About the blog

This is an occasional blog with posts about the books I’ve written or I’m planning to write and the ones I’m reading these days—mostly books of social, cultural, and political history. Sometimes also about writings on music—a big interest of mine. I’m also planning to use it to cross-reference or archive (and perhaps further comment on), books I’ve reviewed or authors I’ve worked with.



Connections
Sunday
Jan022011

Connecticut’s Contribution to JFK’s 1960 Victory

 In histories of the John F. Kennedy campaigns and presidency much attention has been given to Kennedy’s loyal lieutenants: the Irish-Catholic Massachusetts men around him like Dave Powers, Ken O’Donnell and Larry O’Brien who formed a cadre of supporters and political operatives that followed through for him through thick and thin. They and members of his personal family provided the old-school savvy and organizational know-how for his political ambitions—allowing him to present a public picture of himself as a reformer rather than a boss; as a socially and intellectually sophisticated Harvard boy rather than just another member of Boston’s Irish Mafia.

     With perhaps the notable exception of Teddy White’s The Making of the President 1960, little attention has been paid, on the other hand, to the vital role played in Kennedy’s ascension to power by John Bailey and Abraham Ribicoff, the duo of political virtuosos from neighboring Connecticut whose symbiotic relationship presents—with a single ethnic difference—a strikingly similar parallel to that between JFK and his closest political advisors.

      In 1960, many pundits asked whether the nation would ever really elect a Catholic and an Irishman to the presidency. In 1954 in Connecticut, similar questions had been asked about whether this arch Yankee state would ever elect an ethnically Polish Jew Governor. In 1954 Ribicoff had overcome all doubts, and blunted a whispering campaign of anti-Semitism, with a magnificent improvised speech—which became known as the “American Dream” speech. In it, Ribicoff talked about how, as a boy, he would “walk through fields heavy with the smell of summer growth, lie under a tree and dream . . . that any boy, through hard work, honesty and integrity, could aspire to any position in American life and reach any heights regardless of race, creed or color." This same kind of appeal provided John F. Kennedy a perfect model for how to deal with the Catholicism question six years later . . . . and for that matter, worked on a much grander scale a few years later for Martin Luther King in his famous “I Have a Dream” address during the historic 1963 march on Washington.

      Ribicoff went on to a stellar career as governor of Connecticut, becoming the first one to tackle highway safety, and eliminating the entire level of county government throughout the state. (Can you imagine? A Democrat who abolishes thousands of government positions! Of course it helped that until that moment Republicans had dominated on a local level, so the abolition actually helped to entrench the new Democratic Party order in the state, a benefit that convinced Bailey to go along with the reform.)

      Ribicoff, Bailey and Kennedy developed a mutually beneficial network of political connections during the 1940s and 50s that worked on both a regional New England and national level. JFK and Ribicoff both arrived in Washington as Democratic congressmen in the late 1940s; JFK was keynoter for the 1954 Connecticut Democratic Convention at which Ribicoff was nominated for Governor, and in 1956 Ribicoff was invited by then Senator Kennedy to be the keynoter at the Massachusetts Democratic Convention in Worcester—where Abe, with Kennedy’s permission, floated a test balloon by proposing that JFK become Adlai Stevenson’s Vice-Presidential nominee at the National Convention coming up that summer. Bailey, meanwhile, who had been State chairman of the Young Democrats in the 1930s and had attended every Democratic national convention since, worked behind the scenes in the party to further the idea of JFK as first vice-presidential, and later presidential timber.

      In 1956, Ribicoff and Bailey led the effort to make Kennedy Stevenson’s running mate, an effort that failed—thank goodness, as they both came to believe later, because otherwise when Stevenson lost the election by a landslide to Eisenhower, Kennedy’s being a Catholic would have been blamed for the margin of defeat and that would have doomed him in 1960. The attention given to the JFK for VP campaign really gave a jump start to the Kennedy for President movement. And, indeed, it also began to test the idea that a Catholic might actually one day become president, despite the drubbing that Al Smith had taken for precisely that reason back in the 1920s. Kennedy’s staff, headed by Ted Sorenson, decided to tackle the issue head-on, doing a lot of statistical research about the advantages to a national presidential ticket of having a Catholic on the ticket. This report, drafted by Sorenson, was put out under John Bailey’s signature and became known as the Bailey Report.

