JFK and the DNC

JFK and the DNC – John F. Kennedy; Democratic National Committee

Sean J. Savage


Political scientists have often attributed weak party leadership by presidents and their parties’ national chairmen to such inherently “anti-party” institutional and behavioral characteristics as candidate-centered campaigning, the separation of powers contributing to divided government, decentralized party organizations, and weaker party loyalties by American voters. The influence of individual presidents, such as John F. Kennedy, has not been analyzed thoroughly enough. This study claims that JFK’s behavior toward and relationship with the Democratic National Committee’s chairmen, activities, and apparatus were heavily influenced by the political culture of his home state’s party politics and his progressive ambition.


According to the thesis and findings of this study, the decline of the DNC’s apparatus and chairmanship under Lyndon B. Johnson was mostly an acceleration and intensification of the disintegrating process which originated in John F. Kennedy’s party leadership. Kennedy’s behavior toward and interaction with the DNC’s chairmen, activities, and apparatus were greatly influenced by the political culture of Massachusetts party politics and Kennedy’s behavioral pattern of progressive ambition. The analysis of Kennedy’s interaction with the DNC begins prior to his presidency. This was due to the increase in the senator’s nation-wide speaking engagements after 1956 in order to attract greater intra-party attention to his 1958 Senate re-election campaign and his viability as a presidential candidate, as well as to his desire to influence arrangements for the 1960 Democratic national convention.

As a presidential nominee and then as president, Kennedy’s treatment of the DNC revealed a certain skepticism, aloofness, and neglect regarding its role in modern party politics and the modern presidency. This fairly consistent pattern of relegating and subordinating the roles and functions of his national party’s chairman and apparatus was a contrast to his more protean strategy of alternating between soliciting and circumventing national and state party organizations before his nomination to the presidency. (1) Strongly influenced by these factors, Kennedy’s behavioral pattern as presidential party leader both reflected and facilitated party decline during this era. (2)


Some scholars emphasize that presidential party leadership is often inherently and inevitably weak and ineffective due to the organization and powers of the modern presidency in public policy and administration. Sidney Milkis has stressed that the administrative structures and powers of the modern presidency liberated the president “from the influence of a party system whose organizational structure and mode of operation curbed the discretionary power of the president and administrative agencies.” (3) Stephen Skowronek contends that “the institutional imperatives of the presidency lie on the side of independent political action, and that independence drives a wedge between partisanship and political responsibility” and that presidents who try to be strong, active party leaders “find party service a thankless task.” (4) In assessing Woodrow Wilson as a president who articulated and advocates strong, centralized party leadership, Daniel Stid claims that “the problem of party government in the United States is a n intractable one.” (5)

In short, the dominant theme of the literature on presidential party leadership is that weak, negligent party leadership, especially toward a national party committee’s chairman and apparatus, is virtually inevitable in the modern presidency. This theme of inevitability, though, often underestimates the influence of a president’s previous experiences within and perceptions of his party on his behavior as a party leader. Analyzing these pre-presidential intra-party experiences, especially according to the factors of political culture and progressive ambition, is especially necessary in order to distinguish and compare presidents as party leaders. (6) For example, among post-World War II presidents, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan, at least during his first term, were the most active and attentive party leaders. (7) This unusual degree of concern and support for their parties’ organizational strength and activities can be partially attributed to Truman’s experiences in the centralized, disciplined party organiza tion of the Pendergast machine in Missouri and to Reagan’s long service to the Republican party and conservative movement as a fund raiser and speaker at organizational functions. (8)

Political scientists have also analyzed how each state’s political culture influences the significance, structures, purposes, and vitality of its major parties and the behavior of candidates within them. (9) “Political culture,” Alan Rosenthal states, “presumably has bearing on how people participate in political activities and the interactions among individuals and institutions.” (10) Political culture regarding state and national party organizations, the role of ambition in candidates’ behavior within their parties, and the development of weaker party loyalty among voters have all been extensively researched and analyzed individually. But no study has clearly combined all of these factors to explain how and why presidents behave as party leaders toward their parties’ national chairmen and organizations. Little has been written about how a president’s pre-presidential involvement with party organizations, especially in his home state if he had served in Congress and/or as governor, later influences his party leadership. Two notable exceptions are Harold F. Bass, Jr.’s analyses of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as party leaders. (11)

Also, there is the question of how progressively ambitious candidates who eventually seek the presidency adapt their campaign tactics, organization, and policy, rhetorical, and electoral decisions according to the degree and nature of the strength, purposes, and activities of their parties’ national and state organizations. (12) The current era and condition of a presidential candidate’s party influence his choice of strategy and tactics in order to secure its nomination and then its support in the general election. (13) Thus, candidates who are best able to adapt their campaigns to the current conditions of their party are most likely to receive its presidential nomination. (14) “Party organization thus is a product of the interaction between rules of office seeking and the party system that grows up to define how parties compete for those offices,” states Joseph A. Schlesinger. (15)

