees. For Robert Kennedy, Vietnam represented an especially painful dilemma.
Adam Walinsky, Legislative Assistant to RFK: He had, after all, been involved with the original policy and had made the judgment, in what he thought was a responsible and a serious way, that it made sense to go in and you didn’t turn around on that just lightly. Just because the newspapers were making a fuss, you didn’t just throw that over automatically.
Lyndon B. Johnson (archival): Tonight, in Vietnam, more than 200,000 of your young Americans stand there, fighting for your freedom.
Narrator: But Johnson’s steady escalation of the war troubled Kennedy more and more.
Lyndon B. Johnson (archival):...and that their cause, which is our cause, shall be sustained.
Narrator: In March of 1967, he broke openly with Johnson over Vietnam.
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): I was involved in the question of a struggle in Vietnam and I’m sure that administration of President Kennedy made mistakes in which I was personally involved; so, I think that, if there’s the question of the blame or the responsibility for the problems of Vietnam, there’s enough blame to go around for everybody.
Narrator: He called for a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam and a negotiated settlement. Some of Kennedy’s advisers began urging him to take on the President of his own party.
Adam Walinsky, Legislative Assistant to RFK: I thought that Johnson was enormously vulnerable. I thought the Republicans would beat him in 1968 and I thought that it was Robert Kennedy’s opportunity and responsibility to run and get elected president.
Narrator: “Bobby wanted the presidency so much he could taste it,” an aide remembered, but Kennedy sided with his more cautious advisers. He feared his entry into the race would be seen as a purely personal challenge to the President. When anti-war leaders asked him to run, he turned them down.
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): I’m going to remain on as a United States senator, representing the State of New York and I’m going to support the Democratic ticket for 1968 of President Johnson/Hubert Humphrey.
Audience (archival): Boo.
Narrator: Bitterly disappointed, the anti-war movement turned elsewhere.
On November 30, 1967, Senator Eugene McCarthy announced that he would challenge Johnson in the primaries.
3rd Reporter (archival): Is it possible that you might step aside and support Bobby Kennedy, if the moment came when he decided to have a go at the nomination?
Sen. Eugene McCarthy (archival): I don’t see that as a problem right now. Again, I don’t know whether it would be a question of stepping aside. It might a more— it may be less voluntary than that.
Narrator: In January 1968, the Tet Offensive broadened America’s opposition to the war and helped Eugene McCarthy win 40 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. For the first time, Lyndon Johnson seemed vulnerable. Kennedy was reassessing his position, resolving to run after all, but first, he had to tell his parents.
Rita Dallas, Joseph P. Kennedy’s Nurse: I was out in the hall and I overheard Bobby say to his father and mother, “I’m going to run for the presidency.” And it was not like when he was running for the Senate. There was complete silence and I looked at Mr. Kennedy and he just dropped his head down on his chest. Bobby says, “It’s going to be all right.” He said, “It’s going to be all right.”
Slate: On to Chicago
Narrator: Just four days after Eugene McCarthy’s strong showing in New Hampshire, Robert Kennedy and his family arrived at the Senate Office Building to announce his candidacy. This was the same spot on which John Kennedy had opened his campaign in January of 1960, and Robert Kennedy used his brother’s opening line.
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): I am announcing today my candidacy for the presidency of the United States. I do not run for the presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done and I feel that I am obliged to do all that I can.
Narrator: Robert Kennedy’s announcement would once have been greeted with wild enthusiasm by the anti-war movement. Now, to many, it seemed opportunistic.
Man on street (archival): He had his chance, I think. We wanted him to run, but he never did, so now, we’re supporting Gene until the end.
Narrator: There was no time to build the kind of political machine that had characterized past Kennedy campaigns. It was too late to enter most of the primaries. Kennedy would have to wait to face Eugene McCarthy until Indiana, more than a month away. Meanwhile, Kennedy would assault Lyndon Johnson. He charged that, by Johnson’s massive bombing of Vietnam, he was calling upon the darker impulses of the human spirit.