      The real push for Kennedy came from the Bailey-Ribicoff team starting in 1959, as Kennedy started a serious campaign for the presidency, and Bailey, with his experience—active at all Democratic National Conventions from 1932 on, unprecedented success in Connecticut running liberal candidates like Chester Bowles and Ribicoff and in 1958 a Democratic sweep including Thomas Dodd as Senator. Bailey also played a crucial role in convincing Chester Bowles to sign on publicly as a supporter of Kennedy in 1959: Bowles was the first of the nationally recognized liberal spokespeople to come out for Kennedy (instead of Stevenson or Humphrey), and with JFK’s support from conservative Southerners, questionable record on McCarthyism and the suspicion with which his father was regarded by loyal Rooseveltians, that gave him instant valuable credibility with liberals across the country. With this kind of clever behind-the scenes maneuvering to bring national figures onto the Kennedy bandwagon, it’s no wonder that Bailey was picked as campaign co-chair, along with Bobby Kennedy.

       As a journalist, Teddy White was skeptical JFK could get the nomination; he didn’t believe JFK would get the New York delegates, for one thing, since the Democratic machine in New York City run by Carmine DeSapio and Michael Prendergast was more attuned to an oldstyle backslapper like Lyndon Johnson rather than the idealistic reformer JFK was running as, and the reform wing represented by Eleanor Roosevelt and Herbert Lehman refused to give up their hope to have Stevenson for yet a third time. This explains the marveling apparent in White’s book at Bailey’s political coup in New York. Instead of approaching the hopelessly fractured Democratic power center in New York City, Bailey lined up firm commitments from Democratic mayors upstate in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, pointing out the disaster Stevenson had been for local candidates, but how a Catholic like JFK could bring out extra votes for the “downticket” races. A similar argument was used effectively with Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago.

The caption above reads: "On the day of her graduation from Trinity College in Washington in 1958, Barbara Bailey with her proud father and Senator John F. Kennedy." Barbara Bailey Kennelly, Bailey's daughter, later became a CT congresswoman and ran unsuccessfully for governor, losing to John Rowland.       In fact, the Kennedy win in 1960 was extremely close. It was very much an East Coast phenomenon, with Texas and enough of the Old South to put him over.  The Bailey Rerport proved prophetic. It had talked about fourteen states where the population included enough Catholic voters to materially affect the outcome of the election in favor of a Catholic candidate, listed in order of the states with the highest proportion of Catholics: New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, California, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, Maryland, Montana. Together accounted for all but 7 of the electoral votes needed to become President. In the end result, JFK took all but four of these. Only three of these, however—Michigan, Minnesota, and Illinois—were not on the East Coast, and of course there’s still some dispute about how fair the election there was.

      Two anecdotes from John Bailey about himself and Ribicoff I think perfectly describe the differences between them and the way they complemented each other. First, on Ribicoff: Bailey describes a meeting in Augusta, Maine, at very beginning of the campaign for President—November, 1959—where early supporters were thrashing out issues up a united consensus for Kennedy among New England politician, issues like incipient support in northern New England for the candidacy of Missouri Senator Stuart Symington. After the meeting broke up at two-thirty or so in the morning, it was raining, says Bailey, “as only it can rain in New England in November.” Bailey & Ribicoff got on the plane with Kennedy to fly back to Hyannisport for a follow-up post-mortem. Ribicoff, says Bailey, “was a meticulous dresser . . .When we got off that plane at the Hyannis Airport, the rain was not coming down, the rain was going sideways. Abe got off that plane first, got down and stepped into a puddle of water over the top of his shoes, his beautiful grey fedora blew off into another puddle! He turned to me and said: ‘What am I doing here?’ I said: “Well, you wanted to be on the campaign trail!” 

     And here’s Bailey’s telling story about himself: “One time we were out in North Dakota, it was cold, and I was struggling with briefcases and suitcases. Kennedy turned to me and said, ‘You know, you’ve been in this political business a long time . . . but you haven’t progressed very far; you are still carrying the bags for the candidate.’ I said: ‘Yes, but when I used to carry bags of the candidate who was running for alderman, that was on thing. Now I’m carrying the bags for a man who’s running for President.’”

    Though Bailey and Ribicoff were with Kennedy early, they were not part of the “inner circle”; both were older than Kennedy, Bailey by more than a dozen years, Ribicoff by seven; they had built their own base; they “loaned” it to Kennedy and Kennedy recognized this by spending some of the most critical hours of the 1960 campaign in Connecticut, a state which he was bound to carry whether he made a campaign appearance there or not.

