JFK's L.A. Story

jfk at LA convention 1960
Welcome to a case of campaign coincidences.

Democrats hold their convention in Los Angeles this year for the first time since 1960, when they nominated the team of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson for the White House.

Then as now, the Democratic ticket broke bold ground on the diversity front thanks to a Northeastern senator. Kennedy of Massachusetts was elected the nation's first Roman Catholic president after a campaign in which his religion was an issue. This year, Al Gore's running mate Joe Lieberman of Connecticut is the first Jewish candidate on a major party ticket.

"I'm not sure the religious issue was valid then - and it certainly is not valid today," Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's one-time counsel and speech writer, told Referring to the recent tsunami of stories about Lieberman's Orthodox Jewish faith, Sorensen added, " I think frankly the religious issue is more of a media-generated issue than anything else."

Throughout the 1960 race, JFK faced down concerns about his faith head on - from the West Virginia primary that spring to a speech before a group of Protestant ministers in Houston that fall. Kennedy's acceptance speech to his party's convention at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in mid-July of that year was no different. In a deliberate rhetorical move, the senator tackled the subject near the top of his remarks.

Valid or not, religion was "the single biggest obstacle to Kennedy's presidency - and he knew it," said Sorensen, who drafted the convention speech. "It was an issue that he had encountered constantly during the fight for the nomination."

Kennedy, he explained, knew many Democratic Party leaders opposed his candidacy - not out of anti-Catholic prejudice, but because of the specter of 1928. That's when Democrat Al Smith - the first Roman Catholic presidential candidate on a major party ticket - received a crushing defeat fueled partly by religious bigotry. So in 1960, fearing Kennedy might drag them to a similar fate, some wary Democratic leaders wanted JFK to instead take the number two slot on the White House ticket in order to test the political waters.

"But Kennedy would have none of that," said Sorensen. "If he was qualified to be vice president, he was qualified to president. There was no reason to tell a Catholic to 'move to the back of the bus' in an age when all discrimination was supposed to be eliminated."

During his convention speech, Kennedy invoked the ghost of 1928 in order to slay it.

"I hope that no American, considering the really critical issues facing this country, will waste his franchise and throw away his vote by voting either for me or against me because of my religious affiliation. It is not relevant," the senator said to the delegates in Los Angeles.

Unlike Lieberman's expressions of devotional piety four decades later, Kennedy at the 1960 convention never wore his faith on his sleeve.
"I am telling you," he continued, "what you are entitled to know as I come before you seeking your support for the most powerful office in the free world, I am saying to you that my decisions on every public policy will be my own - as an American, as a Democrat and as a free man."

And the inspirational centerpiece of Kennedy's speech would ultimately become the shorthand label for his administration.

"We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier - the frontier of the 1960's, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfulfilled hopes and unfulfilled threats," he said.

Sorensen noted the frontier metaphor linking Western pioneers with future challenges was apt - not only for the convention site in the City of Angels, but also for the Kennedy campaign's message against Richard Nixon, the sitting GOP vice president who wanted to succeed Dwight Eisenhower in the Oval Office.

It was "the theme of challenge, discipline, of sacrifice - the theme of moving ahead, experimenting, innovating, trying to do better," said Sorensen. "It was the spirit of the old frontier and now we had a New Frontier" - from space exploration to arms control to fighting poverty.

Kennedy told the convention that the New Frontier "is not a set of promises - it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not to their pocketbook."

Looking back on the campaign leading up to the New Frontier speech, Sorensen observed the media could blow things out of proportion in those days, too.

After Kennedy's surprising win over Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey in Wisconsin's primary that April, the instant media analysis was that JFK had prevailed in the Diary State due to his strength in its Catholic areas. In modern pundit terms, the analysis - in effect - concluded: It was the religion, stupid!

But to this day, Sorensen contends the analysis was "phony," arguing that textbook campaign reasons made the real difference - where Kennedy had stumped for votes, where volunteers had worked hard for him, and so on.

"Just in jest, I made an analysis of hardwood trees versus softwood trees in Wisconsin," said Sorensen. "Lo and behold, Kennedy had done better in the hardwood areas and Humphrey had done better in the softwood areas. I didn't think the media would make much of that, but it had just as much bearing as religion did."

Yet the media emphasis on religion played so heavily, according to Sorensen, that when the Kennedy campaign took another poll in West Virginia - overwhelmingly Protestant and by then the next big primary - JFK's massive lead had evaporated.

"Lo and behold, our 80-20 lead had switched around to 60-40 for Humphrey over Kennedy - with religion emerging as the major issue," he said.

Of course, JFK went on to win West Virginia handily. That smashng primary triumph convinced some Democratic power brokers skittish about his faith that he was indeed a politically bankable candidate. And without that victory, Kennedy may never have become his party's nominee on the first ballot - or on any ballot. More twists and turns were to follow, but the senator from Massachusetts was on his way to nomination in L.A. - and election to the White House.