Regarding the impact of presidential party leadership on the Democratic party during the 1960s, Lyndon B. Johnson has received all or most of the blame for the atrophy of the Democratic National Committee’s apparatus, activities, fund raising ability, and the significance of its chairman. (16) Johnson emphasized continuity with John F. Kennedy within the DNC by retaining John M. Bailey as chairman. But most of Johnson’s fairly sporadic attention to the DNC apparatus was applied by two White House aides, W. Marvin Watson and Clifton Carter. (17) George Reedy, Johnson’s press secretary, speculated that Johnson lacked “any respect for the requirements of orderly administration” and that this quality contributed to Johnson’s neglect of the DNC. (18) In assessing Johnson’s presidency, Vaughan Davis Bornet concluded, “One must take seriously the belief that Lyndon Johnson was personally responsible for the deterioration of the Democratic National Committee as a viable force — thus weakening the election chances of any Democratic candidate for president in 1968.” (19)

Meanwhile, the study of John F. Kennedy’s contribution to the disintegration of the DNC’s chairmanship and apparatus is limited, vague, and incomplete. Lawrence Longley, though, ascribes equal responsibility to Kennedy and Johnson. “Neither president was the least bit interested in seeing the national party take on any policy-articulating role that might compete with presidential policy priorities.” (20) Cotter and Hennessy stated, “The Kennedy family members and the President’s friends from Massachusetts had much more to say about political decisions than did National Chairman Bailey.” (21)

David Broder denounced Johnson’s party leadership for being “the very opposite of responsible party government.” (22) He wrote favorably, though, about Kennedy having represented “the hope for a responsible party and governmental system.” (23) But Broder mostly emphasized Kennedy’s potential for strong party leadership if he had not been assassinated.


When John F. Kennedy prepared to begin his congressional primary campaign in 1946, the Democratic party of Massachusetts enjoyed the identification, however tenuous, of an increasing majority of that state’s voters. But its electoral power and potential were weakened by its feuding, bitterly factionalized and disorganized condition and the ability of the smaller, better organized, and more disciplined Republican party of Massachusetts to exploit the regional, ethnic, and personal differences among Democratic politicians and voting blocs through its nomination decisions and campaign tactics. (24) This environment of two-party politics in postwar Massachusetts was solidified by the rival political cultures that had developed there since the mid-nineteenth century. (25) Daniel Elazar described this political culture as a mixture of the moralism, originating in the WASP or “Yankee” Puritan reformist values, and individualism, originating in the Irish-dominated immigrant belief in the use of personal ambition and distributing tangible, divisible benefits. (26) Likewise, James Q. Wilson and Edward C. Banfield distinguished between the ethos of “good government” directed at an indivisible “interest of the whole” and the competing ethos, especially in local politics, that stems from working-class, immigrant roots and machine politics and emphasizes and justifies benefits to individual and group interests on a transactional basis. (27)

Edgar Litt found a greater variety of political cultures in mid-twentieth century Massachusetts based on four socioeconomic groups: patricians, managers, workers, and yeomen. Despite socioeconomic and partisan differences among these four cultures, Litt analyzed and compared them as being partially differentiated from each other according to the aforementioned cultural theories. (28) Thus, the Democratic party primarily expressed the immigrant ethos; and the Republican party expressed the WASP ethos.

Unlike the also heavily Catholic and Democratic-dominated states of Connecticut and Rhode Island of this period, the Massachusetts Democratic party lacked strong party discipline, clear organization, and cohesion partially because of this state’s early adoption of such anti-party, Progressive era reforms as office column ballots, non-partisan local elections, and binding primaries. (29) Journalist William Shannon estimated in 1949 that only about ten of the 351 cities and towns of Massachusetts had functioning Democratic local committees and sardonically referred to as “the private preserves of dead beats and stuffed shirts who sniffle over Al Smith and long for the good old days when they had an ‘honest to God’ issue like prohibition.” (30) Later scholarly analyses indicated that the absence of organizational strength and vitality of the state’s Democratic party structure changed little during Kennedy’s senatorial and presidential years. Analyzing Massachusetts party politics, Duane Lockard bluntly concluded in 1959, “The Democratic organization in fact seems at times to be nothing at all.” (31) In his 1967 study, Robert A. Shanley noted that the Massachusetts Democratic party’s failure to fully and successfully adapt to the restoration of pre-primary state conventions ion 1954 “deepened existent within the party and have contributed to Democratic losses, even though the Democratic party is the majority party in terms of registration.” (32)

This, therefore, was the cultural and organizational environment of the state party politics in which John F. Kennedy operated and was politically socialized, thereby affecting his behavior and perspective as a national party leader. It is not surprising that Kennedy rejected an offer to run for lieutenant governor in 1946 and was relieved that Democratic governor Paul Dever belatedly decided to run for re-election in 1952 instead of running for U.S. Senator, the office that Kennedy preferred partially because it would physically remove from the political quagmire of state government. (33) According to commonly known accounts of Kennedy’s early political career, his electoral success in his 1946 congressional primary and 1952 senatorial campaigns, especially in the former race, was mostly a product of his politically famous middle and last names, war hero status, attractive, youthful appearance, well-financed publicity efforts, and diligent door-to-door “retail” products. (34) More importantly, though, Kenned y’s impressive primary victory in 1946 further entrenched his disdain for traditional party organizations. “Thus, he learned early that the key to winning politics — at least in Boston — was a personal organization, not the party committees. And he was careful to keep his organization intact as a nucleus for a bigger group,” observed James MacGregor Burns. (35)