    That trip was made famous by the following passage in Teddy White’s The Making of the President, 1960:

     “It was 12:30 in the morning of Sunday, November 6th, when John F. Kennedy finally returned home to New England for the last effort of his campaign.

      “For many years John Bailey of Connecticut had been waiting for this day. . . . He and Ribicoff had assured Kennedy that their state . . . was going to be safe—but they wanted their one day of show, too.

      “Now, after midnight, in the rain at the Bridgeport airport their day began; a high-school band blared through the night with its brass and its drums, the drum majorettes twirled their batons in the arc lights. From the airport to Waterbury, where Kennedy was to rest that night, is only twenty-seven miles; yet it was to take two hours to drive that twenty-seven miles. Every child, every man, every woman, every grandmother and grandfather on whom Bailey and his organization  had a string of loyalty, was there in the dmp to greet the returning hero. Up the Naugatuck Valley’s old Route 8 they went—through Shelton, Derby, Ansonia, Seymour, Beacon Falls, Naugatuck, Union City, through all the craftsmens’ villages of this seed bed of American technology. There at every crossroads, at midnight and at one and at two in the morning, they were waiting with torchlights and red flares to cheer and yell “We love you, Jack.” Outside every fire station on the route, the Bailey men had lined the fire engines, their red beacons and red winkers flashing and revolving in salute in the night. Down from the bridges and overpasses hung the signs, the placards, the banners. Everywhere he must stop and make the speech. (“This is an important election. Connecticut is important. This is a great country but it can be greater. This country must move again.”) And back in the buses, the correspondents and the staff, too tired to care any longer, slept or sang, and waited to be at the hotel.

      “He arrived at the Roger Smith Hotel in Waterbury . . . at three o’clock in the morning, and 30,000 people waited on the old New England green before the hotel to yell for him. He was tired; it was three o’clock in the morning; but they wanted him. So he climbed out on the balcony of the hotel, with the spotlights illuminating him from below, and from high on the balcony he spoke over the crowded green. . .  .”

      After a critical statement about his Republican opponents and some inspirational words from Thomas Paine and FDR, he "told them it was now well after three o’clock in the morning and that they must go to bed. He said he had promised their Mayor he would send them all home before three o-clock, and the crowd groaned 'no, Jack, no, Jack.' He let the Governor of Connecticut speak for a few minutes, but they demanded he come back, and again, silhouetted by the stark white lights on the balcony high above the throng, he returned. . .“

            He talked about the issue of freedom or slavery being the same today as it had been 100 years earlier at the start of the Civil War (here, he could have been referring either to civil rights or, given the Cold War nature of his campaign, the struggle between Communism and American-style Democracy; in a way, he was certainly referring to both. He then gave a quote from Abraham Lincoln about how we all knew there was a God and that God hates injustice, “We see a storm coming, and we know His hand is in it. But if He has a place and a part for me, I believe we are ready.

            “They cheered, they lingered on the green, calling him back until almost four in the morning, but he had to rest, for there were only forty-eight more hours on the road to election day and the Presidency, and he must have his three hours’ sleep.”

* * *

 It’s tempting to think that the Kennedy campaign, which was the first modern one that worked as much on image as it did on practical political calculation, had figured that the kind of crowds that Bailey and Ribicoff might be able to gather in Connecticut would create a kind of national “momentum” that could help propel Kennedy over the top in a final burst of enthusiasm at the end of he campaign. Apparently, however, Kennedy and his Connecticut organizers were themselves amazed at the nature of the welcome they got. In any event, they were not prepared to utilize it for any further political benefit, since, despite the mythical status that the Three A.M. Waterbury rally has since acquired, there exists no television footage of it at all.

 



Saturday
Nov202010

Impact of an Assassination

Jacqueline Kennedy takes flag after funeral of JFK, accompanied by Robert Kennedy. (JFK Library)“We are a bigger, a stronger, a better nation. I think we know more about what it is we have to be. I think we know somewhat more about how to be it.  . . .  Mary McGrory said to me that we’ll never laugh again. And I said, ‘Heavens, we’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.

