Playing Hardball

During the Kennedy years, The Atlantic regularly published unsigned reports that provided an insider's perspective on the mood in Washington. Here, the column described Kennedy's political ruthlessness, which helped him secure the Democratic nomination for president in 1960.

Kennedy makes a point in his fourth and final debate with Vice President Richard Nixon, on October 21, 1960. His vigorous presence in their televised face-offs was seen as crucial to his narrow electoral victory. (Associated Press)

The campaign of 1960 has begun earlier than any other campaign of modern times, and the Wisconsin primary on April 5 will offer a clue to the voters’ choices …

The Democrats have been talking a lot about how hard it will be to defeat [Vice President Richard] Nixon, since polls generally show Nixon running ahead of any Democratic candidate. But the nature of the Democratic attack on Nixon is not yet established and cannot be until the party’s nominee is known. Among themselves, the Democrats are not at all unhappy at being classed as the underdog at this stage of the campaign. Most of the party politicians are convinced that once the choice is clear-cut between Nixon and a specific Democrat, the polls will begin to register the change. Nixon himself is aware of the danger of looking too good too early.

How does each of the Democratic hopefuls figure he might get the nomination? Here is a rundown of the current strategy in each candidate’s camp on the eve of the first meaningful primary …

Senator Kennedy, the Front-Runner

Senator John F. Kennedy is the front-runner so far in the polls. He must stay ahead, and therefore is in a go-for-broke mood. He has entered practically all the primaries which have any real effect on delegates to [the Democratic National Convention in] Los Angeles. He is campaigning back and forth, up and down, all over the nation, knowing that he must have the nomination all but cinched before the gavel calls the convention to order. Even if he should sweep the primaries, he would not have the 761 votes necessary to be nominated. Consequently, he must reinforce his primary wins with political power plays, and at this second problem he and his agents have been working unceasingly.

They succeeded spectacularly in Ohio by letting Governor Michael DiSalle know that if he did not run as a Kennedy-pledged head of the state delegation, the senator would enter the Ohio primary to challenge him with a slate of his own. DiSalle tested the state’s political temperature and concluded that he must either bow to Kennedy or run the risk of losing not only a primary contest but control of the state party machinery. He tried to argue Kennedy out of the primary, but the senator was adamant. So DiSalle capitulated and Ohio’s 64 votes were delivered to Kennedy.

Kennedy then proceeded to pull a similar power play in Maryland to capture its 24 votes. Conservative Governor Millard Tawes wanted to keep the state delegation free of commitments and tried to convince Kennedy to stay out of the primary. But in the end he, too, gave in. Kennedy’s tactics were somewhat different in Maryland, but just as effective as in Ohio.

The senator’s biggest problem is in four states with massive blocks of convention votes—New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois …

Kennedy is trying to create internal pressures for second and third ballot votes for himself. At Los Angeles, his problem will be to break loose on each succeeding ballot a new batch of these second-choice votes, so that his total will keep edging up toward the majority figure. To be in a position to play this power game, he must do well in the primaries, proving that his religion, his youth, and any other controversial characteristics are not impediments to public approval.