VIEWPOINT;JFK: THE MYSTIQUE BEGINS

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Exactly 40 years ago this summer, John F. Kennedy suffered his first political defeat, a rare one and significant, in that it kept him off a Democratic ticket headed by Adlai Stevenson that would be crushed that November by Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.

I'd arrived in Washington in January of 1956 to cover Capitol Hill, mainly the Senate side, for Fairchild Publications. Kennedy was already a glamorous and rather famous figure in the Senate and clearly was destined for great things. And because of his state's textile and trade interests as well as his own committee appointments (Labor and the McClellan Committee investigating labor-management racketeering), Kennedy was one of the senators I had to see regularly about legislation and various investigations (brother Bobby was McClellan's chief counsel).

Jack Kennedy was somewhat aloof, maybe cool is a better word, but he was cooperative enough and would take the time to talk and answer questions. He had a good staff, one of the best on the Hill, people said. But he had a lot of information in his head and understood the parliamentary tricks and how the Senate worked. He also knew how to handle a young reporter, not so much answering your question but turning it around. "Well, you've been covering the hearings, what do you think'll happen...?"

But good pols all ducked and dodged. Kennedy was courteous about it and flattered a green kid by indicating my opinion, somehow, mattered.

He and Jackie had a house out in McLean, Va., but Bobby and Ethel needed more space for all those kids and they swapped homes, with Jack and Jackie moving into Georgetown. You'd see them around. She was still pretty young and liked to wear a man's raincoat, Brooks Brothers by the look of it, and tennis shoes. On the job Jack wore English-cut suits, no vent in back, single-breasted, two-button jobs. Good fabrics. Suits that murmured "money."

Looking back on the three years I covered Kennedy in the Senate (I was out of the country during his brief presidency, covering him only once more, when he and Jackie flew to Paris on their state visit to deGaulle), it seems to me preposterous that I never heard any of the stories of his womanizing. Put me down as naive. I only knew that his office was staffed by some of the prettiest girls (it was OK then to use "girls") on the Hill. I used to drop by frequently just to gaze upon his receptionist.

Still a relatively junior senator, even then there was an undeniable electricity. You'd be lounging around the Senate press gallery, smoking and playing gin or actually typing a story or sleeping (there were long leather couches), when one of the gallery clerks, Herbie Hall or Don Wommack, would stick his head in from the the chamber and yell, "Kennedy's up!" and there'd be a scramble to hear what he had to say. Hubert Humphrey, for one, was far senior to Jack and pretty important, but he was always making speeches so you could stroll out to hear Hubert. Jack didn't speechify much so it was usually something that made news.

At the convention Adlai would again be nominated but there was a stiff battle for No. 2 between Kefauver of Tennessee, a pious, self-important jerk, and Kennedy. The Tennessee delegation, including Al Gore's daddy, was split. Gore liked Kennedy, didn't like Estes Kefauver one bit. And just when it looked as if Kefauver's own state was going to throw its support to Jack, Sen. Gore was warned, "If you vote for that Catholic son of a bitch over your fellow Tennessean, you'll never hold office again."

Kefauver was nominated, he and Stevenson were trounced, and untainted by embarrassing defeat, four years later Jack Kennedy would defeat Nixon and become president.

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