Richard Hardwood, Washington Post: Some of his speeches got very close to demagoguery and I said so in a couple of pieces in The Post. And when I went back to the airplane to take off on the next leg of the trip, Ethel Kennedy came down the aisle with my story wadded up, and threw it in my face.
Narrator: In the first two weeks of his campaign, Kennedy visited 16 states, denouncing Johnson before huge crowds. Then, on the evening of March 31st, as Kennedy flew home to New York City, everything suddenly changed. Johnson bowed out of the race.
Adam Walinsky, Legislative Assistant to RFK: Once Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the race, its character changed. Robert Kennedy had gotten a lot of strength from Lyndon Johnson’s unpopularity. Kennedy then had to, all of a sudden, turn around and talk about what he was going to do for the next four years.
Narrator: Kennedy now had to find a way to differentiate himself from Eugene McCarthy and from Johnson’s hand-picked successor, Hubert Humphrey. Then, flying into Indianapolis, Indiana, he received news that would shock the country.
John Lewis, RFK campaign: The evening of April 4, 1968, we were in the midst of organizing a rally, [an] outdoor rally in a transitional neighborhood. And sometime during the gathering of people, someone informed us that Martin Luther King, Junior had been shot.
Narrator: No one in the crowd yet knew of King’s death. Some Kennedy aides urged him to cancel his appearance, for fear [that] the crowd’s anger at the news might turn on him. Kennedy refused.
John Lewis, RFK campaign: Robert Kennedy came in and spoke— spoke from his soul, the depths of his soul.
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): Martin Luther King has been shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee. [audience shrieks] For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel, in my own heart, the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.
It is not the end of violence, it is not the end of lawlessness and it’s not the end of disorder; but the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.
John Lewis, RFK campaign: After the funeral of Dr. King, I felt I had lost a friend, a big brother, a colleague. Somehow, I sort of said to myself, “Well, we still have Bobby Kennedy,” and I just snapped out of it like that and got back on the campaign trail.
Narrator: Anger over Dr. King’s murder set ghetto neighborhoods ablaze all across America, further separating blacks from whites, but blacks continued to turn out in unprecedented numbers for Robert Kennedy, struggling to touch his hands, tearing at his clothes, frightening some Americans by their intensity. He was becoming a lightning rod for one dissatisfied group after another.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer: There was a frenzy in that environment, when he was out there, and that seemed to symbolize to a lot of Americans, I think, the fear that America itself was out of control, that we really didn’t have a lid anymore on our social problems and that revolution was really around the corner.
On the other hand, there was a group of Americans who felt that only Bobby could heal the divisions, that because he was tough and because he was straightforward and because he was passionate, he could bring the blue-collar workers and the blacks together and no one else could have.
Walter Cronkite, CBS News (archival): Senator Robert Kennedy has won the first primary test in his attempt to secure the Democratic nomination for the presidency.
Mike Wallace, CBS News (archival): Robert Kennedy has won the Democratic primary in the State of Nebraska.
Narrator: Despite his victories, Kennedy trailed Humphrey almost 2-1 in the race for delegates. He pushed on to Oregon and lost. It was the first time any Kennedy had lost an election. Everything now depended on the California primary.
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): I think that probably I have to win here. I haven’t dealt with percentages before and I don’t think it’s very helpful at the moment. I’ve got to go, 'cause I’ve got thousands of fans waiting for me, I hope. Thank you very much.
John Seigenthaler, RFK advisor: Well, by the time he got there, Gene McCarthy had already been knocking on the door and many people in the liberal community had both arms and both legs around Gene McCarthy and were kissing him on the neck and biting on the ear. And so, we came into that campaign behind.
Narrator: Robert Kennedy campaigned throughout the state, drawing huge crowds, but, by election day, it was still too close to call. Everything finally came down to the black and Latino neighborhoods, where the turnout was usually low.
Cesar Chavez, National Farm Workers Association: Throughout the day we had been checking the precincts and we see the great numbers of people coming and the big numbers of people— we’re doing our own exit polling and we were getting great, great feedback.