When Kennedy ran for the Senate in 1952 against Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., the Republican incumbent, his personal organization became not only much larger but also more regionally diverse, complex, and even bipartisan. Alexander Heard noted that Kennedy received an unusually large number of contributions from Republicans in his 1952 campaign. (36) Its “secretaries” in each city or town included Republicans. (37) Kennedy acquired the services of Kenneth O’Donnell and Lawrence O’Brien, respectively originating from central and western Massachusetts. Lodge appeared to be a formidable opponent. He was a genial, liberal, patrician Republican who was a proven vote getter among such mostly Democratic ethnic groups as Italians, Jews, and French-Canadians. (38)

While Kennedy remained as aloof as possible from the unpopular Truman administration and the doomed Stevenson candidacy, Kennedy’s campaign speeches and publicity attacked Lodge on the left for his opposition to Truman’s national health insurance proposal and support of the Taft-Hartley Act and on the right for the senator’s foreign and defense policy record by portraying the Republican as soft on Communism. (39) Dwight Eisenhower became the first Republican presidential nominee since 1924 to carry Massachusetts as the Republicans gained control of most congressional seats, the governorship, and both houses of the state legislature. (40) Defeating Lodge by a margin of approximately 70,000 votes, Kennedy’s campaign organization and rhetoric appealed to an ideologically complex, bipartisan coalition of bread-and-butter New Deal liberals, pro-Eisenhower McCarthyite Catholics, and conservative Republicans who resented Lodge’s early advocacy of Eisenhower’s candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination agai nst Senator Robert A. Taft. (41) Kennedy later praised Taft in his book, Profiles in Courage.

The Democratic senator paid little attention to his state’s Democratic committee and its chairman until Kennedy decided to seek a high profile role at the 1956 Democratic national convention since the chairman and committee members chose national delegates. Before the national convention, Lawrence O’Brien submitted a 14-page memo to Kennedy entitled, “An Analysis of the Functions and Authority of the Democratic State, Ward and Town and Their Political Effect.” (42) After explaining the structure, membership, and widely acknowledged weaknesses of the Democratic state committee and its chairman, O’Brien’s memo constructively criticized Kennedy for his neglect of and apathy toward them. According to O’Brien, many committee members and party activists in general “feel that unquestionably Kennedy is the Party leader but he has failed to accept this leadership and many of these people feel that this is a responsibility attendant with the Kennedy position in Democratic politics in Massachusetts rather than a privile ge he can accept if he so desires.” (43)

Kennedy wanted to dominate, if not entirely control, the Massachusetts delegation at the 1956 Democratic national convention and wanted to prevent an anti-Kennedy Democrat from chairing the state committee during his 1958 re-election campaign. Considering these two objectives, O’Brien’s memo bluntly states, “Therefore, if the acceptance of leadership is a responsibility or a right and privilege, it is primarily a necessity for the far more practical reason of self-preservation.” (44) The chairman and other members of the Democratic state committee would be chosen in that state’s presidential primary of 1956.

Unfortunately for Kennedy, the state chairman at the time of this primary was William “Onions” Burke. Burke was a western Massachusetts Democrat who was a close ally of House majority leader John McCormack. Kennedy had developed an increasingly cool, distant relationship with McCormack, who competed with Kennedy for control of the delegates to the 1956 Democratic national convention. (45) Kennedy directed O’Brien and O’Donnell to aggressively lobby and promote the election of a pro-Kennedy chairman and majority among the members of the state committee. (46) While Kennedy avoided a publicly prominent role in this intra-party conflict, his aides and allies succeeded in defeating Burke. Kennedy then reluctantly agreed to a compromise choice for chairman suggested by McCormack. (47)

Kennedy was now able to fulfill his commitment to deliver 32 of his state’s 40 delegates to Adlai Stevenson on the first ballot at the national convention. Kennedy’s telegenic appearance and smooth delivery of the nominating speech for Stevenson and his previous narration of the party’s documentary film attracted enough interest from delegates to prompt Stevenson to let the convention choose his running mate. (48) Although the favored candidate, Senator Estes Kefauver, still won the vice presidential nomination, Kennedy received an unexpectedly large and impressive number of votes, especially from the South. (49)

The remaining seven years of Kennedy’s relationship with and treatment of the Massachusetts Democratic party were marked by his determination to make his home state’s party a personal following. This objective extended not only to image and voter appeal but also to nomination and organizational decisions. In particular, Kennedy sought to minimize the state-wide intra-party strength of his two major rivals for state party leadership, former congressman and later governor Foster Furcolo and future Speaker of the House John McCormack. (50)

Kennedy’s intra-party behavior in Massachusetts revealed little concern for the long-term organizational strength, internal order, and electoral power of the Massachusetts Democratic party. Suspecting that Furcolo, as the Democratic gubernatorial nominee of 1958, would tell his supporters to not vote for Kennedy in that year’s senatorial primary, Kennedy recreated the personal organization and suprapartisan campaign approach that he used in 1952. (51) Since both Furcolo and his Republican opponent, John Volpe, were of Italian ancestry, Kennedy’s publicity emphasized decisions in his congressional record favorable to Italy and postwar Italian immigrants. (52) With widespread rumors among Democratic activists that “‘a vote for Kennedy for the Senate is a vote for Kennedy in 1960′” and Kennedy’s more recent Senate record and Profiles in Courage fame appealing to the WASP “good government” ethos of liberal Republicans and independents, Kennedy received over 73% of the votes in his 1958 victory. (53) The Boston Gl obe ascribed Kennedy’s landslide and attraction to Republican and independent voters to his moderate, Eisenhower-esque image. (54)

