On January 5, 1960, just three days after announcing that he would run for president, Senator John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, held a small dinner party in Washington, D.C. Their guests included Ben Bradlee, then Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, and his then-wife, Tony, and Newsweek correspondent James M. Cannon. Cannon taped the conversation for research on a book he was writing. After he died, in September 2011, the tapes became part of the collection of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston; a transcript is published for the first time in the new book Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy, edited by Ted Widmer. In this exclusive excerpt, the candidate muses on the sources and purpose of power.
From This Story
JFK: This is on? Can it get me from there?
Bradlee: [unclear] How come? Was it Joe’s death that started the . . . ?
Cannon: Why did you get started in politics? Why were you ever interested in it?
JFK: In the thirties, when I was home from school, the conversation was always about politics. Want a cigar?
Cannon: It’s all right. Talk loud.
JFK: Not in the sense of sort of being emotionally stirred about great issues, but really, just about the whole interest of my father was [unclear] in politics, in the Roosevelt administration.
Cannon: . . . When did you take your first step? What year was that?
JFK: January ’46, with the election in June.
Cannon: This was for a seat in . . . ?
Cannon: In what district?
JFK: The eleventh congressional district, which my grandfather once represented in Congress. But I didn’t know anybody in Boston; I hadn’t really lived there much. The war, I’d been away. I’d been at Harvard University. I’d been to Choate School before that, and lived in New York. So I went to live with my grandfather at the Bellevue Hotel, and I began to run, at a much earlier time than anyone else. [To Jacqueline Kennedy and Toni Bradlee: “You might want to go sit in the other room. . . .”]
Bradlee: No, no, no.
JFK: They don’t want to listen to this.
Bradlee: They do!
Toni Bradlee: We do, Jack! We love it, Jack!
JFK: Toni doesn’t, and I know Jackie doesn’t.
Toni: Yes I do, Jack! I’m so interested.
Toni: If it makes you uncomfortable, we won’t . . .
Bradlee: It’s going to be all stilted unless we can have some of that.
Jacqueline Kennedy: Ben said we should interrupt and I should show my views and grasp of issues.
Bradlee: And provoke! Is that not right?
JFK: You don’t think it’s working, do you?
Cannon: It’s working.
Bradlee: Don’t stare at it.
JFK: OK, now we’re in January 1946.
Bradlee: Then when was the moment that you absolutely were bitten with it?
JFK: Once I started, I worked damn hard, and I did the same thing in ’52 as I am now doing, which may not be successful nationally. Start early. Try to get the support of nonprofessionals, in a sense, who are much more ready to commit themselves early, and then it’s just long, long, long labor. Early.
JFK: Why do it?
Cannon: Why do you do it now? Why do you go to all this effort? Obviously you’re a well-to-do guy, who could live off the fat of the land. Why do you go in for politics?
JFK: I think the rewards are, first, infinite.
Cannon: What are they?
JFK: Well, look now, if you went to law school, and I’d gotten out, which I was going to do [unclear] and then I go and become a member of a big firm, and I’m dealing with some dead, deceased man’s estate, or I’m perhaps fighting in a divorce case, even a case of one kind or another, or some fellow got in an accident, can you compare that, or let’s say more serious work, when you’re participating in a case against the DuPont Company in a general antitrust case, which takes two or three years, can you tell me that that compares in interest with being a member of Congress in trying to write a labor bill, or trying to make a speech on foreign policy? I just think that there’s no comparison.
Toni Bradlee: Can I ask a question?
Toni Bradlee: Is being president the ultimate of everybody that goes into politics?
JFK: In the sense of being head of whatever organization you’re in, I suppose. But most important is the fact that the President today is the seat of all power.
Cannon: What you are suggesting is that your interest in politics evolved really after you got into it. Is that correct?
JFK: Well, no . . . well, that’s partially correct. It wasn’t overwhelming. I didn’t participate in political activities in college.
Cannon: Not until really you felt the satisfaction of having made a speech come off?
JFK: I hadn’t even considered myself, because I’m not a political type.
Cannon: Not even now?
