Unlike some of my commentariat peers, I do not have a particularly interesting John F. Kennedy assassination story to relate as the fiftieth anniversary approaches. I was in seventh grade at the time and experienced the immediate aftermath on TV, like so many others, and watched Jack Ruby slay Oswald live as it happened.
A few years later, in high school, I became an early “JFK conspiracy buff,” then outgrew it, although I’ve always enjoyed following the rise and fall of various theories. I’ve never met a Kennedy but I did have one remarkable second-hand experience involving John F. Kennedy, Jr.
You may recall his short-lived magazine George—an attempt at drawing more youngish people to politics and social issues via a glossy magazine with plenty of celebs and pizzazz. It died pretty much when he did, in that plane crash. But in one issue he accepted for publication—which I found surprising—an excerpt from my new book, Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady, on the notorious 1950 Senate contest in California between Representative Richard M. Nixon and Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas. Surprising, because his father played a minor but disreputable role in that race, which I outlined in the excerpt. Here’s the gist of it.
One summer day in 1950 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 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.