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.
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 and pioneering woman in Congress), 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 admiration 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.”
Describing the visit to friend and aide Pat Hillings, Nixon exclaimed, “Isn’t this something?” Of course, in that era, many men in Congress simply had a problem dealing with, even accepting, any female colleague, especially a crusading liberal like Helen Douglas. The far-left Democrat, Representative Vito Marcantonio, also backed Nixon over Douglas.
It is uncertain whether this gift marked the elder Kennedy’s only contribution to the Nixon cause. Nixon aide Bill Arnold deposited the thousand-dollar check into the campaign account, but neither it nor any further Joseph P. Kennedy donation would be listed in financial records of the campaign. These records show, however—as I discovered in researching my book—that another of Joe’s sons, Robert F. Kennedy, then attending law school at the University of Virginia, contributed an unspecified sum.
Decades later, in his memoirs, longtime Massachusetts congressman Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill claimed that Joe Kennedy once told him that he had contributed $150,000 to Nixon’s campaign in 1950, “because he believed she [Douglas] was a Communist.” In the same conversation, Kennedy reportedly said he donated nearly the same amount not much earlier to George Smathers’ crusade to defeat Claude Pepper in a notorious Florida race for the Senate.
Speaking to a group of students at Harvard three days after the election that autumn, Congressman Kennedy remarked that he was “personally very happy” that Nixon had defeated Helen Douglas. He reportedly explained that Douglas was “not the sort of person I like working with on committees,” but he did not make clear whether this was because of her manner, her politics, or her gender. On November 14, Kennedy wrote his friend Paul Fay, “I was glad to…see Nixon win by a big vote,” and he predicted that the winner would go far in national GOP politics, for he was “an outstanding guy.”
In 1956, on a visit to California—and looking ahead to a presidential race—Senator John F. Kennedy admitted to Paul Ziffren, now one of the state’s Democratic leaders, that he had supported Nixon in the 1950 race. He apparently wanted to “come clean” and “clear the decks,” according to Ziffren’s wife, Mickey.
Then, in 1960, Helen Douglas went to Wisconsin to campaign in the presidential primary on behalf of Hubert Humphrey (who had stumped for her in 1950). He was facing John F. Kennedy. That fall, Kennedy’s opponent was Richard Nixon, and Douglas felt compelled to endorse the Democrat. Kennedy again admitted that he had supported Nixon against Douglas, calling it “the biggest damnfool mistake I ever made.”
Greg Mitchell’s Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady was recently published in a new print edition and for the first time as an ebook. His other books on great American campaigns include ebooks on the 2008 and 2012 campaigns for president and The Campaign of the Century (Upton Sinclair’s epic race in 1934).