After becoming president, Kennedy intervened more aggressively, openly, and, from the perspective of a growing number of Democratic politicians, arrogantly in Massachusetts politics. Kennedy arranged to have his college roommate, Ben Smith, occupy his Senate seat until his brother Edward became 30 and could run for it in a 1962 special election. (55) Kennedy’s preference for promoting WASP patrician Democrats who could promote a “good government” ethos was especially evident in his sponsorship of Endicott “Chub” Peabody for governor. A previously unsuccessful office seeker, Peabody campaigned in the 1960 gubernatorial primary as a reformer who promised to “introduce the ideas of the New Frontier to Massachusetts.” (56) Narrowly losing the bitterly divisive Democratic primary of 1960, Peabody was elected governor in 1962 by a margin of less than 6,000 votes and then lost his renomination bid in 1964. (57)

In his comments to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. during his 1960 presidential campaign, it was obvious that John F. Kennedy had no intention of making his home state’s Democratic party more internally harmonious, united, and cooperative “responsible” party. “‘Nothing can be done until it is beaten–badly beaten…If I were knocked out of the Presidential thing, I would put Bobby into the Massachusetts picture to run for governor.'” (58) In his analysis of Massachusetts party politics, Alec Barbrook concluded, “John Kennedy never seems to have felt that the Massachusetts Democratic Party could be saved or was worth saving, and his personal feuds hindered rather than helped the emergence of the party as a responsible organization with a high degree of unity.” (59)


Despite his prominent, televised role at the 1956 Democratic national convention, Kennedy generally remained distant from the DNC and its chairman, Paul Butler, for the next two years. The most significant exception was Kennedy’s removal of Margaret O’Riordan, an anti-Kennedy Democrat, as Democratic national committeewoman from Massachusetts. (59) More importantly and specifically, Kennedy initially rejected Paul Butler’s offer to join the Democratic Advisory Council (DAC). (60) Formed shortly after the 1956 election, the DAC’s publicly states purpose was “to coordinate and advance efforts in behalf of Democratic programs and principles.” (61) The membership and staff of the DAC were dominated by pro-Stevenson liberals, and Butler was determined to use its research, policy proposals, and press releases to express a distinctly liberal programmatic and ideological identity for the national Democratic party. (62)

Kennedy delayed even nominal, inactive membership in the DAC until November, 1959. One reason for his reluctance to assume an early, active role in the DAC was Kennedy’s awareness of Lyndon Johnson’s outspoken animosity toward the DAC. (63) Kennedy had developed a beneficial relationship with the Senate majority leader who secured highly desirable seats for the Massachusetts senator on the Senate Foreign Relations and Labor committees. (64) He certainly did not want to risk antagonizing Johnson.

A more revealing reason, though, for Kennedy to avoid the DAC was Kennedy’s general pattern of avoiding ideologically liberal organizations, such as the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), that attracted controversy and threatened to narrow his political base and thereby damage his opportunities for higher office. More broadly and significantly, until Kennedy needed to obtain liberal support in 1959 and 1960, his campaign rhetoric and strategy, congressional voting record, and electoral appeals were ideologically complex and sometimes inconsistent and contradictory. Identified as a “fighting conservative” in 1946, Kennedy developed a voting record and rhetorical emphasis in the House distinguished by a hawkish anti-Communism openly critical of the Truman administration, especially for “losing” China to Communism. (65)

After William Loeb, the belligerently right-wing publisher of the Manchester Union Leader accused Kennedy of having a voting record “as unconservative and bad” as Hubert Humphrey’s in 1957, Kennedy assertively replied to Loeb that none of his votes on 12 major issues was approved by the ADA. (66) Kennedy described himself to Loeb as “a moderate Democrat who seeks on every issue to follow the national interest, as his conscience directs him to see it.” (67) Just as Kennedy carefully and sometimes aggressively distanced himself from the ADA, DAC, and the liberal label in general, he did not wish to become embroiled in any of the conflicts of DNC chairman Paul Butler. Kennedy, though, did quietly contribute some funds to the financially strapped DNC in 1958 and 1959 to help the headquarters pay its staff. (68) In 1959, Pierre Salinger, then working on Robert Kennedy’s investigative staff, was interviewed for a DAC staff job but did not take it. (69)

For the sake of his presidential ambition, Kennedy, as a Catholic, needed to avoid any apparently close, publicized relationship with Paul Butler, a fellow Catholic. Nonetheless, Butler received angry letters after the West Virginia and Wisconsin presidential primaries and after the 1960 Democratic national convention accusing him of unethically helping Kennedy get the presidential nomination for religious reasons? (70) Butler was also openly feuding with David Lawrence, a DNC member, governor of Pennsylvania, and the major force in controlling that state’s delegates at the national convention. (71) Kennedy could certainly not afford to alienate Lawrence.