Narrator: The turnout was high and Latino voters went for Kennedy, 15-1. He won California with almost 50 percent of the vote.
Dolores Huerta, National Farm Workers Association: So, when we all gathered at the Ambassador, this was just a great feeling of, you know, excitement and happiness and joy. I could only see that he had one security person and that kind of entered my mind, but I didn’t want to say anything, because this was just a glorious moment, I didn’t want to spoil it by saying anything that might be negative.
News Correspondent (archival): Senator Kennedy has just entered the ballroom here at his election headquarters and you can hear the pandemonium that has resulted. And he is pushing his way through a crowd of reporters and photographers gathered around the podium, up to the speaker’s stand.
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): What I think is quite clear is that we can work together, in the last analysis, and that what has been going on within the United States over the period of the last three years — the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society, the divisions, whether it’s between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent or between age groups or on the war in Vietnam — that we can start to work together. We are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country and I intend to make that my basis for running over the period of the next few months.
Richard Goodwin, Assistant Special Counsel to JFK: And I remember watching him on television that night and there was a kind of an ease and a grace that he had that really had been missing, in a way. You know, I mean, he always had the passion and he had the ideas. The substance didn’t change, but he had a kind of— he was at ease with himself. This was his victory. This was not a Kennedy victory, it was Bobby Kennedy’s victory. And I looked at him and I said, “My God, the guy looks like a president.”
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): So my thanks to all of you and now, it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there.
Fred Dutton: The crowd was a little bit unruly, so I decided that there was a back route to go. The security people we had had already canvassed it. They were prepared to go either way and I said no, we’d go out the back way.
Narrator: As Robert Kennedy entered the kitchen, he turned to shake hands with a busboy. At that moment, gunshots rang out. In the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, a television newsman pleads with his cameraman to keep rolling.
TV Newsman (archival): Jimmy, shoot it! Please, shoot it!
Bystander (archival): [moaning] Oh, no! God!
Narrator: At another Los Angeles hotel, McCarthy campaign workers are stunned, as they watch on television.
1st McCarthy campaign worker (archival): What?
2nd McCarthy campaign worker (archival): Kennedy has been shot. Somebody just shot Robert Kennedy. They’re trying to clear the room.
Marian Wright Edelman, NAACP: I was looking at the television when it all happened. My reaction? Horror. Horror, because, after Dr. King, he was kind of the last hope for a sane and morally mindful direction in the country and I think, like many Americans, I just couldn’t believe it was happening again. And a great fear about the path of violence that apparently had been opened up in our nation.
Narrator: All the next day, the country waited for news of Kennedy’s condition.
Rita Dallas, Joseph P. Kennedy’s Nurse: When the President was assassinated, the family became very stoic. When Bobby was shot, the whole house fell apart. Mrs. Kennedy fell apart and she kept saying, “My son, my son.” And Mr. Kennedy cried, I cried. It was too much.
Frank Mankiewicz, Kennedy Press Aide (archival): Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. today, June 6, 1968. With Senator Kennedy at the time of his death were his wife, Ethel, his sisters, Mrs. Steven Smith and Mrs. Patricia Lawford; brother-in-law, Mr. Steven Smith and her sister-in-law, Mrs. John F. Kennedy. He was 42 years old. Thank you.
Roger Wilkins, Agency for International Development: And it was over. I mean, the whole thing was over. The whole period of lift and hope and struggle was all over. It was just over.
Edward M. Kennedy (archival): We loved him as a brother and as a father and as a son. From his parents and from his older brothers and sisters, Joe and Kathleen and Jack, he received an inspiration which he passed on to all of us. He gave us strength in time of trouble, wisdom in time of uncertainty and sharing in time of happiness. He will always be by our side.
[weeping] Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him, “Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why?’ I dream things that never were and say, 'Why not?'
Slate: The Ninth Child
Narrator: Just one week after Robert Kennedy’s funeral, Edward Kennedy appeared on national television with his father and mother.