Jacqueline Kennedy: Why? Ben reminds me of Adlai Stevenson. [laughter]
JFK: Well, I mean the political type. I think it’s hard work. My grandfather was a natural political type. Loved to go out to a dinner. Loved to get up and sing with the crowds. Loved to go down and take the train up and talk to eighteen people on the train.
Cannon: What makes you think you aren’t, in a different context?
JFK: I just happen to fit the times. My grandfather, his political career was limited partly because he was part of the immigrant group, who would not achieve success, but partly because he did do these things and therefore he never concentrated enough to get what he really wanted, which was either governor or senator. Now it requires far more work, politics is far more serious business. You really aren’t so much interested in who’s at the . . . really, they try to make, I think the judgment is rather cold in judgment, as to what, the people who have some competence. So the old-type political personality is on his way out. Tele- vision is only one manifestation. I think that the problems are so tough, I don’t think you have to be this hail-fellow-well-met.
Cannon: Why do you say the problems are tough, what are some of these problems?
JFK: I think, all the problems, war, the destruction of the United States and the world, every problem, urban problems, agricultural, they’re all . . . monetary, fiscal, labor-management, inflation. I mean, they’re terribly sophisticated. In the nineteenth century you only have about three problems: the development of the West, slavery, tariff and currency.
Bradlee: But did you have any remote idea, Jack, that when you ran for Congress, in 1946, that you would run for president?
JFK: No, I didn’t.
Bradlee: Remote? Not even when you went to bed?
JFK: Never. Never. Never. I thought maybe I’d be governor of Massachusetts someday.
Toni Bradlee: And yet it’s true that there are only some people who have either what it takes, or have . . .
Toni: . . . something in them that makes them go through . . .
JFK: I don’t know. Everybody reaches a natural level. It’s possible my natural level is in the Senate. I mean, we’ll know in the next six months. But there isn’t anybody in the House that would not like to advance himself, or anybody who works for anything. My God, if you didn’t have that power of desire, the United States and every place else would collapse! That’s what moves the country and the world. That’s just a part of it. I’m just saying that it’s the center of power. I’m not talking about personal, I’m just saying the center of action is the more precise term, is the presidency. Now if you are interested, which many, many people are, not just me, the presidency is the place to be, in the sense of if you want to get anything done.
Cannon: If you were talking to a college student, why would you tell him that he ought to go into politics?
JFK: Because I think that this opportunity to participate in the solutions of the problems which interest him, I would assume he’s interested, I would say the place he could effect some results would be in politics. The second, that your personal sources of satisfactions which come from doing this work is far greater in politics than it will ever be in business. And your financial reward will not be as great, and your insecurity will probably be greater in politics, because you may get defeated in the next election. Those are the disadvantages.
Cannon: Well, should somebody who is contemplating going into politics, should he have some sort of other source of financial security?
JFK: Well, it’s desirable for anybody to have financial security, in whatever they do, but quite obviously the mass, the great majority of politicians do not have it, but they seem to survive.
Cannon: Do you feel it’s been a help to you?
JFK: Well, I think my biggest help, really was getting started, and my father’s having been known. And therefore when you walked up to somebody, you had some entree. That’s a far greater advantage to me, I think, than the financial [unclear]. Coming from a politically active family was really the major advantage.
Cannon: You think there’s more advantage in having financial backing, so that you didn’t have to worry?
JFK: Well, I have to worry, because I could be defeated.
Cannon: But you don’t have to worry about your family, about being out of a job, if you should be defeated.
JFK: No, but I worry, I wouldn’t like to try to pick up my life at forty-five, -six, or -seven, and start after twenty years of being in politics, and try to pick up my life then. That would be a source of concern to me. Many politicians probably are lawyers and would start in something else. I’m not a lawyer. It would be a problem for me to decide. Maybe need a different degree. I mean, it’s like having your leg up to your ankle or to your knee amputated, it’s still disturbing.
Bradlee: Jack, what career might you pick?
JFK: I don’t know what I’d do. This just happens to be . . .
Bradlee: Does that mean that politics is an all-inclusive profession?