The major advantage that Kennedy sought from the DNC and its chairman was the location of 1960 Democratic national convention. Kennedy wanted the convention to be held in Chicago due to his political connections with the Daley machine and his family’s business interests there. He was disappointed and somewhat apprehensive that the DNC chose Los Angeles due to the rather large number of pro-Stevenson “amateur” Democrats and ADA members in that city and its suburbs. (72)

After Kennedy became the Democratic presidential nominee, it was clear that under his party leadership the DNC chairman would be mostly a symbolic figure. Kennedy was determined that, at least during the campaign, the DNC chairman would be a Protestant. Robert Dallek reveals that Robert Kennedy asked an incredulous Sam Rayburn if Lyndon Johnson would rather be DNC chairman than vice presidential nominee. (73) The Massachusetts senator eventually designated Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington as the new DNC chairman. They had a mutual understanding that Jackson would have a minimal role in the campaign and would vacate this position shortly after the election. (74)

During the general election campaign, Kenneth O’Donnell and Lawrence O’Brien, Kennedy’s two chief campaign operatives, subordinated and integrated the DNC’s apparatus within Kennedy’s personal organization, especially Citizens for Kennedy-Johnson and the Kennedy-Johnson Volunteers Organization? (75) Samuel Brightman, the DNC’s veteran publicity director, believed that his skills and experience were not fully utilized due to Kennedy’s personal approach to campaign organization. (76) Shortly after the election, Kennedy eliminated the DAC, with its policy research and advisory functions, and the DNC’ s Advisory Committee on Political Organization (ACPO). (77) Created by Paul Butler in 1955, the ACPO trained precinct workers and served as consultants to state and local party organizations. (78)

Kennedy’s above treatment of the DNC’s apparatus and chairmanship during and shortly after the 1960 general election campaign is not surprising. According to Theodore Lowi, Lawrence O’Brien, whom Kennedy had appointed director of organization for the DNC, “had 43… out-of-state coordinators trying to contain the friction between Kennedy’s personal organization and the established local and state party organizations.” (79) His political career and progressive ambition thrived in an electoral environment of weak party organizations, strong candidate-centered personal organizations, split ticket voting, and the dilution of clear ideological differences during the Eisenhower era. Thus, any perceptions or assumptions that contemporary observers had of Kennedy as a “strong” party leader were typically based on his political rhetoric rather than his intra-party organizational behavior. (80)

JFK AND THE DNC: 1961-63

The irony of John F. Kennedy’s selection of John M. Bailey as DNC chairman is that Bailey remained chairman of the Connecticut Democratic party where he wielded power over nominations, conventions, platforms, campaign tactics, and other intra-party purposes and processes. (81) But, as DNC chairman under Kennedy and Johnson, Bailey had few opportunities and resources to exercise these skills in a national party organization. (82) For example, two days after Kennedy’s inauguration, the president announced that federal patronage decisions would be made by the DNC national chairman, not the White House or federal agencies. (83)

The reality, though, was that Lawrence O’Brien, now the head of Kennedy’s congressional liaison office, provided the “good news” about patronage decisions to Democratic members of Congress while Bailey provided the “bad news”, i.e., rejections of patronage requests. (84) Such a bifurcated system did not endear Bailey to Democrats disappointed in their patronage requests. Rejecting the advice of Richard Neustadt and Cark Clifford to centralize the patronage distribution process in the DNC headquarters, Kennedy also delegated authority over political appointments to Dan Fenn, a White House aide and member of his Massachusetts personal organization. Fenn and his staff routinely ignored Bailey’s recommendations for federal jobs. (85) DNC treasurer Richard Maguire, a more significant figure than Bailey for White House contact with the DNC via appointments secretary Kenneth O’Donnell, was also a member of Kennedy’s “Irish mafia”. In his study of the White House personnel office, Thomas Weko concluded: “By relying o n his own staff rather than the assistance of the Democratic party, Kennedy hoped to put his own stamp on appointments in a way that none of his predecessors had.” (86)

Kennedy wanted the DNC headquarters to limit itself to two major functions-voter registration and fund raising. (87) At the end of the 1960 campaign, Kennedy was alarmed by reports of lower than expected voter turn out in heavily Democratic cities despite an unusually high nation-wide turn out. (88) The DNC’s voter registration projected focus on registering African Americans, Hispanics, and young adults. This DNC operation paralleled administrative and congressional efforts to increase federal intervention toward voting rights and remove such barriers as poll taxes, literacy tests, and the exclusion of Washington, DC residents from presidential elections. (89)

At the time of Kennedy’s inauguration, the DNC’s debt was nearly $4 million. (90) In order to promote its self-image as a populist party and contrast it with its portrayal of the Republican party as a clique of big business elites, the DNC had experimented with several unsuccessful plans during the 1950s to raise a large amount of funds from a large number of small individual donations from rank and file Democrats. (91) Instead, Kennedy agreed to Richard Maguire’s suggestion to establish the President’s Club in which individuals paid $1,000 contributions each to attend fund raising dinners. (92) Clearly, for Kennedy, effectiveness in raising substantial campaign contributions to reduce the DNC’s debt and prepare for the 1962 and 1964 elections was a higher priority than conveying a populist image in party finances.

Except for his exclusive concentration on the Cuban missile crisis in the latter half of October, 1962, Kennedy, aware of the need to minimize mid-term losses of liberal, nonsouthern Democrats in Congress for the sake of his legislative agenda, regularly stumped for his party. But, as usual, O’Donnell, O’Brien, Maguire, and other members of his White House “Irish mafia” dominated the decision making and planning of Kennedy’s speaking engagements instead of Bailey. (93) In fulfilling his presidential party leadership duty of publicly advocating the election or re-election of his party’s congressional candidates in 1962, Kennedy was more consistently active and attentive than in performing any other party leadership task during his presidency. But Kennedy’s motives were more personal than partisan. (94) He was embarrassed by and concerned about the growing impression on Capitol Hill and in the media that he could not secure passage of major domestic legislation by a Democratic-controlled Congress. (95)

