JFK Loved Rhode Island and Rhode Island loved JFK

Nov 15, 2013

It’s been 54 years  years since the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  RIPR Political analyst Scott MacKay explores why Kennedy loved Rhode Island and why the Ocean State loved JFK.

Our state is America’s smallest yet  it loomed large in the life of John F. Kennedy.

From the time Kennedy was a young man, he and his family were shaped by experiences in Rhode Island.  If any event forged the career of John Kennedy it was his World War II heroics as a patrol torpedo lieutenant in the U.S. Navy.

The year was  1942 and young men, even Ivy Leaguers like Harvard graduate Kennedy, hungered  to enlist in the war effort. JFK was first given a desk job in Washington, preparing intelligence bulletins for the secretary of the Navy. He was soon bored and aching for combat.

Kennedy had a very bad back, which for any other young sailor would have ruled out an assignment in the Pacific. But Kennedy was no ordinary sailor; he was the son of Joseph Kennedy, ambassador to England and a confidante of President Franklin Roosevelt. In what would become  a lifelong trope, young Kennedy lied about his health. His father made some well-placed phone calls and Kennedy was granted his wish, the PT boat service at the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron training center  at Melville in the Aquidneck Island community of Portsmouth.

Kennedy was popular with his high-spirited navy buddies. A son of wealth, he was one of the few trainees who owned a car. He was known to ferry the sailors to Newport and Providence to dance and meet   women. The Bacchante Room at the Biltmore was a regular Saturday night stop for JFK and his mates.

Sent to battle the Japanese in the Solomon Islands, Kennedy’s ship was slashed in half by a Japanese destroyer. Lieutenant Kennedy saved his crew of 11, swimming to safety and towing one of his mates three miles in the Pacific with the strap of a life-jacket clenched in his teeth.

For that JFK was awarded the Purple Heart for the injuries he sustained and the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his bravery. From his first run  for Congress in 1946 until his presidential campaign in 1960, his war record would be a constant campaign boast.

Kennedy emerged from  10-way Democratic primary in 1946 to win election to the U.S. House from a Boston district. In his first committee assignment in the House, Rhode Island U.S. Rep. John Fogarty was a mentor. Fogarty was considered to be a serious candidate for House Speaker at some point, but he died in his 50s from a heart attack. Former Lt. Gov. Charles Fogarty is his nephew.

Kennedy’s 1953 wedding to Jacqueline Bouvier at St. Mary’s Church in Newport was the social event of that season. A tony reception for 800 was held at Hammersmith Farm, her family’s summer home.  During his presidency, Newport would often serve as the summer White House and he would attend Mass at St. Mary's. His wife’s  step brother, Hugh `Yusha’ Auchincloss, still lives in Newport. One of Mrs. Kennedy’s bridesmaids was Sylvia Blake, aunt of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.

After losing a run for vice-president on the 1956 Democratic ticket, Kennedy plotted to win the Democratic presidential nomination four years later. Among his his tight circle of advisors was Rhode Island Gov. Dennis Roberts, like Kennedy an Irish-Catholic.

In 1959, the now Massachusetts senator made a big splash in Providence when he was the keynote speaker to the state’s political elite at a huge St. Patrick’s Day dinner. The next year, Kennedy was vying  for the White House.

Listen to Teddy White, the presidential chronicler who wrote the Making of the President 1960, the seminal campaign biography.  As the hours dwindled to Election Day, JFK made a final campaign swing through New England.

``One remembers that day the beating of noise, from Providence, through Springfield, through Hartford, through Burlington, through Manchester, through Boston,’’ wrote White. ``Until, midnight it was all noise, the gulf of tumult.’’

Thousands thronged downtown Providence for his speech from the front steps of City Hall at Exchange Place. After his assassination, it was renamed Kennedy Plaza.

As his motorcade drove down Elmwood Avenue (Interstate 95 had not been built) to Hillsgrove Airport, it passed Cranston’s St. Matthew’s School, where the nuns had led the students to the sidewalk so they could glimpse the man who would become the first Roman Catholic president. One of the fifth-graders who watched in awe was Jack Reed.

In those days of lax presidential campaign security, Kennedy was standing alone in a white, Lincoln convertible, smiling. ``People were ecstatic, cheering as loud as they could,’’ Reed recalls.  ``He was not only Catholic, he was a war hero, a senator, a neighbor. I can still visualize him waving.’’

The next day, in one of the closest elections in the nation’s history, heavily Catholic Rhode Island gave the 43-year old JFK 64 percent of their votes, the highest percentage of any state.

Kennedy’s  affinity for Rhode Island spilled into his presidency. The home movies at the JFK Library in Boston tell all. They show the president and first lady sailing with their friends, Sen. Claiborne Pell and his wife Nuala, with whom they shared cocktails and swapped stories. (This footage is one of a very few depictions of Mrs. Kennedy, an enthusiastic  smoker, puffing on a cigarette). There is film of JFK’s fluid swing off the tee at Newport Country Club. (The president did not publicize his golfing because it was seen as an elite sport identified with his Republican predecessor, President Eisenhower, who also summered in Newport and played at the same club).

And there are  photos that make one ponder what might-have-been: JFK frolicking in the surf at Bailey’s Beach with his children, Caroline and John F. Kennedy Jr., who would grow up to attend Brown University.

In 1961, JFK became the first president since Teddy Roosevelt to speak at the U.S. Naval War College.

``He liked Newport a lot,’’ recalled Nuala Pell years later. ``One reason he liked Newport was because no one bothered him; no one came up to question him. He had a wicked sense of humor...so funny with a biting wit.’’

Another close Rhode Island ally was Sen. John Pastore, a fulcrum of  the president’s  successful quest to ratify the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. Pastore  became  a mentor for JFK’s brother,  Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, who attended school at Portsmouth Abbey and whose son, Patrick Kennedy, would one day win election to Congress from the Ocean State. (Ted Kennedy would give the eulogy at Pastore’s funeral).

Until Kennedy’s  era, in the ancient, tribal New England capitals of Boston and Providence it was nearly impossible to put a Congregationalist, a Catholic and  Jew in the same room. After Kennedy’s election, the time of immigrant, Catholic exclusion, especially for Irish-Americans, from the upper reaches of business, banking, law and academia in New England withers away.

``He had a very clear identification with the immigrant past, not just for Irish-Americans, but for all immigrants,’’ says Reed, who has the seat once held by Pell. ``He represented a huge fulfillment of the immigrant and American dream.''

A month before the fateful trip to Dallas, JFK pulled aside his friend Pell to request a favor. The president asked the senator to quietly arrange to rent a suitable place for a summer White House for August and September of 1964. Mr. Kennedy asked Pell to keep it under the radar because he wanted to surprise the first lady.

Annandale Farm, next door to Hammersmith Farm, was made available to the Kennedys for $2,000 a week. It was to be a vacation venue for his family while he pursued his 1964 reelection campaign.