All these years later, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the political bug that happily infected Jean Moulton all of her adult life sunk its teeth so deeply into her.
But it may well have happened that day she sat behind the wheel of an old Jeep station wagon, chauffeuring a toothy, handsome young man from Massachusetts around Charlottesville, Va.
The year was 1956. The Democratic nominee for president was Adlai Stevenson, the former Illinois governor whom President Dwight D. Eisenhower had defeated four years earlier.
And as Jean Moulton drove 200 miles in and around Charlottesville, Edward M. Kennedy’s voice boomed from the loudspeaker atop the Jeep, exhorting passers-by to get behind the Democratic ticket.
“I was the driver. He’s on the microphone getting out the vote,’’ Moulton told me the other day at the state Democratic Party’s headquarters on Beacon Hill.
“We worked for Stevenson. He lost. But that was my first big campaign.’’
If you don’t immediately recognize the name of Jean Moulton, you can be forgiven.
She has spent her life just beyond the klieg lights of election night. She’s the face in the corner of the victory celebration photograph. She’s the woman who once ran the mimeograph machine that morphed, over the last half century, to blast e-mail lists.
She stuffed envelopes. She coached interns. She managed the finances. She turned the lights on in the morning and off in the evening.
And her longtime role as special assistant to the chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party ended Tuesday.
“She’s the kind of person who anybody who actually covers or works in politics knows is so terribly important,’’ said James Roosevelt Jr., FDR’s grandson and a member of the Democratic National Committee.
“There are good people who are trying to have a good effect on our society doing the work that has to be done every day, whether it’s for a candidate or a convention. Logistics. Hotel rooms. Hiring young staffers. Jean is the person who did it.’’
She almost didn’t.
Jean Moulton is 87 years old now. She grew up in Westchester County, N.Y. She graduated from an all-girls high school in 1949 before attending a secretarial school in New York City.
“My father wasn’t anxious to send a girl to college,’’ she told me, remembering a time that seems so long ago because it was.
She went to work at J. Walter Thompson, the legendary ad agency, whose clients have included Kraft Foods, Kellogg’s, and the Ford Motor Co.
The daughter of politically independent parents who listened to the national party conventions on the radio in their home’s parlor, she fell in love with politics early. Before she drove that Jeep for Stevenson, she cast her first vote four years earlier for his opponent. That vote for Eisenhower, the decorated general who led the allies to victory in World War II, was the last GOP candidate she ever embraced.
“I disagreed with my family,’’ she said. “I couldn’t understand why they would talk the way they did about one of my brother’s friends who was black. But that was the era. I balked against that instinctively. I don’t know where it came from, but it rubbed me the wrong way.
“I’ve gone my own way since then. And I’ve made my own way.’’
She certainly has.
She is a self-described “yellow dog Democrat.’’ The term comes from the description of a voter who would rather cast a ballot for a yellow dog than vote for any Republican.
Listen to Jean Moulton’s political war stories and you know she has kept the political faith.
Richard Nixon? “He was a creepy character. Slimy guy.’’
Lyndon Johnson? “He was sort of a manipulator but he did some wonderful things. He opened up civil rights. He followed through on what John Kennedy wanted to do.’’
Donald Trump? Well, Don’t ask.
“She’s partisan but she’s not insanely partisan,’’ said Philip W. Johnston, a former state Democratic Party chairman. “She’s a very calm force in the midst of political turmoil.’’
Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston political strategist, recalls Moulton’s grace-under-pressure performance during the 1996 election in which John Kerry defeated Bill Weld in a US Senate race that was once far closer that its final result.
The Sunday before that Election Day, Marsh asked Moulton to organize a conference call. How many? She asked. A couple hundred. Which quickly turned into 1,000.
“Jean gave the same answer she always gave: ‘No problem,’’’ Marsh recalled. “Once you gave her an assignment, you never worried about it again. Always a smile and a can-do attitude. She never takes credit for anything. And she does everything.’’
One of Johnston’s successors as state party chief, John Walsh, called Moulton a blend between sweet grandmotherly adviser and tough-as-nails operative, a woman who still drives a red tractor at her 1726 farmhouse in Ashby.
“Campaigns are fabulous – intense, time-sensitive, deadline-driven, and stressful places. Jean just creates some place where people walk over and hang out in her spot because that’s where the craziness stops,’’ Walsh said.
She’s got “two bionic’’ knees now. She tried to retire once. But then Gus Bickford, the party’s current chairman, asked her to come back. She did.
“She has touched all of our lives,’’ Bickford said. “You think about the party for the last 30 years and Jean is the consistent face. When you needed information, Jean was your contact. She answered the phones. She entered the checks. She did the operations. She held the party together.’’
A mother of three, grandmother of five, and great grandmother of three, she’s served the role for her family, too.
“There’s a reason why they call her ‘Jean Machine’ at work,’’ her daughter, Abby Moulton, said. “Politics have allowed her to use her talents to the fullest effect. She was a role model for myself and my sister. She got me a subscription to Ms. Magazine.
“She really encouraged us to be everything that we could be. That seems trite now. But she really was a trailblazer.’’
Her long career stretches back to the days of black-and-white television, back to an era when political adversaries could disagree — sometime heatedly — without eviscerating each other. That career was saluted on Tuesday at a Beacon Hill restaurant where political luminaries toasted Jean Moulton.
After that applause fades — an appreciation from the people who know that beneath those kindly eyes lays a deep reservoir of knowledge about the art and the nuance of politics — she will move on.
Soon, she’ll be living in a small apartment in her daughter’s house in Kensington, N.H.
A year from now, the jockeying will have begun for the 2020 presidential primary and the New Hampshire headquarters of Democratic hopefuls already will be buzzing with people who live and breathe politics.
You can imagine Jean Moulton creeping unassumingly into one of those Portsmouth storefronts some frosty morning a year from now.
And then she’ll ask the question she’s been asking since she rode in that front seat with Teddy Kennedy a lifetime ago:
Would you like some help?Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.