—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in a television interview after the assassination of JFK

As I’ve traveled around promoting Dear Mrs. Kennedy I’ve noticed that it sometimes shares display space in bookstores with another new book of letters, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, edited by Steven R. Weisman. Moynihan, 36 years old at the time of JFK’s death, was an up-and-coming Assistant Secretary of Labor in his administration—by no means close to the President, but deeply influenced by him and his example. November 22, 1963—on this coming Monday it will be exactly forty-seven years ago—left him and his wife Liz “nearly inconsolable,” according to Weisman. The off-the-cuff remark made originally to his friend the newspaper columnist Mary McGrory—quoted above as it was repeated by Moynihan on a TV show shortly after—seems to sum up the depth of Moynihan’s feeling. Within weeks of the event, he and his wife stepped up their efforts to find a “summer and vacation home” in upstate New York—“something on a dirt road, in a location likely to remain permanently rural.” That the Moynihans sought this kind of refuge, in the same way that thousands of New York city residents looked for country homes after the World Trade Center & Pentagon bombings of 2001, underlines the oddly similar depth of national anguish provoked by the tragedy of November 22 and the attacks of September 11.

Moynihan’s distress was not an isolated response to the assassination among those who admired JFK and shared his aspirations to get the country “moving again.” Though only 14 at the time, I inherited my parents’ liberalism and social conscience and faith that somehow all of what we took for JFK’s ideals—including peace in the world and social justice at home—could and would be met. The early legislative successes of LBJ’s administration seemed to confirm this expectation—making the urban explosions and grisly realities of the Vietnam escalation all the more disconcerting . . . and bitter. Unlike over a million other citizens, including many my own age, in 1963 and 1964 it never occurred to me to write to Jacqueline Kennedy about my private reaction to the nation’s loss.

Others with more developed writing skills at the time did not hesitate. One of the chapters of my book with which I most closely identified was “Voices of the Young,” which I headed with an epigraph from Alistair Cooke describing the spirit of the country after the killing as “this deep feeling that our youth has been mocked, and the vigor of America for the moment paralyzed.”  Nonetheless most of the letters from students my age were either about re-dedication or efforts at memorializing the slain hero of the young. At the very end of the chapter I introduce the Moynihan quotation given above, as a preface to this letter to to Time magazine from college student Joseph Mackey III, forwarded to Jacqueline Kennedy:

 

Sir:

Although I am only twenty-one, I can hear wide-eyed grandchildren asking me to explain the events of November 22, 1963, and I feel old. But more dramatically my youth seemed to die when the assassin’s venom put an abrupt end to a certain intangible and sensitive vitality, inherent in space age enthusiasm, which was personified by John F. Kennedy in charm, health, intelligence, wit, unbounded conviction and style. Like Cinderella at one minute past midnight, should I respect my ideal images or reluctantly accept the present as my generation, my reality?

F. Joseph Mackey III

Glencoe, Illinois

 

Sixteen-year-old Bill Clinton shaking hands with JFK. (Arnie Sachs/Polaris)What happened to such aspiring young men as Moynihan and Joseph Mackey? Unsurprisingly, in the immediate years after the assassination, both men gravitated toward Bobby Kennedy. Joe Mackey, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at my book reading in Denver, credits Robert Kennedy with influencing him to leave business and go to law school. . . and to setting him on his current career as an assistant US attorney in Colorado.

Moynihan meanwhile, like many of Kennedy’s New Frontiersmen, continued for a year or so working in the administration of Lyndon Johnson before moving on, first embarking on a brief academic career in urban studies at Harvard/MIT while keeping his hand in politics by actively campaigning for RFK in 1968. Actually, Moynihan had misgivings about what he took as Bobby Kennedy’s leftward political lurch. Perhaps this was partly because he was being psychologically pummeled by many “lefties” in my own generation for a seemingly rightward drift . . . that seemed to end up being “confirmed” when he went to work for Richard Nixon in 1969.

Unlike many of his politically active New York intellectual friends, Moynihan did not, however, actually become a right-winger. In fact, during the Reagan and Clinton eras he drifted back to the mildly left of center position he had originally occupied as a 1950s Stevenson enthusiast-become-Kennedy acolyte (and perhaps never really left). In this, I think his original identification with John Fitzgerald Kennedy was crucial. JFK’s vision of “a bigger, a stronger, a better nation” may have been much too vague and dreamy for us younger would-be radicals of the mid-1960s. But the loss of a credible bread-and-butter politics has hurt the Democratic party badly: witness the results three weeks ago. Moynihan at least was consistently correct in insisting on cultivating the allegiance of the white working class while still appealing to the ideals of the educated liberals who have “made it.” Too bad we didn’t listen to him then; we better do so now.