Rose Kennedy (archival): We cannot always understand the ways of Almighty God, the crosses which He sends us, the sacrifices which He demands of us. But we know His great goodness and His love and we go on our way with no regrets from the past, not looking backwards to the past, but we shall carry on with courage.
Sen. John Tunney, friend of Ted Kennedy: This was like a gruesome nightmare replayed and there was only darkness, I mean, just terrible feelings of emotional anxiety and depression. And I remember walking with Teddy, after Bobby died, downstairs and saying to him, “You know, you’ve just got to get away. You can’t think about this. You can’t think about it. You must not allow yourself, ever, to think about you being next in line for this terrible treatment.”
Richard Goodwin, Assistant Special Counsel to JFK: He was really terribly shaken up by Bobby’s death. He used to sail all night long by himself in the days and weeks after that happened, just sailing.
Narrator: For two months, Edward Kennedy remained out of the public eye. Once, he drove from Hyannis Port to Washington to sign papers at his office, but when he got there, he was unable, he said, to go in and face them all. Instead, without getting out of his car, he turned around and drove home again. Just 36, he had become the effective head of an extended family, responsible in part for the welfare of 16 children.
Host (arvhival): I give you Senator Kennedy.
Edward M. Kennedy (archival): Some of you have suggested that, for safety’s sake and for my family’s sake, I retire from public life. To those who have so written, my deep thanks for your kindness and for your concern.
But there is no safety in hiding, so today, I resume my public responsibilities to the people of Massachusetts. Like my three brothers before me, I pick up a fallen standard. Sustained by their memory of our priceless years together, I shall try to carry forward that special commitment to justice, to excellence, to courage that distinguished their lives.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer: All of his life, he had been the kind of person who was cheerful, open, optimistic. But now, suddenly, with Jack’s death and then Bobby’s death four years later- five years later, he has to suddenly become the holder of all of these dreams, frustrations, hopes, and it had to be an incredibly defining moment for him, to decide— could he still go on, be the happy-go-lucky good guy that he was or was he going to have to become something different?
Narrator: Shortly after Kennedy returned to Washington, Richard Nixon moved into the White House.
Edward M. Kennedy (archival): We have a new president. He has shown that he’s an extremely hard and industrious worker. This morning, he indicated that he wasn’t going to use the Oval Room. My mother read that in the paper and she called me up and said, “Teddy, I see where the President isn’t going to use the Oval Room.” She said, “I think someone ought to use it.” [laughs]
Narrator: Kennedy was becoming one of the most influential liberal spokesmen in the Senate.
Edward M. Kennedy (archival): But we’re looking into that. [laughs]
Narrator: It seemed likely that, when Nixon ran for reelection in 1972, his opponent would be Joseph Kennedy’s fourth son, but some worried that Kennedy’s rise was too fast, the pressures on him too great.
Richard Hardwood, The Washington Post: There was general feeling that Ted was a playboy— he drove too fast, he drank too much, he chased girls. He certainly was devoted to Ethel Kennedy and her family, but he was having problems of his own.
Brock Brower, Journalist: He began to try — and Ted did try — to pick up the things that Bob had represented and even follow some of the trips that he’d taken. That’s what started us all the way up to Alaska.
Narrator: As chairman of a special subcommittee on Indian education, a post once held by his brother Robert, Kennedy led his colleagues to Alaska in April, accompanied by camera crews and 25 reporters. He did his best to act as his brother would have acted, but it wasn’t the same.
Edward M. Kennedy (archival): How old is this little girl?
Alaskan woman (archival): Five.
Hays Gorey, Time Magazine: The trip back was kind of a disaster, especially for Teddy. We all met in the bar and had a drink or two before the plane took off. There were further drinks on the plane. Teddy got somewhat boisterous and playful. He started throwing rolls at various of us in the press and people started throwing rolls back at him.
Brock Brower, Journalist: And there started to be a large call of “Eskimo power” up and down the aisles and a few pillows being thrown and a number of other things. And then, it didn’t seem to be controllable.