JFK: I don’t see really what you do out of it. I went in when I was...navy, college, politics. Where would you go? What would I do now? I couldn’t possibly. I don’t know what I’d do.
Toni Bradlee: Write.
JFK: No, I couldn’t, because I’ve lost the chance. I mean, I’m sure it takes twenty years to learn to be a decent writer. You have to do it every day.
Bradlee: Well, what stops a guy, Jack, that hasn’t stopped you?
JFK: You mean, where does everybody reach a decision where they’ll stay? I think an awful lot is fortune. There is an awful lot of fortune in the thing. As I look ahead now, as I look at these primaries, how they’re breaking, bad luck and good luck. Why is it that I have to run in Wisconsin, the one state where I have infinite trouble, when Hubert Humphrey has got nothing anyplace else? That’s just a bad break.
Bradlee: Well, what is there in a man? I mean, why isn’t Muskie running for president now, instead of you?
JFK: Muskie may. If I had to pick a vice president, I’d pick Ed Muskie. My judgment is Ed Muskie has the best chance of being vice president of anybody.
Bradlee: With you?
JFK: Not with me, but if I don’t make it. My judgment is, the ticket would be, if I had to pick a long shot, if I don’t make it, it would be Stevenson7 and Muskie.
Bradlee: Well, what is the magic? And is the magic that you think exists and is important at forty-three, did you have any idea what it was at twenty-six?
JFK: No, but I did always reasonably well. In the first place I worked harder than my opponents, on at least three occasions, I worked harder, with the exception of Hubert, I think, than anybody else, every time I’ve run. And then I brought advantages, as I say, I brought advantages in ’46, and in ’52 I just buried Lodge.
Bradlee: Advantages . . . well-known family?
JFK: I don’t think he was tough enough, Lodge, because he didn’t do the work. He had every advantage in ’52. I mean that was really a long shot. Nobody wanted to run against him.
Bradlee: . . . Eisenhower?
JFK: Well, yeah, he’d won by the biggest majority ever in the history of Massa- chusetts the previous time he’d run, 560,000, he beat Walsh. After four terms. I mean, Walsh was a soft touch, but it was a hell of a victory, 560,000 votes. Fifty- two, a Republican year coming up, campaign manager.
Bradlee: But is it true that the magic and the desire changes with the office, because that seems to be true?
JFK: No, I just think that as time moves on, and you move on, your perspective changes. I don’t know what makes some politicians succeed and others fail. It’s a combination of time and their own quality . . .
Bradlee: And luck.
JFK: . . . and luck. I mean, the margin is awfully small between, you know, those who succeed and those who don’t. Like it is in life.
Cannon: Were you disappointed in ’56 when you didn’t make it for vice president? JFK: I was for about a day or so.
Cannon: Is that all, really? What did you do to contain your disappointment?
JFK: I didn’t really ever think I was going to run when I went there. I didn’t think I had much of a chance ever. When Stevenson asked me to nominate him. I thought I was out, this was a complete surprise to me, I really . . .
Bradlee: Did you nominate Stevenson in ’56?
Toni Bradlee: Maybe he’ll do the same for you now. [laughter]
Bradlee: You’d ask nothing less.
Cannon: But once it was done, were you disappointed?
JFK: Yeah, I guess we were, the next morning, weren’t we, Jackie? I mean, I was tired.
Jacqueline Kennedy: You were so tired. How could you be anything . . .
JFK: It was so damn close, I was disappointed. I was disappointed that night. Cannon: Did you think that they were going to win?
JFK: Kefauver deserved it. I always thought that [unclear], he’d beaten Steven- son in two or three primaries . . .
Bradlee: You didn’t run in any primaries in that, did you?
JFK: No, but he had, that’s why he deserved it.
Cannon: Was there any sense of [unclear]?
JFK: Afterwards? No, it’s past [or passed].
Cannon: It was past the next morning. You can honestly say, you could go off the next day to home, or to Hyannisport, or wherever, and say, “Well, nice try.”
