Kennedy and Me (Pt. 1)

Choosing the topic of this article was easy for me, because it's a personal story. No, it's not your usual "Kennedy and me" tale. I never even shook hands with John F. Kennedy. But his presidential saga, tragic assassination and evolutionary image coincided with my coming of age, influenced the career path I chose and defined the political world I analyze for a living.

Kennedy is bound up with the memories of my youth. When I think of Kennedy, I think of my devout Roman Catholic parents. My father was exactly JFK's age and a fellow World War II veteran, while my mother was only a few years older than Jackie, with Caroline and John-John the image of my younger family members. I visualize my Catholic school, the priests and the nuns, my lay teachers and classmates, and a time distant and yet near. As a person piles up the years, writing about the past has an irresistible allure as powerful sentiment and a yearning for what once was become a part of many evenings.

Born in 1952 and raised in the military town of Norfolk, VA, I had one of those idyllic white middle-class childhoods of the 1950s, sheltered from controversy in a segregated post-war project neighborhood on a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, with a Catholic school nearby. Because I was but a youngster, I have not a single recollection of President Eisenhower, and I doubt I even knew he was president. But with the onset of a new decade, things began to change. Kennedy's "New Energy for the '60s" wasn't just a slogan.

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I recall first becoming aware of JFK at the age of seven in the spring of 1960. Even my second grade class at St. Pius X parochial school felt the excitement of the first serious Roman Catholic candidacy for president since Al Smith (D) in 1928. At least in the region I called home, the South, there was more than a little prejudice about "Papists." When we visited a rural, heavily Baptist part of Virginia every summer, I was told not to bring up my religion. Maybe the inhospitable climate that Catholic children sensed generated a natural tribalism that caused us to cheer on a co-religionist. After all, Kennedy received 78 percent of the Catholic vote in November, according to Gallup. Nixon got 62 percent of Protestants. More than race, gender or region, religion explained the election results. Catholics were traditionally Democratic, and early skepticism that Kennedy could actually win the party nomination had melted away after JFK's 61 percent primary victory in heavily Protestant West Virginia on May 10, 1960.

My father believed deeply in civic participation, partly because of his study of history and his recent experiences in Europe during the war. Other than casting a ballot for his former Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, in 1952, Dad had voted straight Democratic. His Uncle Joe, an Italian immigrant who was befriended by the Democratic machine in New York after his arrival at Ellis Island, actually told my father that he would be struck dead by lightning if he ever voted Republican. Dad said he listened carefully to the weather reports in November 1952 and decided it was safe to cast a ballot for Ike - but he never told Uncle Joe.

Despite that apostasy, the Kennedy campaign was right up Dad's alley, and not just because of religion. A large part of JFK's public biography was centered on PT-109, Kennedy's boat that was sunk in the Pacific by the Japanese during World War II. Kennedy's efforts to save his crew won him plaudits and medals. Just 15 years removed from the war, military service was an expected part of the resume of most serious candidates. As a federal employee working for the Department of the Navy, Dad was forbidden from participating in overt partisanship - he was "Hatched," as the term of the day went, a reference to the Hatch Act (since modified) preventing federal workers from becoming foot-soldiers for the parties. But that didn't stop him from tutoring me.

An early political education

In an era when most families ate supper together in the dining room, the topic at the table would often be current events. Dad subscribed to several newspapers and magazines, and with his and Mom's help, I got into the habit of looking at the news rather early in life. I kept hearing about John F. Kennedy, and I knew he was our candidate. Dad took me to the local Democratic headquarters which was well stocked with Kennedy literature and bumper stickers. I loaded up, and took some to school, with a Kennedy sticker emblazoned on my book bag. And wouldn't you know it? I was severely reprimanded for this by the priest, and had to collect the pamphlets and strip off the Kennedy sticker from my own satchel. As it turned out, I had what must have been the only Republican Catholic priest in the area. A native of Mississippi, Father Francis Xavier Toner - a wonderful man in other respects - would have none of this Kennedy business. He was a Nixon man (and more incredibly, an avid Goldwater backer in 1964). It was my first real understanding that politics makes for strange bedfellows, and that not everyone is going to agree on this controversial subject even when they had a lot in common.

