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As I Walk, I Remember Campaigns of Years Past

By Godfrey SperlingStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 28, 1997



Why is it that, while I'm out walking on a sunny October day, my thoughts float back to those many fall days years ago when I was out with presidential candidates on the campaign trail?

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So often I see myself on the edge of a big crowd assembled out in the open somewhere, and I'm taking notes while listening to someone speaking - Eisenhower? Kennedy? Stevenson? More than anything, I'm enjoying the moment - the oratory, the excitement, the outdoors, drinking in the sunshine of a beautiful day.

The Kennedy days

On this day, the memories flood in. Memories like these:

A letter I received from Senator Kennedy in 1959, in which he took issue with me on my assessment of how he would fare if he entered the Wisconsin presidential primary the next year. He said I was "dead wrong" in writing that Sen. Hubert Humphrey would beat him.

I had written that Humphrey, coming from an adjoining state, Minnesota, was well known to the Wisconsin voters and well liked by them. I also said Wisconsin's governor, Gaylord Nelson, would be working for his friend, Humphrey. I concluded by saying Kennedy would be making a mistake if he got into that contest.

Kennedy argued, amiably, that my piece hadn't given him a "fair shake" and that he would prove me wrong. Later that year, I rode with Kennedy on his private plane back to Washington after he had formally entered the Wisconsin primary. He told me he wasn't at all sure he could win. He said he knew Humphrey would be the favorite. But he said he simply "had to" get into that race to "show all those Democratic leaders" that, despite being a Roman Catholic, he could win in a state that was largely Protestant and where his opponent was so popular.

By his fine showing in Wisconsin, he went on to demonstrate to me, and to everyone, that he had the stuff to go on and win the nomination. But what if he had lost that early primary? It probably would have been the end of the line for Kennedy.

Ruminating over a run

I think back, too, to a ride I took with Adlai Stevenson from his Chicago law office to his suburban home in Libertyville, Ill. He let me know quite quickly that he was "agonizing" over what to do. The 1960 Democratic convention was only a few weeks away and many of his political friends - including Eleanor Roosevelt and Eugene McCarthy - were urging him to make a convention fight of it to prevent Kennedy from becoming the nominee.

Stevenson told me he was worried about Kennedy's inexperience in foreign affairs. Further, he said he was convinced that Kennedy's father would continue to control and steer his son if he made it to the presidency. He said he was "leaning" toward making a last-minute bid for the nomination, which he did.

Remember how the crowd rose up to shout their "huzzas" for Stevenson after Mrs. Roosevelt's and Senator McCarthy's rousing nominations? And then the delegates turned around and voted for Kennedy. Stevenson got most of the cheers, but Kennedy got the nomination.

I think of other scenes, interviews I had with Harry Truman after he left the presidency, first in his office in Kansas City and later in his library in Independence, Mo. To me, Truman seemed completely opposed to Kennedy from the moment the Massachusetts senator's presidential ambitions became apparent. And, of course, he never cared for Stevenson either. Averell Harriman and Stuart Symington were the public figures Truman thought were best qualified to be in the White House.

But Kennedy became president - a historic one. So it would seem that Stevenson and Truman were wrong in their misgivings about him.

These are my thoughts as I take my daily walk on a beautiful, crisp, sunlit October day.