JFK: Not quite that easy, because I was damn tired, but I have to say, I thought, you know, we did have a close effort, and I had not thought I was going to win, I did much better than I thought I would, I thought Kefauver deserved to win, and therefore I was not desolate. It’s a lot different from now. Now it’s entirely different. Now I’m [unclear]. It would take me a lot longer to recover.
Cannon: How does a politician get over this sense of loss? Sense of defeat?
JFK: I didn’t lose so much. I was still in the Senate, and finally, of course, you know the ticket didn’t win.
Cannon: Did you think it was going to?
JFK: Well, in September I thought he might, I thought he had a pretty good chance. At the end of the convention we all got excited. I thought even in September he was doing . . . turned out to be a [unclear].
Cannon: Why did you think he was going to win?
JFK: Well, for a little while there, Stevenson was awfully active and Eisenhower wasn’t. I was just talking to Democrats.
Cannon: You’re suggesting that you haven’t had many disappointments in politics. Have you ever lost a race?
JFK: No. I’ve run five times.
Cannon: The only thing you’ve ever lost was the try for the vice presidency.
JFK: That’s right.
Cannon: And it really didn’t hit you very hard.
JFK: No. At the time. I mean, that day it did.
Cannon: What do you do, what did you say to yourself, when it happened?
JFK: I was disappointed that day, and I was damn tired, and we came awfully close, and then we lost. By twenty-eight votes or something. And I was disappointed.
Cannon: What did you do, go back to the hotel and go to sleep? Or have a drink?
JFK: No, I think we went to have dinner with Eunice, didn’t we, Jackie? And then we went back afterwards.
Jacqueline Kennedy: You know for five days in Chicago, Jack really hadn’t gone to bed. Nobody had. Except for two hours sleep a night. It just was this incredible . . . brutal thing. You don’t see how any men are that strong to stay up for five days and talk and talk . . .
Bradlee: Do you remember wanting to go into politics?
Cannon: Not really, no.
JFK: And here you are, around these history makers, in Washington. Do you ever think you’d rather be a politician than reporting?
Bradlee: Yup. Yup.
Cannon: I think I can’t afford it. I have two children and . . .
JFK: Well, you couldn’t, I mean, at this point. Now, after the war? What are you now, about forty-two or -three? Forty-one. Now let’s say 1945, you might have been able to.
Cannon: Well, it was not a convenient thing.
JFK: What was it, in ’45, were you in the service?
JFK: Well, when you came home, you were pretty much [unclear].
Cannon: Yeah, but I was . . . I’m not talking about myself.
JFK: No, but I’m just trying to say, why wasn’t it possible, really, in ’45?
Cannon: Well, basically, my problem was financial. I recognize that this was something that if you were going to be honest in, you ought to have an independent source of income.
JFK: I don’t agree with that. I mean, it may be more difficult for me to talk about it, but I’ve seen a lot of politicians with money, and I don’t find . . . There’s so many kinds of being dishonest, the money part is just only one of them. I don’t really think you can prove by any test that you have to have money to be successful, politically, or that people with money are more honest than those who aren’t.
Bradlee: Or less honest, you mean.
JFK: I mean more honest. People with money. They may be, not tempted by bribery, but nobody is offering people money in the Senate or the House except on the rarest occasions. There’s no idea that anybody attempts to bribe anybody in the United States Senate, with the exception of maybe, possibly . . .
JFK: Well, here are maybe the rarest influences, but even Ben, who’s pretty tough, would have to say, maybe campaign contributors, but we all get campaign contributions, some from labor, and some from business, and I suppose that makes them perhaps somewhat responsive, but you’re responsive also to people who vote for you, veterans and other pressure groups. So I don’t think that this idea, you can’t tell me that, I’ll name him, but not for the thing, that Averell Harriman and these people are as political whores as anybody in the United States. Because they are desperately anxious to succeed in this profession which has so many attractions to it. So money is not really a sine qua non.