I was not to be denied, and so I took the Kennedy literature ejected from my school and went door to door in my neighborhood. The reception was mainly good because most people on my street were Catholic and others considered it irresistibly cute that a boy of my age was doing this. Basking in public approval for the first time, I was hooked. This was despite the hostile reaction of one woman, who slammed the door in my face after making clear her view of Catholicism.

Every day I searched for the news article about the presidential campaign and slowly read it. My parents and I watched most of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles when Kennedy was nominated in July. It was hard not to watch, since all three networks carried gavel to gavel coverage and thus nothing else was on TV in this pre-cable era. Still, I was transfixed by the spectacle of adults marching around in silly hats and pumping placards while bands played and the crowd roared. I focused only on Kennedy, and paid no attention to the other candidates. When I first saw the "Kennedy-Johnson" signs, I thought the hyphenated contraption might be JFK's full name, rather than a ticket that included Lyndon Johnson. I couldn't have understood much that Kennedy said in his acceptance speech, but I liked the way he said it.

Later that summer we watched snippets of the Republican National Convention. Just snippets. Richard Nixon was not a favorite in my household. I first learned the meaning of "SOB" after Dad applied the term to Nixon. I've since come to appreciate some of Nixon's accomplishments as president, despite Watergate, but it took a long time to shake off familial dogma about the original SOB in my life.

Other memories from that fall still resonate. I don't recall if I watched all four of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, but I certainly remember the first. That was a big deal, unprecedented in American history. We discussed it in class, and I sat with my parents in the den, where the old giant black-and-white Zenith TV was located. Just like the convention, the debate was "road-blocked" on all stations simultaneously. You could have heard a pin drop in and out of the house. No one was outside, few were stirring inside. The audience figures were through the roof. Most anecdotal evidence suggested that Americans who saw the debate on TV thought Kennedy had won. He was tanned and assertive, more than holding his own against Nixon, who had been ill and hadn't worn a presidential-looking suit or prepared with professional makeup to hide his pale, sallow looks. It is often reported that Nixon won the debate among those who listened on radio, and that may well be true. But only one such study was ever done, and it was plagued with methodological problems.

JFK comes to Norfolk

My indelible memory of the 1960 campaign didn't come from TV, however. In the mistaken belief that Kennedy had a chance to carry Virginia - he lost it 52% to 47% - JFK visited Norfolk on Nov. 4, 1960. This was just four days before the election, and we couldn't believe our good fortune. Even better, JFK's motorcade drove within a block of my school. My mother, who worked at the school, took me over to see the drive-by. I can still recall the fleeting image of Kennedy sitting on the back of an open-top convertible, waving to us on the side of Little Creek Road, a major thoroughfare leading from the Norfolk Naval Base to downtown. There was a police escort, but essentially no one around the presidential candidate. After the commotion passed, I turned to my Mom and said something we recalled on Nov. 22, 1963: "Where were his guards?" I meant Secret Service agents, of course, but in those days, incredibly, Secret Service agents were not assigned until the night of the election after a candidate had become president-elect. (The Secret Service began officially protecting Kennedy in the wee hours of Nov. 8, 1960, when it became likely that he was the next president; they moved en masse to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, MA, where Kennedy was awaiting further returns.) Anyone could have taken a potshot at the leading presidential candidate that day in Norfolk or any day of the campaign. JFK and his fellow candidates were sitting ducks, so terribly vulnerable. It was a tragedy waiting to happen. It was the practice of the day, even though it made no sense, given our long national history of violence in politics.

Shortly after the street sighting of JFK, my dad took me to the Kennedy rally at Granby High School, not far from my home and just yards from the Catholic high school I would attend in a few years' time. To a small boy, the crowd seemed gigantic, and the atmosphere was undeniably electric. All the local political pooh-bahs were there, and the cheers were constant and deafening. I cannot recall a thing Kennedy said, though my father later recounted that Kennedy invoked Virginia's Thomas Jefferson and suggested, in essence, that he knew Vice President Nixon, Nixon was a friend of his, and Nixon was no Thomas Jefferson.

