Contrary to what has often been written, John F. Kennedy did not regard his debate with Richard Nixon as the pivotal moment in his political career. Instead, he always looked back on his unsuccessful bid for the vice-presidential slot on the Stevenson ticket in 1956 as the time when his political future hung most in the balance.
Adlai Stevenson had stunned the Democratic assemblage in Chicago by opening up the nomination for the No. 2 slot to the national convention.
Hubert Humphrey was deeply disappointed. He was close to Stevenson personally and thought he would be given the running-mate nod. Estes Kefauver, no friend of Stevenson, was heartened. He had picked up a lot of delegates while challenging for the presidential nomination but losing to Stevenson.
Then, out of nowhere, Kennedy jumped into the race for the vice-presidential spot. Who was Kennedy? He was just a name to most of the delegates. I had seen him debate Henry Cabot Lodge in Boston in 1952 - when as a young congressman seeking Lodge's Senate seat, Kennedy had displayed his quick wit and persuasive, combative style. No one then thought Kennedy would beat Lodge. But he did.
Within hours Kennedy became a force in Chicago. He took the very same suite in the Blackstone Hotel which had become known as the ''smoke-filled room'' out of which the presidential candidacy of Warren Harding was shaped by GOP political leaders in 1920.
I sat in that suite for hours, watching with wonderment the way the Kennedys quickly put together their highly effective campaign. Bobby was there. So were some Kennedy sisters. In and out of a bedroom where Kennedy held court came a stream of big-city and state political leaders from all around the country. It was understood that the family ''boss,'' Joseph Kennedy, with a lot of political debts due him, was leaning hard on his debtors. And they were responding.
So it was that Kennedy was able to mount a vice-presidential candidacy that came within a hair of succeeding. In fact, it took some last-minute maneuvering by pro-Kefauver leaders on the floor to throw the nomination to the Tennessean.
At the time Kennedy was deeply disappointed. But much later, as he was taking the formal steps to enter the upcoming 1960 Wisconsin and Nebraska primaries, he told me he believed his presidential prospects would have ended even before they began had he been on the 1956 ticket and been a part of the thumping defeat handed out by President Eisenhower. He said he thanked his ''lucky stars'' for that convention rejection which had, nevertheless, underscored to doubting Democrats that he could be an effective candidate, despite questions being raised about his religion.
We were flying that day between Omaha and Washington on his private plane, the Caroline, and the Senator had come over to sit beside me. He seemed anxious to talk, and it was he who steered our conversation to controversial questions. I was surprised at his candor.
He was unhappy with Harry Truman's having referred to the 1928 presidential election - in which Democratic nominee Al Smith, a Roman Catholic, was defeated - as a possible index of what might occur if the religious issues were raised by the presence of another nominee who was a Roman Catholic.
''Why did he have to do that?'' he asked. ''Why couldn't he have said that there has been lots of progress since 1928 and that he thought it would be different now?''
Kennedy wanted to talk about church and religion. ''I believe absolutely in the separation of church and state,'' he said earnestly. ''And I have said that again and again. I will uphold the Constitution.''
Did Kennedy stick to his pledge to be a secular president? After 20 years, the early historical judgments on the Kennedy administration are coming in. And they are saying that Kennedy, indeed, fulfilled that commitment, thus ending the bar to the presidency for anyone of his religious affiliation.