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.
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.”
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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.