'The Road to Camelot' takes a fresh look at JFK's 1960 campaign

Veteran reporters Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie have crafted a tougher and more balanced account of the long campaign than anybody's written yet.

The Road to Camelot By Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie Simon & Schuster 448 pp.

The standard mythology surrounding Senator John F. Kennedy's long campaign for president in 1960 hits all the right notes: the rich, scheming father declaring his intention to sell his son “like corn flakes”; JFK's dry quip that although his father was willing to pay for a victory, he refused to foot the bill for a landslide; and the stereotypical smoke-filled rooms in Boston's Bellevue Hotel, where the old ward-politics operators brought in by Papa Kennedy clashed with the bright young men John and his brother Bobby had gathered around themselves. It traces the gradual supplanting of those old ward operators in favor of the best and the brightest of the New Frontier, the symbolic passing of the torch from the time of JFK's grandfather John “Honey” Fitzgerald, former Boston Mayor, US Congressman, and a thorough product of Tammany-era infighting and deal-making, to a newer age, when Boston's politics would ascend to the national level. 

It's good mythology, but it gets a thorough dusting-off and kicking-around in The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK's Five-Year Campaign, a conscientiously-researched and terrific new book by Thomas Oliphant, Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe journalist and Curtis Wilkie, national and foreign correspondent for the Globe. These two veteran reporters have no historical bombshells to detonate – the story of Kennedy's unlikely rise from glamorous but inert senator to president of the United States has, to put it mildly, been told in exhaustive detail many times – but through a careful piecing together of primary accounts and secondary reminiscences by all the key players, Oliphant and Wilkie have managed to craft a tougher and more balanced account of the long campaign than anybody's written yet.

The story of that campaign seems on the surface to be a standard tale of American political corruption and machine politics, a tale of money buying influence and creating a successful career. The candidate himself, joking aside, of course vigorously denied such a characterization, especially when it was made by influential public figures. When Eleanor Roosevelt commented at the beginning of the “long campaign” that Kennedy's father “has been spending oodles of money all over the country and probably has a paid representative in every state by now,” JFK shot back, “My father has not spent any money around the country and has NO paid representatives for this purpose in ANY state in the union.”

"The Road to Camelot" succeeds in making that touchiness intensely understandable on both a pragmatic and a personal level; it gives readers a Kennedy with no patience for being written off as anybody's pawn. “Throughout the campaign the elder Kennedy had watched as his advice was disregarded by his sons and their aides,” Oliphant and Wilkie write. “He had been willing to help finance the costly operation, yet he rarely intervened personally.”

As much as anything, the book is the story of those aides, the so-called “Irish Mafia” assembled by JFK and Bobby Kennedy, men like Dave Powers, Dick Donahue, Kennedy brother-in-law Steve Smith, Lawrence O'Brien, who was “more analytic in his approach to politics than the brawling style favored by so many of the Irish pols in Massachusetts,” or Kenny O'Donnell, who “personified the campaign's aversion to titles and fiefdoms.” (“Jack Kennedy simply wanted him close,” we're told, “to go see someone, work out a deal, threaten a recalcitrant politician, and above all to give political advice in his direct, gruff, laconic manner”).

It's the story of Pierre Salinger and Ted Sorensen working the press and the written word. It's the story of wizened old ward bosses like Boston political boss extraordinaire John McCormack, “a native of South Boston, a working-class, Irish Catholic neighborhood justly famous for its insularity and suspicion of outsiders.”

This group of advisors and patrons gave Senator Kennedy the input and sounding-boards his omnivorous mind needed, and throughout "The Road to Camelot," we can watch that mind growing and adapting, hungrily learning about the nature of national politics. Kennedy had health problems – severe back problems and a form of Addison's disease that required powerful medication – but he committed himself to a punishing schedule in the “undeclared presidential campaign” that was in full swing in 1957. 

The book's account of the actual 1960 presidential campaign is as gripping and dramatic as anything Sorensen himself might have written in its interplay of political insight and personal interplay. The authors pull no punches in their assessment of the candidate whose story they're telling; writing about the haphazard choice of Lyndon Johnson over the suave, polished Senator Symington, for instance, Oliphant and Wilkie say simply, “Kennedy basically bungled the process of choosing his running mate.”

But the overriding impression conveyed by "The Road to Camelot" is in essence a reminder and perhaps a bit of a surprise: This is the story of John Kennedy making all the decisions and calling all the shots, a man in complete control of his message and his campaign – the chief architect of his own victory.

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