Perhaps the best thing about “The Road to Camelot,’’ Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie’s splendid new book about John F. Kennedy’s quest for the presidency in 1960, is the authors’ unmistakable and quite infectious love for their subject. By subject I don’t mean JFK, though Oliphant and Wilkie are certainly sympathetic to the man and his extraordinary White House quest; no, I’m referring to their palpable affection for that many-splendored thing called the American presidential campaign.
From the initial decision to run to the early strategizing, to the endless speeches to often-sparse crowds in far-flung locales, to the internecine squabbles over planning and priorities, to the bruising run for the party nomination, to the high-stakes culminating drama of the fall campaign — our authors are passionate about all of it. Add in their deep research in original sources (they make excellent use of the oral history collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library) and the abundant experience they bring as veteran political reporters for the Globe, and the result is a gripping, authoritative campaign history, every bit the successor to Theodore White’s classic work, “The Making of the President 1960.’’
The story, it turns out, begins much earlier than we usually think. Already in 1955 after President Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attack, Joseph P. Kennedy mused about a Lyndon Johnson-Jack Kennedy Democratic ticket for the following fall and even floated the idea — with his son’s permission — to Johnson, then Senate majority leader. Nothing came of the scheme, but by the end of the summer of 1956 JFK “felt the presidency was staring him in the face.” By Thanksgiving, he had made his choice: He would run.
He didn’t announce it then, of course, but he dropped hints — in remarks at Boston’s venerable, Brahmin-ruled Tavern Club, just two days after Adlai Stevenson’s defeat to Eisenhower, Kennedy recounted his involvement with Stevenson’s campaign, then added coyly, “Indeed there is always the danger that I may participate in another one myself.”
Kennedy, always dispassionate when analyzing himself, knew he had several strikes against him: He was young, Catholic, and his Capitol Hill legislative record was meager at best. He determined he must start earlier and work harder than the other contenders for the Democratic nomination. That approach had worked for him in his first House race in 1946 and his run for the Senate in 1952; why mess with success? In 1957 he crisscrossed the country to give speeches and make political connections, targeting those states and political officials that would be most useful to him in 1960. He became more engaged in Senate business, particularly regarding foreign policy, and produced a stream of articles for respected publications. His stamina was extraordinary, especially for a man with myriad health problems.
His near-constant companion was a twenty-something Nebraskan, Theodore C. “Ted” Sorensen. For Oliphant and Wilkie, Sorensen is a hugely important figure, as “that rarest of political species: someone who could work on the development of policy and ideas while helping to shape them into speeches and articles, often with simple eloquence.” In the early going, the reader gets the sense that this was largely just a two-man operation, Jack and Ted, making the key calls on strategy and tactics, deciding where to go, whom to see, what to say.
Later on, as things heat up and the formal campaigning draws near, other figures enter the story, none more interesting than pollster Lou Harris, whose data gathering proved highly useful in areas where Kennedy was weakest, influencing the candidate to calibrate his positions on various issues, including civil rights.
What emerges is a picture of a highly efficient Kennedy machine, in which Joe’s deep pockets mattered greatly (not so his strategic advice, which was mostly ignored) and in which other family members played important roles. But, throughout, Jack remains in charge, not just the star of the show but the director, even after brother Robert takes over management of the campaign. JFK made occasional missteps but was a quick study and proved himself a shrewd political analyst, not least regarding the implications of television and of polling for the modern political campaign. On the trail, his personal magnetism and good looks drew ever-larger crowds; over time, he honed a powerful message that spoke directly to many voters’ hopes and aspirations.
For all that, the outcome in 1960 was always uncertain. Kennedy had his share of luck, Oliphant and Wilkie show, benefiting from the serial strategic mistakes by his Democratic opponents for the nomination and from the fact that his womanizing was never revealed. In the fall campaign, he was helped (though not as much as is often claimed) by Richard Nixon’s cadaver-like appearance in the first debate and by a Nixon knee injury that kept the Californian off the campaign trail for a significant stretch.
The drama of the final weeks of the race has been told many times before, but the authors show a knack for deploying fresh detail and the telling quote. The tension builds with each page, even though we know the final outcome: a razor-thin Kennedy victory, by 112,000 votes out of 68 million cast, a margin of 0.2 percent.
Did the Kennedy team commit fraud, as has sometimes been alleged? And if so, was it extensive enough to overturn Kennedy’s 303 to 219 margin in the Electoral College? Oliphant and Wilkie consider the sketchy evidence and sensibly determine we can never know for sure but clearly are skeptical. JFK, they conclude, “had barely won the election, but he had won legitimately.”
On Jan. 20, 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, age 43, took the oath of office as the 35th president of the United States. His stirring inaugural address, one of the greatest in the nation’s history, summoned Americans to believe in something bigger than themselves. “So let us begin anew,” he proclaimed, “remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is subject to proof.” It’s a message that seems more urgent than ever a half-century later, as No. 45 puts his own stamp on the office and on the nation he leads.
The Road to Camelot:
Inside the Five-Year Campaign
By Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie
Simon and Schuster, 433 pp.,
Fredrik Logevall, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Harvard, is writing a biography of John F. Kennedy.