Sunday
Nov072010

Dear Jackie, Dear Dick: Reverberations from the Election of 1960

Tomorrow, Monday November 8, 2010, is the 50th anniversary of the election of Senator John F. Kennedy over Vice President Richard Nixon. I’m fascinated by the parallels that election presents to our most recent presidential election in 2008. In both cases Americans overcame supposedly insurmountable prejudices to elect to the highest office first an Irish Catholic (the youngest man ever elected president of the USA), and later an African-American (only a few years older).  In both elections much was made of leadership being passed to a more forward-looking generation, one that could respond more nimbly to the changing conditions of the times and the world around us. Though 1960 was a much closer election than 2008 (more like that of 2000 in fact) the triumph of Kennedy, like that of Obama 48 years later, was often hailed as epoch-making.

Ensign John F. Kennedy, U.S. NavyYet unsurprisingly, both presidents quickly ran into trouble: JFK at the Bay of Pigs and at the Vienna conference with Khrushchev, then over the Eastern Bloc’s erection of the Berlin Wall. For Obama, whose initial appeal had rested largely on his principled opposition to the invasion of Iraq, the trouble came on the domestic economic front with the implosion of the worldwide financial system and the near bankruptcy of the American economy.

Because I see the recent Republican and “Tea Party” gains as a (hopefully temporary) triumph of cultural politics rather than as a logical electoral response to either economic or foreign policy setbacks, I’m most interested today in the cultural/sociological implications of 1960 and how they’ve played out in the years and decades since.

The way I see it, JFK’s victory was patched together via an alliance of Adlai Stevenson good government types, ethnics, and the still largely-solidly Democratic South, bolstered in urban areas outside the South by the African-American vote. JFK kept together the progressive-internationalist-egghead suburbanites and the big city working class Catholics of  Irish, Italian, and Polish background with a cleverly calibrated two-tier strategy that offered high-minded idealism for Stevensonians and the lunch-bucket appeal of the big city political machine for aspiring ethnics. When it came to the trickier divide between African-Americans and Southern Democrats, he talked publicly of his commitment to expanded civil rights in the South while privately reassuring his Southern Democratic allies that he would respect the “local” spheres of influence that made any such civil rights reform impossible.   

Lieutenant Commander Richard Nixon, U.S. NavyNixon’s task in the election was both simpler and more subtle, given hjs own reputation and the sociopolitical context in which he was running. His goal was to present a youthful version of the status quo, riding on the popularity and respect for Dwight Eisenhower while simultaneously establishing an independent identity as something other than Ike’s political attack dog. The disgrace of Joe McCarthy had turned the country off vitriolic anti-Communism of the sort Nixon had exploited a decade earlier; all his advisors concurred that he must present himself as dignified and statesmanlike, as far removed from his reputation for “slipperiness” and vitriol  as possible. This probably inescapable strategy, however, left Nixon hamstrung, unable to exploit the inevitable prejudices of the older Protestant majority against a callow , Irish-Catholic, Eaat Coast politician.

So Nixon went down to the narrowest of defeats, one that even Nixon himself characterized in his 1972 diary as probably good for the country: “It might have been that we would have continued the establishment types in office too long and would not have done the job we should have done as far as the country is concerned.”

As usual with Nixon, however, the apparent humility is immediately contradicted by a grandiose pretension: in this instance, by the claim that, if he had been elected in 1960, he would have “saved Cuba from Castro,” as well as the USA from the Vietnam debacle (no doubt with another one of those “secret plans” for ending the war he talked about during hits successful 1968 run.)

Confronted by JFK’s cool humor and stiff upper lip stoicism in 1960, Nixon buried his own seething resentments under a layer of dignity and apparent reasonableness. Maybe because he carried his native state of California in that election, he was confident of pursuing a similar strategy when running for Governor two years later. Something, however, snapped inside him when he lost that race: the pent-up private Nixon exploded with fury at the media which he believed had been “kicking him around” for more than a decade (just like the rich upper class kids aat Whittier College had made his life miserable).

