Kennedy aide bridged gap between politicians, press

June 29, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Fred Dutton, the all-around adviser and strategist for leading Democrats since the John F. Kennedy era who died Saturday at 82, was a rare breed. He walked comfortably and influentially among two customary adversaries - politicians and the press.

Mr. Dutton combined a keen knowledge of the inside workings of Washington with an optimistic, jovial personality that made him a valued counselor to such varied figures as the Kennedy brothers and, in more recent years, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's longtime ambassador to the United States.

At the same time, Mr. Dutton had a wide circle of friends in the Washington press corps with whom he had an easy and mutually beneficial relationship in exchanging information and analyses of the events of the day.

Parties at the home of Mr. Dutton and his lawyer-partner wife, Nancy, were eclectic affairs that brought ranking politicians and other Washington insiders together with reporters, editors and columnists, often yielding grist for the next day's news and commentary in leading journals.

Mr. Dutton was one of those valued sources to whom you could go with confidence, not only for information but also for guidance on the dependability of stories that were floating about - the kind that could make you look good if true, bad if false or inaccurate.

He first gained political prominence as a campaign manager for Adlai Stevenson's second presidential bid in California in 1956, after which he ran Edmund G. "Pat" Brown's successful campaign for governor and served as his chief of staff in Sacramento.

Mr. Dutton worked for the election of President Kennedy in 1960 and was brought to Washington by him, serving as his Cabinet secretary and then assistant secretary of state for congressional relations, a job he continued under President Lyndon B. Johnson.

I first met Mr. Dutton when he was Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's closest political adviser in his brief and dramatic presidential bid in 1968. In that frenzied campaign that ended in tragedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles minutes after Mr. Kennedy had won the California Democratic primary, Mr. Dutton was constantly at his side, offering the candidate much more than political advice.

Kennedy campaign aides were always required to function as crowd controllers, as enthusiastic followers endlessly sought to touch the candidate and grab his clothing as souvenirs. On one California swing, Mr. Kennedy lost his shoes in the crush and Mr. Dutton took off his own and gave them to the candidate. The mischievous RFK, in acknowledging the support of the assembled politicians at the next stop, blurted out to the perplexed crowd: "And I want to thank Fred Dutton for his shoes!"

Mr. Dutton also was a key adviser in Sen. George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign, after which he converted his public service role to more-lucrative employment as an adviser to Mobil Oil.

In a city full of men and women on the make for celebrity, Mr. Dutton chose to keep out of the limelight

Behind the scenes, he probably accomplished more than most politicians.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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