Many years later, I learned that a friend and future fellow graduate of the University of Virginia, John Charles Thomas, was at the rally and actually got to speak with Kennedy and shake his hand. "I sure hope you win," said Thomas. "I sure hope I win, too, young man," answered Kennedy to a 10-year-old who would one day become Virginia's first African-American justice on the state Supreme Court at the age of 32. Thomas' memory is that the crowd was segregated, with blacks told to congregate separately around back of the school; this was just a year after the fall of the vicious Massive Resistance doctrine that had closed all public schools in Norfolk to prevent token desegregation. Racial tensions were high, but Kennedy depended on the black vote; blacks were not as monolithically Democratic then as they would become in the wake of JFK's assassination and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Instead of over 90 percent of the vote, JFK received the ballots of around 70% of blacks nationwide - but that margin probably made the difference in an election decided by less than one vote per precinct.

Election and inauguration

I could hardly wait for Election Day. The Gallup Poll did not fully reveal the squeaker that was to come, so most observers expected a Kennedy victory. (The final two Gallup samplings just before the election were both in Kennedy's favor, but just barely, 49 percent to 45 percent, then 49 percent to 48 percent.) On election night, my family watched Chet Huntley and David Brinkley of NBC. There were no "remote clickers" in those days, so you tended to stay with one channel to avoid the herculean effort of rising from an easy chair to turn the TV knob. The early returns, mainly from the friendly Northeast and some loyal Democratic Southern states, were heavily in Kennedy's direction. It looked deceptively like a decisive margin. That's certainly what I thought as I was coaxed to bed at about 9:30 pm. Instead, of course, there was an all-night, see-saw battle that would yield an infinitesimal Kennedy margin of 118,574 votes out of 70 million cast. (The final Electoral College vote was wider, 303 to 219.)

When I awoke at about 6:30 a.m. to get ready for school, Dad told me the race was still undecided but he thought it was leaning Kennedy's way. That was good enough for me; when you're eight, parents are pretty much infallible on the big things. I can't remember a day when my classmates and I were so excited. All of the talk on the school bus and in the classroom was about the election of the first Catholic president. One of my chums seriously asked a nun if the Pope would still have his powers. She assured us that Pope John XXIII remained in the saddle over in Vatican City, and was probably very pleased with the news from America. Following the election, in many Catholic homes, a photo of Kennedy was placed right next to the Pope's.

Actually, there was one other school day with about as much exhilaration: Jan. 20, 1961. Dad had mentioned the possibility we might actually travel to Washington, D.C., to see the ceremony, but heavy snow in and around D.C. on Jan. 19 eliminated that possibility. "We'll go up for the next inauguration after Kennedy is reelected," he promised. We always regretted not making the trip; that missed opportunity has spurred me to go personally to nine inaugurations since.

This was a time before television was a regular part of the classroom set-up, but a creaky 1950s-style "cathode ray" tube was wheeled into my class for the Kennedy swearing-in. The reception was awful, and the antenna didn't help much, but through the buzz and fuzz, we heard JFK's inaugural address. The hush in the room was testimony to our concentration. We didn't truly comprehend what the new president had said, but like everyone else, we knew he'd done a fine job. We didn't get to watch the parade, much to our dismay, and it was hard to concentrate on diagramming sentences after living history had intruded.

I shot home after school to grab the evening paper - yes, we had a fresh home-delivered newspaper on the porch in both morning and evening, Monday through Saturday (morning only on Sunday). I read the inaugural address over and over. I had key parts memorized in no time. The next day I was disappointed to discover that my friends had done the very same thing, so no one was impressed with my achievement. That speech has lingered in my memory, no doubt due to repeated viewings over the decades, and I can still recite large portions of it. Other than Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, no presidential swearing-in speech has ever had such an effect on Americans. We realized we had seen and heard something very special. Every four years, I show it to my classes just before Kennedy's successor delivers his own.

This article was first published at Sabato's Crystal Ball.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and is a regular contributor on Fox News.

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