Scott MacKay Commentary: JFK's Rhode Island

Nov 18, 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 but it loomed large in the life of John F. Kennedy.

President John F. Kennedy sits with his son, John F. Kennedy, Jr., in a rowboat on Bailey’s Beach in Newport, Rhode Island.
Credit Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. / John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

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 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.  In what would become  a lifelong trope, young Kennedy lied about his health. His father made some well-placed phone calls and Kennedy got 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 a 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.

Kennedy’s 1953 wedding to Jacqueline Bouvier at St. Mary’s Church in Newport was the social event of the 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. 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.

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and Senator John F. Kennedy at their wedding reception at Hammersmith Farm, Newport, Rhode Island, September 12, 1953.
Credit Toni Frissell / John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

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 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 diner. The next year, Kennedy was vying  for the White House.

As the hours dwindled to Election Day, JFK made a final campaign swing through New England.

`Thousands thronged downtown Providence for his speech at Exchange Place. After his assassination, it was renamed Kennedy Plaza.

As his motorcade drove to Hillsgrove Airport, it passed Cranston’s St. Matthew’s School, where the nuns had led the students to the sidewalk so they could see 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 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, Rhode Islanders gave the 43-year old JFK 64 percent of their votes, the highest total 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. There is film of JFK’s fluid swing off the tee at Newport Country Club.  And the 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.

``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 funny with a biting wit.’’

Another close Rhode Island ally was Sen. John Pastore, a fulcrum 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.

``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 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. Kennedy was looking to the future, planning his 1964 reelection campaign.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political reporting and commentary at RI Public Radio’s `On Politics’ blog at