Hays Gorey, Time Magazine: Here was a man who was thought of by many as a future president and he was out in public, having drunk far too much, and playfully throwing bread around a cabin of an airplane. It just didn’t seem within the comportment or dignity — at least the public comportment and dignity — of a future president.
Brock Brower, Journalist: I thought that the Senator was out to avoid a fate that was being imposed upon him from the outside, which was to run for the presidency. And I thought, psychologically, he was not in the best shape for taking up this kind of burden.
Narrator: Friday, July 18, 1969. As the Apollo 11 crew approached the moon, fulfilling a goal set by John Kennedy, Edward Kennedy was in Massachusetts, fulfilling still another family obligation — attending a reunion party of young women who had worked for his brother Robert’s last campaign. One of them was Mary Jo Kopechne. The party was held on Chappaquiddick Island, off Martha’s Vineyard.
Late that evening, Kennedy left the party with Miss Kopechne. Sometime later, his car plunged off a narrow wooden bridge. Kennedy managed to get out. His passenger did not. Yet, for 10 hours, he failed to report the accident. The car was discovered by two boys on an early morning fishing trip. Police were summoned and the young woman’s body was recovered. The diver suspected she had not died immediately.
Kennedy aides helped the other party-goers leave the island hurriedly, without making statements. On Saturday morning, Kennedy finally appeared before Police Chief Dominic Arena and was allowed simply to leave a hastily handwritten statement and return to Hyannis Port.
5th reporter (archival): I mean, wasn’t there some point — since someone was killed and he hadn’t reported it for 10 hours — in actually questioning him a bit deeper?
Dominic Arena, Police Chief (archival): Right, well— well, to tell you the truth, at the time, I thought I would have been able to get back to him. When he left here, I, at the time, thought that he was going to consult his attorney and we would get further [information] from him.
Rita Dallas, Joseph P. Kennedy’s Nurse: After Chappaquiddick, I can still see Eunice flying in the house. She took off her coat and threw it. She said, “Where’s Teddy?” She said, “I want to talk to him.” But there was rage and horror and anger, a lot of anger at not any particular person, not at Teddy, but, I really think, at fate.
Narrator: The Senator stayed behind the walls of the Kennedy compound. Friends, advisers and former speechwriters descended upon Hyannis Port to offer legal advice and propose ways to salvage the Senator’s political future.
Midge Decter, political essayist: In army of Jack’s loyalists and speech writers — that court that was still, to some extent, a court-in-exile and still dreaming of Washington — descended on Cape Cod to help him, advise him and to write this speech he gave.
Narrator: Just hours before going on television, Senator Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a two-month jail sentence — suspended. That night, Kennedy offered his version of what had happened, calling his own conduct “indefensible.”
Edward M. Kennedy (archival): I would understand full well why some might think it right for me to resign. You and I share many memories. Some of them have been glorious, some have been very sad. The opportunity to work with you and serve Massachusetts has made my life worthwhile and so, I ask you tonight — the people of Massachusetts — to think this through with me.
Narrator: Massachusetts rallied to the last of the Kennedy brothers, but across the country, many found his explanations inadequate, his speech mawkish.
Hays Gorey, Time Magazine: Many of us in the press corps thought it reminded us of Nixon’s “Checkers” speech. It did not ring true. It was highly political and intended, obviously, to save his political neck.
Pierre Salinger, White House Press Secretary: I think that Ted Kennedy was very badly advised, very badly advised by those who went to advise him. I mean, instead of putting it in the context of the future of his political life, they should have just put it in the context of what happened and had him deal with what happened in the most honest and open way possible.
Narrator: As the story of Chappaquiddick unfolded, Democratic leaders were meeting in Virginia to discuss the next presidential campaign.
Sen. Fred Harris, U.S. Senate 1964-73: Everybody knew – well, they thought — that Ted Kennedy would be the Democratic nominee for president in 1972. Right in the midst of that retreat came the terrible news of the tragedy at Chappaquiddick.
