JFK: The Last Meeting

RICHARD REEVES

November 19, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- On November 13, 1963, John F. Kennedy sat down with his men to begin the planning for his 1964 re-election campaign.

With him were his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, aides Theodore Sorensen, Kenneth O'Donnell and Lawrence O'Brien, Democratic National Chairman John Bailey, census director Richard Scammon, and the new campaign manager, his brother-in-law Stephen Smith.

The president's approval rating, according to the latest Gallup poll, was at 59 percent, down from 76 percent at the beginning of the year. The decline, said Scammon, was almost all attributable to civil rights and to the fact that five months before, the president had finally spoken out on television and put the White House on the side of demonstrating Negroes. One Southern Democrat, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, had already announced that he would challenge Kennedy in the 1964 primary elections.

In the New York Times, under the headline ''The Outlook for Kennedy: Victory With Tears,'' James Reston wrote:

''A reporter who asks about him in unfamiliar and varied communities comes away with the distinct impression that the American people are going to re-elect him, probably by a wide margin, but don't quite believe in him. . . . He is admired, but he has not made the people feel as he feels, or lifted them beyond their private purposes to see the larger public purposes he has in mind.''

The latest horse-race poll showed Kennedy with a percentage lead of 55-to-39 over the current favorite to win the Republican nomination, Sen. Barry Goldwater. ''This could be fun, if it's Barry,'' said Kennedy at the beginning of the November 13 meeting. He liked Goldwater. He also thought he was unelectable, not smart enough, and too conservative for most Americans.

''Don't waste any chance to praise Barry. Build him up a little,'' Kennedy said. ''Don't mention the others.''

The ''others'' the president didn't want mentioned were NeYork Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and the new Republican governor of Michigan, George Romney, a former president of American Motors and a devout Mormon.

''People buy that God-and-country stuff,'' the president said''You have to be a little suspicious of somebody as good as Romney. No vices whatsoever, no smoking and no drinking. Imagine someone we know going off for 24 or 48 hours to fast and meditate, awaiting a message from the Lord whether to run or not to run.''

As for Rockefeller, Kennedy had concluded that, beyond the political problems of a messy divorce and a new wife, the New York governor just did not have the guts to sustain a presidential run.

''Give me Barry,'' the president concluded with a laugh. ''I won't even have to leave the Oval Office.''

''Peace and prosperity'' was to be Kennedy's 1964 theme. He wanted to emphasize prosperity by attacking poverty. In fact, that morning he had announced a ''crash program'' to bring food and public works to eastern Kentucky, which he called ''the most severely distressed area in the country.''

''There's a tremendous problem. I want people to see it,'' he told economic adviser Walter Heller, who was a principal advocate of an anti-poverty program. He told Kenny O'Donnell that he wanted visits scheduled to create photo opportunities in poor city neighborhoods with Negroes and with white miners in the mountains.

''I wouldn't do that, Mr. President,'' said Richard Scammon, who was sitting with a mound of census documents.

''Why not?''

''You can't get a single vote more by doing anything for poor people. Those who vote are already for you,'' Scammon said. ''I was thinking of photographs with policemen in the cities. Then you should go to the new shopping centers on the highways. The voters you need, your people, men with lunch pails, are moving out to the suburbs.''

As Scammon talked of a new American mobility -- rural Southern Negroes going to Northern cities and Catholic Democrats moving out to become homeowners, and worried about property taxes and storm sewers -- Kennedy closed in on one question: If a Democrat started making more money and moved to the suburbs, at what level did he start to vote Republican?

''It might be less than $10,000 a year,'' Scammon said. ''I'll try to find out.''

''It's going to be a new kind of politics,'' Kennedy said.

''It's a new kind of country,'' said Scammon.

''This has been very helpful,'' Kennedy said as he ended the November 13 session. It was almost 7 p.m. -- the meeting had gone on for more than three hours -- and Kennedy was ready to begin a campaign trip to Florida and Texas. ''We'll get together again when I come back from Texas.''

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist. His new book is ''President Kennedy: Profile of Power'' (Simon and Schuster).

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