As the “in party” in a mid-term election, the Democrats performed unusually well in 1962. They gained four Senate seats and lost only four House seats. (96) Most political analysts, though, attributed these election results to the factors of incumbency, local issues, economic health, and/or Kennedy’s surge in public approval ratings due to his resolution of the Cuban missile crisis, rather than to any DNC operations or Kennedy’s campaigning. Louis Harris, the president’s pollster, especially attributed the election results to local issues. (97)

With Kennedy focusing on the formulation and passage of major domestic legislation in 1963, he recognized the need to attract moderate and liberal Republican support in Congress. Such bipartisan support was especially necessary to compensate for southern Democratic opposition and achieve passage of his tax cut and civil rights bills as well as Senate ratification of the partial nuclear test ban treaty. (98) Consequently, Kennedy muted partisan rhetoric concerning these legislative issues in 1963.

Ironically and tragically, John F. Kennedy, who, as a presidential party leader, was often negligent and aloof in his relationship with the DNC’s chairman and apparatus, was assassinated while performing a task of party leadership. (99) Despite the widespread impression that Kennedy and Johnson traveled to Texas in November, 1963 to resolve an intra-party conflict between Senator Ralph Yarborough and Governor John Connally, the primary purpose of the trip was to raise campaign funds for the DNC, especially from oil interests, in Dallas and other major cities in Texas for the 1964 presidential campaign and to reduce the DNC’s debt from the 1962 elections. (100)

DNC chairman John M. Bailey played no significant role in these arrangements. Furthermore, according to staff members for Kennedy and Johnson who organized this fund raising trip, both the president and vice president wanted to avoid any attempt to intervene as peace makers between Connally and Yarborough for fear of antagonizing one or both of them. (101) Their objectives in for the Texas trip were carefully limited to fund raising and, to a lesser extent, to improve Kennedy’s poll ratings in Texas. (102)


John F. Kennedy’s plans to raise substantial funds at elite levels and boost his public approval ratings in Texas while shunning involvement in an intra-party dispute were consistent with his pre-presidential intra-party behavior detailed and analyzed in this study. When analyzing one president or comparatively evaluating several presidents as party leaders, political scientists should not overlook or underestimate the significance of the influence of a president’s pre-presidential experiences and behavior within his party on his behavior, perceptions, and legacy as a party leader. In particular, the factors considered in this study–the political culture of a president’s home state’s party and his use of his party as a vehicle for his progressive ambition–can be applied to other presidents. They serve as additional criteria for understanding why presidents develop certain perspectives and patterns of behavior as political actors, which later influence the conduct of their party leadership.


(1.) DNC: Democratic National Committee

HLND: Hesburgh Library, University of Notre Dame

JFKL: John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, MA

LBJL: Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Austin, TX

OH: Oral history transcripts

POE: President’s Office Files

RFK: Robert F. Kennedy

OH, James M. Bailey, April 10, 1964, 15-16, JFKL; OH, James E. Doyle, January 15, 1966, 9, JFKL; OH, David Fox, Jr., July 10, 1964, 9, JFKL; OH, Patrick Lucey, January 6, 1972, 26, JFKL.

(2.) Lawrence, 50-52.

(3.) Sidney M. Milkis, The President and the Parties (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993): 9.

(4.) Stephen Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993): 49-50.

(5.) Daniel Stid, “Woodrow Wilson and the Problem of Party Government,” Polity 27 (Summer 1994): 553.

(6.) James W. Davis, The President as Party Leader (New York: Praeger, 2992): 198-201.

(7.) Sean J. Savage, Truman and the Democratic Party (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997); Sabato, 60-61; and Rhodes Cook, “Reagan Nurtures His Adopted Party to Strength,” Congressional Quarterly Weekly 43 (September 28, 1985): 1927-1930.

(8.) Savage, 1-24; and A. James Reichley, The Life of the Parties (New York: Free Press, 1992): 357-362.

(9.) V.O. Key, Jr., Southern Politics in State and Nation (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985); David R. Mayhew, Two-Party Competition in the New England States (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Bureau of Government Research, 1967); Duane Lockard, New England State Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959); John Fenton, Politics in the Border States (New Orleans: Hauser Press, 1956); Daniel Elazar, American Federalism: A View from the States (New York: Crowell, 1972); and Malcom Jewell and David Olson, American State Political Parties and Elections (Homewood, IL: Dorsey, 1978).

(10.) Alan Rosenthal, “On Analyzing States,” in The Political Life of the American States, ed. by Alan Rosenthal and Maureen Moakley (New York: Praeger, 1984): 11.

(11.) Harold F. Bass, Jr., “George Bush: Party Leader,” presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, August 29- September 1, 1991, in Washington, DC; and Bass, “Bill Clinton’s Presidential Party Leadership: A Preliminary Assessment,” presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, September 25, 1993, in Washington, DC.

(12.) Cornelius Cotter and John F. Bibby, “Institutional Development of Parties and the Thesis of Party Decline,” Political Science Quarterly 95 (Spring 1980): 1-27; Kayden; Robert Huckshorn, Party Leadership in the States (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1976); Nelson W. Polsby and Aaron Wildavsky, Presidential Elections (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House, 1996): 57-58, 143.

(13.) Stephen J. Wayne, The Road to the White House, 1996 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997): 99-155; and Robert Harmel and Kenneth Janda, Parties and Their Environments: Limits to Reform (New York: Longman, 1982).