From then on, Nixon gave free rein—among close associates, in private— a to the politics of resentment, all the while assiduously maintaining a dignified public pose as serene elder statesman. Nixon’s 1963 letter of condolence to Jacqueline Kennedy in response to JFK’s assassination is, thank goodness, largely free of the grandiosity with which he nursed his own sense of inferiority. At the same time he clearly tries to link himself directly to JFK:

Dear Jackie,

 “In this tragic hour, Pat and I want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you.

 “While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents I always cherish the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947. That friendship evidenced itself in many ways including the invitation we received to attend your wedding.

 “Nothing I could say now could add to the splendid tributes which have come from throughout the world.

 “But I want you to know that the nation will also be forever grateful for your service as First Lady. You bought to the White House charm, beauty and elegance as the official hostess of America, and the mystique of the young in art which was uniquely yours made an indelible impression on the American consciousness.

 “If in the days ahead we could be helpful in any way we shall be honored to be at your command.

                                                                          Sincerely,

                                                                             Dick Nixon”

Jackie Kennedy showed profound insight in her response to Nixon, reading him and his inevitable desire for another try at the Presidency with chilling accuracy: “I know how you must feel – . . . so closely missing the greatest prize – and now …the question comes up again”

In fact, according to Nixon’s 1972 diary entry, published in his 1978 memoir, the loss in the California governor’s race in 1962 probably saved him from defeat at the hands of LBJ in 1964 and set him up for a much more profitable campaign in 1968. As Chris Matthews has pointed out so elegantly in his book, KENNEDY AND NIXON, the lesson Nixon learned most from the 1960 election was not to emulate JFK’s appeal to the nation’s higher aspirations, but to return to the low road he had perfected so well in the late 1940s and as Ike’s running mate. What with the civil war among the Democrats provoked by the Vietnam War, he was perfectly positioned to play the resentment card against all longhairs and radicals in the 1968 and 1972 elections.At the same time he also took a page from the Kennedy machine’s tendency to play political hardball no matter how personal and ruthless it got: in the Watergate crisis he would go the kennedy juggernaut one better, and proclaim as his “cover” the fact that he had done nothing different than what his rival Jack Kennedy had done.

For her part, Jacqueline Kenendy Onassis came to regret having ever giving permission to Dick Nixon to reprint in facsimile her January 1964 personal handwritten response to his condolence letter. 

Sunday
Oct312010

Tuckerman, Estabrook & Van Doren in Cornwall

A room in the old Executive Office Building next to the White House on January 8, 1964: it is stuffed with boxes of the condolence correspondence sent to Jacqueline Kennedy after the assassination of her husband. Nany Tuckerman, Jacqueline Kennedy’s White House Social Secretary, is at rear, and Pamela Turnure, her press secretary, is seated in front; between them are two of the many volunteers recruited to help with the massive effort of sorting and acknowledging. Photo by Robert Knudsen, The White House, courtesy Nancy Tuckerman. Some veterans of the Kennedy era joined me yesterday at the Cornwall town hall for a reading and book discussion about DEAR MRS. KENNEDY.

      Nancy Tuckerman, White House Social Secretary from June of 1963 until the end of the Kennedy administration, talked about trying to cope with the Secret Service & FBI demand—in the early days after November 22 when the condolence mail was pouring in at 35,000 to 40,000 a day—that every letter be opened and considered for what it might reveal about "a larger plot." Nancy is one of pluckiest, most unpretentious women I've met, and I can understand thoroughly why she and Jackie Kennedy got along so well, from their early days at Miss Porter's until Jackie's death in 1994.

     Bob Estabrook was Editorial Page Director at the WASHINGTON POST when JFK was elected, but ran afoul of Post publisher Phil Graham—a Kennedy intimate—when he wrote an editorial criticizing Kennedy's handling of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Graham was induced to send Estabrook to London as foreign correspondent in lieu of firing him outright, and that's where Bob was news of the assassination struck. Bob described the scene on the London tube the day after—stunned silence, open crying, impassioned common affection and a revival of the historic Anglo-American bond. Bob is 92 years old and still serves on the board that oversees THE LAKEVILLE JOURNAL, the rural weekly that Bob took over after he left the Post in the 1970s.

     Charles Van Doren, whose brush with fame in the 1950s took on a tragic dimension, read aloud with great emotion the letter he wrote to Mrs. Kennedy a few hours after he heard the news of the President's death—one of the early letters in the book, selected by Jay Mulvaney (my co-author) before he died.  Charles also described both his personal mood and the mood of the country in those hours . . . he feels strongly that the country has never really recovered.

