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’60 tape reveals an uncertain John F. Kennedy

Before victory, misgivings over abilities, future

John F. Kennedy, shown in Toledo, Ohio, worked hard to hide his physical problems from reporters.

LARRY STODDARD/AP/FILE/1960

John F. Kennedy, shown in Toledo, Ohio, worked hard to hide his physical problems from reporters.

WASHINGTON — It’s a rare glimpse of the introspective John F. Kennedy — unsure of his political skills; worried about what he might do if he lost the race; and surprisingly honest about his poor health and his attempts to deceive the press over it.

Three days after he declared his candidacy for the presidency, the man who would leave a near-mythical imprint on America’s political identity seemed decidedly unsure of his own.

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That revelation comes from a recently unearthed audio recording made during a private dinner party that the Massachusetts senator and his wife, Jacqueline, hosted in their Georgetown home on Jan. 5, 1960. The tape was given to the JFK Library and Museum in Dorchester last year and was recently discovered by a Brown University historian.

At the dinner party, the recording reveals, Kennedy said he never dreamed of the presidency when he entered politics as a scrawny candidate for Congress in 1946.

“Never. Never. Never,” the future president insisted. “I thought maybe I’d be governor of Massachusetts one day.”

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What was irresistible about the decision to seek the presidency, the Harvard alumnus explained to his three guests, was the excitement and challenge of the race itself — “like playing Yale every Saturday, in a sense” — and his unabashed desire to be at the center of the nation’s momentous decisions.

John F. Kennedy fretted over his frail appearance alongside Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., and Robert F. Wagner in 1948.

ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 1948

John F. Kennedy fretted over his frail appearance alongside Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., and Robert F. Wagner in 1948.

The guests were Newsweek correspondent James M. Cannon and Washington bureau chief Benjamin Bradlee, who later ran the Washington Post, and his wife, Antoinette. Bradlee and Cannon were longtime friends of Kennedy and did not report on the conversation.

Cannon’s family gave the tape to the library, and the content will be featured in next month’s Smithsonian magazine. Efforts to reach Bradlee Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Ted Widmer, the Brown University historian, said Tuesday that when he came across the tape in his research, “I was just knocked out by it.”

“I thought it was very visceral and immediate, and quite personal. JFK was one of the most successful politicians of the 20th century but he is candid about his liabilities and his inhibitions,” he said. Widmer also said Kennedy’s explanations for why he was seeking the presidency seem strikingly honest.

At one point in the conversation, for example, Kennedy makes another football analogy.

“Johnny Unitas, he might find it interesting to play in a sandlot team, in front of four people, but he’s playing for the Colts, the best team in the United States, for the world championship,” he said. “I’m not comparing the presidency with that, but I’m just saying that, how could it be more fascinating than to run for president under the obstacles and the hurdles that are before me.”

Kennedy “is interested in being at the center of the machinery of government, the center of the action,” said Widmer, rather than seeking the presidency for the lofty goals he outlined in his campaign to secure the Democratic nomination and ultimately defeat Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

The recording portrays a JFK not so sure of himself as he set out on his historic quest, hoping that the electorate sought a new kind of leader who was not necessarily the back-slapping campaigner like his grandfather, the former congressman and Boston mayor John Fitzgerald.

“I think I personally am the antithesis of a politician as I saw my grandfather who was the politician,” Kennedy said. “What he loved to do was what politicians are expected to do. Now I just think that today. . . . I’d rather read a book on a plane than talk to the fellow next to me, and my grandfather wanted to talk to everybody else. I’d rather go out to dinner.”

He later added: “I had not regarded myself as a political type. My father didn’t, he thought I was hopeless.”

But politics attracted him in part, he said, because the alternatives for someone of his social and academic station were so unappealing.

“If [I] went to law school, and I’d gotten out, which I was going to do [unclear] and then I go and become a member of a big firm, and I’m dealing with some dead, deceased man’s estate, or I’m perhaps fighting in a divorce case . . . or some fellow got in an accident . . . or let’s say more serious work, when you’re participating in a case against the DuPont company in a general antitrust case, which takes two or three years, can you tell me that that compares in interest with being a member of Congress in trying to write a labor bill, or trying to make a speech on foreign policy?’’ Kennedy said. “I just think that there’s no comparison.”

Throughout the discussion, Kennedy’s famous flowing public voice is instead choppy and often inarticulate. Also, he sounds uncharacteristically vulnerable.

For example, the possibility of losing the election weighed heavily on him.

“I wouldn’t like to try to pick up my life at 45, -6, or -7, and start after 20 years of being in politics, and try to pick up my life then,’’ he said, adding, “Maybe need a different degree. I mean, it’s like having your leg up to your ankle or to your knee amputated, it’s still disturbing.”

Antoinette Bradlee asked Kennedy, who had already written two books, if he might pursue a career in writing if politics didn't work out.

“No, I couldn’t, because I’ve lost the chance. I mean, I’m sure it takes 20 years to learn to be a decent writer,” he responded. “You have to do it every day.”

When a recently published photo of him as a young man looking sickly came up in the discussion, Kennedy spoke of his personal medical problems, which became known publicly years after his 1963 assassination. Such problems would probably have been disqualifying if known to voters.

“There’s a picture that the Boston Globe ran Sunday, which had the veterans rally [in 1948] . . . Franklin Roosevelt [Jr.] and I, and I looked like a cadaver,” Kennedy recalled, noting his unusual pallor.

When asked about what was wrong with him, he responded, “Addison’s disease, they said I have.”

He then noted that a reporter “asked me today if I have it.” He denied it to the reporter, saying he was just sun-tanned. “I said no, God, a guy with Addison’s disease looks sort of brown and everything,” Kennedy told his guests, who burst out in laughter. “Christ! See, that’s the sun.”

But natural politician or not, Kennedy said he thought the ingredients to win were not all that complicated.

“You have to be able to communicate a sense of conviction and intelligence and rather, some integrity,” he said.

Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Globebender
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