John Fitzgerald Kennedy walked into our WNAC-TV studio in Boston on Sunday, March 13, 1960 with a smile and stride of a young man with supreme confidence. For the next thirty minutes he would be the single guest on our weekly news-makers show, “The Yankee Camera.” The New Hampshire Presidential Primary was only a week away and he wanted to do well to show any doubters that he could beat the expected Republican candidate, Richard Nixon. Kennedy was waging an all-out campaign using the family’s wealth and connections to overcome accusations that he was, among other things, “soft on communism” and as a Roman Catholic would be taking orders from Rome. His answers to my questions were brief, bright and right on the mark. He made a very good impression. He knew how to use television which, of course, he proved later in the famed Chicago appearance with Nixon. It’s what happened after the interview that made this moment memorable. When the show ended Kennedy rose from his chair and walked the studio to shake hands with every camera-man, floor director and sound engineer and then up into the booth to shake hands with the director and his crew. As we escorted him to the lobby, our phone operator signaled me that I had a call and added, “I think you better take this one right away. It’s Joe Kennedy!” “Oh! God!,” I thought, “What did I do wrong?”. Back in my office, picking up the phone I said, “Hello, this is RoyLeonard.” On the other end of the line I heard, “Hi, Roy. this is Joe Kennedy. I just want to thank you for being so nice to my son.” With a sigh of relief, the conversation continued for about two minutes then we said our goodbyes. That family sure knew how to play the political game.
For the curious, Kennedy went on to win the New Hampshire primary with 43,371 votes, more than twice the previous record set by Democratic winner Estes Kefauver in 1956. A month later he went on to Minnesota and beat Hubert Humphrey in his own Primary 478,901 votes to 341,463. In the general election, Kenndy was elected (over Richard Nixon) by only 112,827 votes or 0.17% of the popular vote, and giving him a victory of 303 t0 219 in the Electoral College.
As a newsman you can’t let personal beliefs influence your coverage of a story and I did my best during the campaign, but my wife, an Irish/Catholic Democrat, went all out running a couple of those famous “teas for Kennedy”, pounding on neighbors doors, licking stamps and to my great surprise buying two tickets to a $100 a plate dinner at a big Boston Hotel. As the handler of the family’s finances, Sheila was extremely frugal and when I asked, “How can we afford it?” her answer was “You can brown-bag your lunch for a couple of months.” JFK didn’t make the big night, but his mother Rose did. She put on quite a show, telling the audience how she was trying to get her son to speak slowly until people got used to his Boston accent. She also mentioned the three guiding principals she tried to instill in all her children; self-improvement, discipline and responsability. “Jack has them all,” she said.
Now to the final and saddest memory which takes place on November 22, 1963. I had finished the Noon News on TV and was on my way home just 15 miles west of Boston, when the flash came over the radio that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. There was a message for me when I got to the house to grab some clothes for a few days and get to Hyannis Port as soon as possible. I would be feeding news updates from the Kennedy home as long as it would be necessary.
My job was to keep track of the comings and goings from the Kennedy compound. Not a difficult job but tedious at times. Late Saturday the President’s mother, Rose was still in Hyannis Port and we had no idea when she might leave for Washington, so it meant another day on the Cape. I set my alarm for early Sunday morning, planning to go to early Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church and be free all day to file reports. The alter in this more than 100 year old church is U-shaped and I went up the center aisle to receive communion. As I knelt there I glanced to my left and a shudder went through my body when I saw Rose Kennedy, alone at the communion rail, with a man, who I presumed to be Secret Service, standing discreetly behind her. I nearly lost it and wondered how I was going to get through the rest of the day. Two more reports that morning and I was out of there. On the way home all I could think about was this courageous women who now had lost two sons and a daughter and put up with a philandering husband (then an invalid) and whose faith continued to give her the strength to carry on. Rose Kennedy was an extraordinary human being. She was once quoted as saying, “Wasn’t there a book about Michelangelo called, The Agony and the Ecstasy? That’s what my life has been like.” She died at the age of 104 in 1995.
It may have been fifty years ago, but the events of November 22, 1963 are indelibly etched in my mind. A friend told me later, it was the first time he had seen his father cry. It seems as if every American was touched in someway.
The Chicago Tribune summed it up well in an editorial this Thursday (11/21) that recalled Kennedy’s legacy:
He endured in memory not only as a president but as a symbol of a time of comparative unity, hope and confidence. His assassination was a tragedy, but it was also a harbinger. What lay ahead, as Americans now know, was an unraveling of our civic fabric, which has not been and may never be restored.
Filed under: Opinion