    A surprise visitor to the Cornwall event was Sandi Jones, whose letter to Mrs. Kennedy I described in last week's blog post.

    Several friends who attended thought the event was "historic." It made me realize again the emotional chord that Kennedy's death still strikes in anyone over 50, and I found the occasion humbling. It was also pretty gratifying to see the town hall jam-packed. I have the sense that something is happening with this book that goes far beyond me.

Nancy Tuckerman receives a gift for Caroline or John-John from a foreign well-wisher. December 2, 1964. [Neg # 12-2-64, photo by F. L. Wolfe.]

Sunday
Oct242010

Seedling of Hope?

Seedling of Shelton's famous Lincoln SpruceA little over forty-six years ago, 13-year-old Sandi Jones wrote to Jacqueline Kennedy from Shelton, Connecticut, that she hoped the two blue spruce she had planted after November 22 as a memorial to President John F. Kennedy "will grow forever because your husband did not save America he saved the world from being blown to bits." She was inspired to plant these trees because a little down the road from the Jones Tree Farm where she grew up was a Norway spruce planted there by another local Shelton family on the day of Lincoln's assassination that still towered over the neighborhood.

     I  included Sandi's letter in my book, DEAR MRS. KENNEDY, and today I visited her and her 92-year-old dad Philip, the man who back in the late 1930s started the Christmas Tree Farm business on Jones Family property. The Jones Tree Farm has since grown into a booming pick-your-own fruit and pumpkin farm, winery and "Harvest Kitchen" business located on three separate parcels in Shelton. Sandi lives not too far away, north of Hartford and visits often. Her father Philip still lives on the property and his sons run the operation. Today, on an absolutely gorgeous autumn day with the sun shining through the orange-red-russet leaves, the crowds were milling around contentedly in picture perfect New England harmony.

     I already knew before I arrived that Sandi's wish that one of the Kennedy blue spruce would "grow forever" had not materialized. First of all, as a young kid, she couldn't believe her father's advice to plant the two seedlings far apart, instead planting them close enough to gain some comfort from each other's company. Of course, the stronger hogged the light and space of the other and crowded it out altogether. And some years later, when Sandi was off in college or just pursuing her adult life, the surviving Kennedy spruce succumbed to spruce gall.

     The nearby Lincoln spruce, however, soldiered on through all the years of the Vietnam War, the Iranian Revolution, the First and Second Iraq wars. Only two years ago in the spring of 2008, at the venerable age of 143, it was struck by a lightning bolt and killed.

      The dead Lincoln Spruce, about to be taken down.Before winter came the owner of the property, Todd Trautz, was forced to bring down the dead trunk to avoid damage to his own house. Today, on our way to the Written Words Bookstore for a signing, Sandi and I and my friend Jandi Hanna stopped by the stump of the Lincoln spruce to take some pictures and chat with the owners and local historian Ed Coffey (of nearby Monroe).

Sandi Jones beside the fallen trunk of the once tall Lincoln Spruce.     The great surprise? Well, the Lincoln spruce has a seedling, a small Norway spruce that sprung up in the lawn not far from where the old tree base now rest, and which Todd has transplanted to the back yard to keep it safe and growing for the future.

     During the reading at the bookstore that followed, meeting letter writer Brigid Kennedy and the daughter of letter writer Robert Cramer Shawnee Baldwin and listening to them read the heart-rending words of condolence sent to Jackie Kennedy almost a half-century ago—indeed meeting and exchanging brief words with nearly everyone who came to the reading, many of whom remembered vividly the evening almost exactly fifty years ago when presidential candidate John F. Kennedy's campaign entourage came steaming through Shelton and how CLOSE they had seen that man, from here to there, almost like you could reach out and touch him—I kept thinking back to that seedling.

      You can't kill a kid's hope or mankind's spirit.

 Brigid Kennedy, a distant cousin of JFK, read her letter of condolence to Jacqueline Kennedy today at the Written Words Bookstore in Shelton. That's me on the left and her husband, Charles, on the right.

 Standing with me is Shawnee Baldwin, the daughter of Robert Cramer, old friend and political associate of JFK, who read the letter her father had written to Mrs. Kennedy after the funeral in Washington. The Cramers' oldest son, Rob, born in Newport on the day of Jack and Jackie's wedding, was also their godchild.