(14.) John H. Aldrich, Before the Convention (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Jeane Kirpatrick, The New Presidential Elite (New York: Russell Sage, 1976); and John S. Jackson III and William Crotty, The Politics of Presidential Selection (New York: Harper Collins, 1996): 33-34.

(15.) Joseph A. Schlesinger 1985, 1154.

(16.) OH, John P. Roche, July 16, 1970, 77, LBJL; OH, Kenneth P. O’Donnell, July 26, 1969, 64-65, JFKL; Sabato, 59-60; and Lewis L. Gould, “Never a Deep Partisan: Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party, 1963-1969,” in The Johnson Years, v. 3, ed. by Robert A. Divine (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994).

(17.) OH, Clifton C. Carter, October 15, 1968, LBJL; and W. Marvin Watson Files, letter, George Mitchell to Watson, January 24, 1968, LBJL.

(18.) George Reedy, Lyndon B. Johnson: A Memoir (New York: Andrews and McMeel, 1982): 50.

(19.) Vaughn Davis Bornet, The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1983): 283.

(20.) Lawrence D. Longley, “The National Democratic Party Can Lead,” in The Democrats Must Lead, ed. by James MacGregor Burns et. al. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992): 31.

(21.) Cotter and Hennessey, 88.

(22.) David Broder, The Party’s Over (New York: Harper & Row, 1972): 76.

(23.) Ibid.,39.

(24.) Murray B. Levin, The Compleat Politician: Political Strategy in Massachusetts (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962): 41-42.

(25.) Lockard, 120-123; and Neal R. Pierce The New England States: People, Politics, and Power in the Six New England States (New York: Norton, 1976): 62-69.

(26.) Elazar, 86-92, 118.

(27.) Edward C. Banfield and James Q. Wilson, City Politics (New York: Vintage, 1963): 38-43; and James Q. Wilson and Edward C. Banfield, “Political Ethos Revisited,” American Political Science Review 65 (December 1971): 1048-1062.

(28.) Edgar Lilt, The Political Cultures of Massachusetts (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1965): 7-25.

(29.) John K. White, The Fractured Electorate: Political Parties and Social Change in Southern New England (Hanover, HN: University Press of New England, 1983): 66; David R. Mayhew, Placing Parties in American Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986): 145-146; Charles H. Trout, Boston, Great Depression, and the New Deal (New York: Oxford University Press, 4142; Lockard, 124-125; and Harold F. Bass, Jr., “Partisan Approaches to a Changing American Politics, 1946-1996: Partisan Institutions,” conference paper presented at the annual meeting of American Political Science Association, August 29-September 1, 1996, in Washington, DC, 32.

(30.) William V. Shannon, “Massachusetts: Prisoner of the Past,” Our Sovereign State, ed. By Robert S. Allen (New York: Vanguard Press, 1949): 53.

(31.) Lockard, 125.

(32.) Robert A. Shanley, “Massachusetts,” in State Party Structures and Procedures: A State-by-State Compendium, ed. by National Municipal League (New York: National Municipal League, 1967): (3).

(33.) Broder, 23.

(34.) Kenneth P. O’Donnell and David F. Powers, “Johnny, We Hardly Know Ye: Memories of John F. Kennedy (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972): 43-93; James MacGregor Burns, John Kennedy: A Political Profile (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1960): 57-68; Alec Barbrook, God Save the Commonwealth: An Electoral History (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1973): 110; and Herbert Parmet, Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy (New York: Dial Press, 1980): 135-162.

(35.) Burns, 69.

(36.) Alexander Heard, The Costs of Democracy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960): 65; and Hugh D. Price, “Campaign Finance in Massachusetts in 1952,” Public Policy 6 (1955): 25-46.

(37.) Harold Zeiger, The Remarkable Henry Cabot Lodge (New York: Popular Library, 1964): 112.

(38.) Lawrence F. O’Brien, No Final Victories (New York: Doubleday, 1974): 27-28; and Vincent A. Lapomarda, The Boston Mayor Who Became Truman’s Secretary of Labor: Maurice J. Tobin and the Democratic Party (New York: Peter Lang, 1995): 146.

(39.) Christopher Matthews, Kennedy and Nixon (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996): 76-77, 87-89.

(40.) Earl Latham and George Goodwin, Jr., Massachusetts Politics (Medford, MA: Tufts Civic Education Center, 1960): 16-18.

(41.) Congressional Quarterly, Inc., Guide to U.S. Elections (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 1985): 619; John P. Mallan, “Massachusetts: Liberal and Corrupt” New Republic 127 (October 13, 1952): 10-12; Bums, 116; and Parmet 1980, 255-256.

(42.) JFK Pre-Presidential Papers, memo, Lawrence O’Brien to JFK, undated but circa 1955, JFKL.

(43.) Ibid., 8-9.

(44.) Ibid., 9.

(45.) Barbrook, 115; Theodaore C. Sorensen Papers, letter, Joseph P. Healey to Sorensen, December 2, 1954, JFKL; and Burns, 975.

(46.) JFK Pre-Presidential Papers, memo JFK to Kenneth O’Donnell, March 8, 1955, JFKL; and Parmet 1980, 348-351.

(47.) O’Donnell and Powers, 111-112.

(48.) DNC, Official Report of the Proceedings of the Democratic National Convention: 1956 (Richmond, VA: Beacon Press, 1956): 417; Parmet 1980, 356-383; and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Packaging of the Presidency (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984): 123.