We stopped what we were doing. The issues were still there, but there was no question, from that moment on. Ted Kennedy would not be the Democratic nominee. The situation changed totally and we simply quit and went home.
Rita Dallas, Joseph P. Kennedy’s Nurse: Teddy went upstairs and he said, “Dad, there was an accident.” And he said, “There was a girl in the car,” and he said, “She drowned.” He said, “It was an accident.”
And his father had his head forward, listening to Teddy and then, he dropped his head back. And Teddy sat down and he put his hands up to his face and he said, “I don’t know, Dad, I don’t know.” But after that, I could see a deterioration in Mr. Kennedy.
Narrator: Joseph P. Kennedy, 81, refused nourishment and began to waste away. He died on November 18, 1969.
Adam Walinsky, Legislative Assistant to RFK: The legacy has to be an enormous burden. Who would want to be in a position of having to live your life with the feeling that, if you didn’t become president of the United States and fulfill all of these enormous hopes that had been raised by your brothers — who never had a chance to fulfill them — that somehow people would judge your life, or you might judge it yourself to be a failure? I can’t conceive of a greater or more difficult burden to carry.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer: To ask a Kennedy to think about what it would have been like to not carry the burden is to ask them to not be alive, because carrying that burden is a part of what they are. So, in a certain sense, it was never really a choice for Teddy. He couldn’t imagine turning his back on the legacy. He had to become what they wanted him to become.
Narrator: For the next 10 years, Edward Kennedy served as one of the leading liberal spokesmen in the Senate, building a legislative record unmatched by either of his brothers. But despite the shame of Chappaquiddick, despite the complications of his private life, Edward Kennedy still felt obligated to run for president. He would wait through 1972 and 1976 — when another Democrat, Jimmy Carter, won the White House — but, by 1979, Chappaquiddick seemed forgotten. Ted Kennedy thought he saw his chance.
On November 7, 1979, in Boston, Rose Kennedy, 89 years old, was ready to campaign once again. The last of her sons was about to declare his candidacy for president. Questions about Chappaquiddick would have to be met. The constant threat of assassination would have to be endured.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer: I remember watching Teddy Kennedy when he made his announcement speech at Faneuil Hall when he ran for president in 1980 and it just seemed, as you watched him, that the weight of his brothers’ legacy was on his shoulders and that he was only a human being, but that they were expecting him to be Jack and Bobby altogether. And I think he knew that, that very day, that there’s no way he could be that. No one could.
Edward M. Kennedy (archival): Today, I speak to all citizens of America, but I wanted to speak to you from home, here in Boston….
Narrator: When Kennedy announced, he led 2-1 in the polls, but he quickly fell behind President Carter and never regained the lead. Chappaquiddick had not been forgotten, after all. Times had changed. The country was moving away from his kind of liberalism. Kennedy seemed unable to articulate just what it was he wanted to do as president. In the end, he lost 24 of the 34 primaries he entered.
At the Democratic Convention in August, he withdrew his candidacy, but in his hour of defeat, he spoke with an eloquence that banished, for a moment, all the shadows on the Kennedy legend. It would be the speech of his life, evoking what brothers had come to mean to many Americans of their generation.
Edward M. Kennedy (archival): And some day, long after this convention, long after the signs come down and the crowds stop cheering and the bands stop playing, may it be said of our campaign that we kept the faith. May it be said of our party, in 1980, that we found our faith again.
And may it be said of us, both in dark passages and in bright days — in the words of Tennyson that my brothers quoted and loved and that have special meaning for me now: I am a part of all that I have met / Too much is taken, much abides / That which we are, we are / One equal temper of heroic hearts, strong in will / To strive / To seek, to find and not to yield.
For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.
Narrator: Other Kennedys would share the dream, take their chances in public life, but that evening in Madison Square Garden, the quest for the presidency had finally come to an end for the sons of Joseph P. Kennedy. Their father had once been willing to pay any price for power. He could never have imagined how high that price would be.