Bradlee: There are a thousand objections to running for politics that I . . . Somebody once told me that I ought to run for politics in New Hamsphire. God forbid! There were whole lots of objections, there was one that I couldn’t possibly have been elected. [laughter] You know, I mean, a Democrat in New Hampshire? For God’s sakes, I mean, I thought very very very seriously about this. Second thing was, there is something in some people’s minds that is uncomfortable at constantly being projected in the public eye, that is not uncomfortable to you and to these guys, who not only love it, but transfer it into a good thing. Whereas with somebody else it sort of snarls them up and gets them to eat their own tail. This is something about politics, who has that and why, I think is an important area of why go into politics.
JFK: Let me now just finish this thing, though, and I’m not the best one because I do have some financial resources, so it’s rather easier for me, but I do say, looking at it objectively, that money, because you can just go through the House and the Senate, I mean, I know most of my colleagues do not have resources and they have succeeded in politics. The people with money who have succeeded are comparatively few in politics. I mean, it’s just most of them don’t go into politics, if they have money, and if they do go into politics, they’re not any better than their colleagues. I mean, they are just as susceptible to pressure and in many ways more susceptible to pressure because they are desperately anxious, this is their tremendous chance to break through the rather narrow lives they may lead. So they’re just as anxious to succeed. That’s why I say to you, merely getting beaten, the financial problem is an additional one, but not the chief one. The chief one is being cut off from this fascinating life at mid-age, which is what you’re suggesting to me. Now, I can survive, but it’s still being cut off.
Bradlee: What about the projection of one’s self? The only comparable field I can think of is a movie star.
JFK: No, but I think I personally am the antithesis of a politician as I saw my grandfather who was the politician. I mean, every reason that I say, that he was ideal. What he loved to do was what politicians are expected to do. Now I just think that today . . .
Cannon: Don’t you?
JFK: No, I don’t. I don’t enjoy. I’d rather read a book on a plane than talk to the fellow next to me, and my grandfather wanted to talk to everybody else. I’d rather not go out to dinner.
Toni Bradlee: You look as though you enjoy it. Which helps.
Bradlee: But Jack, that whole projection that comes with modern times.
JFK: I think I just happen to fit now. I mean, I think people don’t like this.
Jacqueline Kennedy: I think that’s a nineteenth-century politician, don’t you, like your grandfather, that you people are suspicious of?
Bradlee: Now the politicians have to be constantly on the air.
JFK: Bill Fullbright—he’s not on the air. He has a particular personality. I have a particular type of personality which, I [don’t?] look like a politician, and all the rest, which helps me. Everybody isn’t an extrovert in politics. I would say that a lot of the Senate certainly are not extroverts.
Bradlee: Well, name me one.
JFK: Who’s not? Mike Mansfield is not an extrovert. John Cooper is not an extrovert. Richard M. Nixon is not an extrovert. Stuart Symington is a tricky extrovert, if he is one. I don’t think he is one. Hubert is. I’m not.
Bradlee: But Jack, I mean, you are! No?
JFK: No, I don’t think I am, actually.
Bradlee: But you like it. And you live on it.
JFK: All these things may be true. Listen, I’m just saying, what I would be doing, you know I don’t go out to dinner.
Bradlee: I know, I’m not trying to provoke you.
JFK: I understand. I’d be delighted if I had Hubert Humphrey’s disposition. He thrives on this. He loves to go out and campaign for five days. It’s a lot of work. I just don’t think you have to have that type of personality to be successful today in politics. I think you have to be able to communicate a sense of conviction and intelligence and rather, some integrity. That’s what you have to be able to do. This hail-fellow is passé in many ways. Those three qualities are really it. Now, I think that some people can do that. I think I do that well. I mean, I’ve been really successful, politically. I think I can do that. But it isn’t anything to do with being able to go out and just love it. Dancing [unclear], the Fourth of July.
Cannon: Something you naturally do?
JFK: In my first campaign somebody said to me that he thought after I spoke that I would be governor of Massachusetts in ten years. I think I did well from the beginning in this particular key.
Bradlee: Did that statement create things in you?
JFK: No, but I didn’t think it was possible, but I was pleased. Because I had not regarded myself as a political type. My father didn’t, he thought I was hopeless.
Cannon: Go into that.