(49.) DNC 1956, 480-481.

(50.) Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965): 37-39, 91-93.

(51.) O’Brien, 51-58; and O’Donnell and Powers, 141-142.

(52.) Theodore C. Sorensen Papers, memo, “Concerning What Senator Kennedy Has Done for Italians,” 1958, JFKL.

(53.) Ibid., clipping, Youngstown Vindicator, August 21, 1958, JFKL; Ibid., memo, JFK to Sorensen, December, 1957, JFKL; Banfield and Wilson, 35; and Guide to U.S. Elections, 619.

(54.) Barbrook, 117.

(55.) Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy (New York: Harper and Row, 1965): 235; and Barbrook, 118.

(56.) Levin, 90-91.

(57.) Guide to U.S. Elections, 508.

(58.) Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., 38.

(59.) O’Donnell and Powers, 116-117.

(60.) Theodore C. Sorensen Papers, letter, JFK to Paul M. Butler, February 7, 1957, JFKL.

(61.) DNC Files, DNC Press Release, November 27, 1956, 2, JFKL.

(62.) Drexel A. Sprecher Papers, DAC press release, October 20, 1957, JFKL.

(63.) Paul M. Butler Folder, letter, LBJ to Butler, December 11, 1956, LBJL.

(64.) Estes Kefauver Folder, letter, LBJ to Kefauver, January 10, 1957, LBJL.

(65.) JFK Pre-Presidential Papers, letter, Edward J. Dunn to REK, September 20, 1952, JFKL; Matthews, 40; and Parmet 1980, 209-210.

(66.) Theodore C. Sorensen Papers, letter, William Loeb to JFK, June 25, 1957, and letter, JFK to Loeb, July 10, 1957, JFKL.

(67.) Ibid., 2, JFKL.

(68.) OH, Kenneth Birkhead, July 1, 1964, 9-11, JFKL.

(69.) Paul M. Butler Papers, minutes of DAC meeting, February 28, 1959, HLND.

(70.) George C. Roberts, Paul M Butler: Hoosier Politician and National Political Leader (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987): 162.

(71.) Paul M. Butler Papers, letter, Samuel H. Cogar to Butler, September 14-1959, HLND.

(72.) OH, Camille Gravel, May 23, 1967, 38-39, JFKL; and Jeff Broadwater, Adlai Stevenson (New York: Twayne, 1994): 187-188.

(73.) Robert Dallek, Lone Star Rising (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991): 580.

(74.) Cotter and Hennessey, 87; and OH, Drexel A. Sprecher, August 17, 1972, 23-24, JFKL.

(75.) RFK Papers, letter, G. Mennen Williams to RFK, July-August, 1960, JFKL; OH, Bailey, 93, JFKL; and Theodore J. Lowi, The Personal President (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985): 75-77.

(76.) OH, Samuel C. Brightman, December 29, 1964, 10-13, JFKL.

(77.) Roberts, 146.

(78.) Ibid., 136-146.

(80.) Lowi, 76.

(80.) Stan Opotowsky, The Kennedy Government (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1961): 185-186; and Vance Hartke and John M. Redding, Inside the New Frontier (New York: McFadden-Bartell, 1962): 45-49.

(81.) Joseph I. Lieberman, The Power Broker: A Biography of John m. Bailey (Boston: Houghton Muffin, 1966); and OH, Carter, 23.

(82.) OH, India Edwards, February 4, 1969, 35-39, LBJL.

(83.) Hugh A. Bone, American Politics and the Party System (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965): 222.

(84.) O’Brien, 108-109; and James N. Giglio, The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991): 38.

(85.) Thomas J. Weko, The Politicizing Presidency (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994): 29-32.

(86.) Ibid., 26.

(87.) POF, memo, JFK to John M. Bailey, February 17, 1961, JFKL.

(88.) O’Donnell and Powers, 143; and Joseph A. Schlesinger, Political Parties and the Winning of Office (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994): 140-142.

(89.) Sorensen, 474-475.

(90.) Ibid., 174.

(91.) John Van Doren, Big Money in Little Sums (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1956).

(92.) OH, Carter, 26.

(93.) O’Brien, 137-139.

(94.) Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., 694.

(95.) Ibid., 694-695; and Tom Wicker, JFK and LBJ: The Influence of Personality upon Politics (New York: Morrow, 1968): 146.

(96.) Politics in America, 1945-1964, 45.

(97.) Philip Grant, Jr., “Kennedy and the Congressional Elections of 1962,” in John F. Kennedy, ed. by J. Richard Snyder (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1988): 85-94; Frank H. Jones, “The 1962 Elections in the West,” Western Political Quarterly 16 (June 1963): 375-385; James E. Campbell, “Explaining Presidential Losses in Midterm Congressional Elections,” Journal of Politics 47 (1985): 1140-1157; and Parmet 1 983, 298.

(98.) Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile of Power (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993): 593-594, 624-626.

(99.) Cotter and Hennessey, 88-90.

(100.) OH, Carter, 21-28; OH, Roche, 10; and OH, O’Donnell, 39-41.

(101.) OH, O’Donnell, 41; and O’Brien, 155-157.

(102.) OH, Richard Scammon, March 3, 1969, 14, LBJL.

Sean J. Savage, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. He is the author of the books Roosevelt: The Party Leader and Truman and the Democratic Party. He is currently writing a book on presidential party leadership under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

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