Sixty-two years ago this summer, a young congressman, who needed no introduction or invitation, visited the Capitol Hill office of another young representative in Washington, DC. Like Richard Nixon of California, John F. Kennedy had come to Congress three and a half years earlier and had served on the Education and Labor Committee. Their offices were not far apart in the back of the House Office Building, an area known as the attic, and they maintained cordial relations.
Each recognized that the other was a hot prospect in his party. Though both were ex-Navy men (the sinking of Kennedy’s PT boat in 1943 had occurred not far from where Nixon was stationed in the South Pacific), the two had little of substance in common socially or culturally. Nixon both envied and resented Kennedy’s wealth and connections.
Politically, however, they were not continents apart. They agreed, for example, on the threat of communism. Kennedy had voted to continue funding the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and favored the latest version of the Mundt-Nixon internal-security bill. Like Nixon, he strongly hinted that Truman’s policy of vacillation had led to “losing” China and inviting Communist advances in Korea. He favored aid to Franco’s Spain and vast increases in the Pentagon budget.
Both congressmen felt that organized labor had grown too powerful. Earlier that year, upon receiving an honorary degree at Notre Dame, Kennedy had warned of the “ever expanding power of the Federal government” and “putting all major problems” into the all-absorbing hands of the great Leviathan the state. Each man craved higher office, but Nixon’s ambition burned even brighter than Kennedy’s, if that was possible.
Like Nixon, Kennedy had ambivalent feelings about Joseph McCarthy. His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, the former ambassador to Great Britain, had placed him in a difficult position by striking up a close relationship with the Roman Catholic senator from Wisconsin. Always more conservative than his son, Joe Kennedy had turned rabidly anti-Communist, donating money to McCarthy for his investigations and introducing the senator to such friends as Francis Cardinal Spellman. Shortly after the California primary, McCarthy flew to Cape Cod for a weekend at the Kennedy compound. Jack Kennedy knew McCarthy well; his sister Pat even dated him. Jack liked Joe personally but distrusted him politically.
On his visit to Nixon’s office, Kennedy presented his colleague with a personal check from his father for $1,000. It was for Nixon’s campaign to defeat Kennedy’s fellow Democratic congressmember Helen Gahagan Douglas of Los Angeles (a former stage and film actress, now strong liberal activist), in a closely watched US Senate contest in California. Nixon and Douglas had recently easily won their June primaries out there and the race was then considered a toss-up.
A former movie executive, Joseph Kennedy was no stranger to California politics, and despised the brand of liberal activism embraced by Hollywood actors and writers. He had no use for Helen Douglas and a great deal of adiniration for Richard Nixon. “Dick, I know you’re in for a pretty rough campaign,” Kennedy observed, “and my father wanted to help out.” But what did the young Kennedy think? “I obviously can’t endorse you,” he explained, “but it isn’t going to break my heart if you can turn the Senate’s loss [that is, Helen Douglas] into Hollywood’s gain.”