JFK: I mean, Joe was made for it, and I certainly wasn’t.
Bradlee: Why was Joe? I never knew Joe obviously, but why?
JFK: He [Joe] was more a type, an extrovert type.
Bradlee: Now why did the old boy think you were hopeless?
JFK: At that time I weighed about 120 pounds. [laughter] Where was that picture we saw with Franklin Roosevelt, in the paper?
Jacqueline Kennedy: Oh yeah. That’s in your old campaign photo?
JFK: No, the one we just saw, in the Boston Globe, Sunday.
Bradlee: Jack, long before I knew you, when I was covering the federal courts in the District of Columbia, you used to, in the contempt cases, you used to come down and testify, “Yes, there was a quorum present. Yes, I was there. Yes, me and one other guy was there, which made up a quorum.” And you looked like the wrath of God. I can see you there now. You weighed 120, and you were bright green. You really were.
JFK: There’s a picture that the Boston Globe ran Sunday, which had the veterans rally in ’47, Franklin Roosevelt and I, and I looked like a cadaver.
Bradlee: But that color was just fantastic. You were really green . . .
JFK: Adrenal deficiency.
Bradlee: This was 1948, it must have been, ’48 or ’49.
JFK: Forty-seven or -eight, I guess. Well, the point of the matter is, that’s why my father thought that I was not equipped for political life. [unclear]
Bradlee: And you’d been a congressman for two years. Did you run for Con- gress with this greenness?
JFK: Oh yeah. Greener.
Toni Bradlee: What was that? That was atabrine?
JFK: It was atabrine, malaria, and probably some adrenal deficiency,
Bradlee: Addison’s? What is that damn disease?
JFK: Addison’s Disease, they said I have. Jack [unclear] asked me today if I have it.
JFK: Drew Pearson’s man. I said no, God, a guy with Addison’s Disease looks sort of brown and everything. [laughter] Christ! See, that’s the sun.
Toni Bradlee: But then your back was later on.
JFK: No, my back was in ’45.
Toni Bradlee: But then you were operated on after.
JFK: I was operated on in ’45 too. All these things came together. I was a wreck.
Bradlee: When was that big slice, just north of your behind there, when was that?
JFK: That was ’45, then again in ’54, and again in ’56.
Jacqueline Kennedy: Yeah, he was all better, his crutch broke, and he had to go back again.
Cannon: Does it ever concern you that you have lost your sense of privacy? You obviously can’t have . . . since everybody knows you now.
JFK: That’s the real pleasure about Jamaica in a way. You really can’t go any- place particularly now without . . . But I don’t mind, I think that’s part of run- ning, so I’m delighted, really. I used to walk down the streets in ’45 and nobody knew me. Now that’s fifteen years of effort has gone into getting known. I mean, it isn’t pleasant for the person, but as an investment of energy it represents some . . .
Cannon: What’s your reaction when someone comes up and says, “I saw you on television”?
JFK: They come from Massachusetts? [laughter] It’s all right. I don’t mind. I’m asking their support, so, you know.
Cannon: Do you take any special efforts to maintain a sense of privacy? Do you have a private phone? Unlisted?
JFK: I do. But everybody seems to have it.
JFK: Have we covered everything?
Bradlee: I just would like two minutes on the magic of politics. [laughter] Be- cause I go back to this guy who told me I ought to run against Styles Bridges.11 And for about two minutes, I just talked. And there was this whole marvelous sense of mission, that you’ve been thinking about. Somebody must have said that to you. “You can be . . . ,” never mind president, but you can go so high. It’s an adrenaline on a man.
JFK: I agree. It’s stimulating. Because you’re dealing with . . . Life is a struggle and you’re struggling in a tremendous sort of arena. It’s like playing Yale every Saturday, in a sense.
Bradlee: But the drama of it. I don’t know, somehow . . .
JFK: How could it be more interesting than this sort of checkerboard chess struggle of the next seven months?
Bradlee: Talk about that, because this is what appeals to me most about you.
JFK: I mean, look at the cold decisions that have to be made that are really life or death. I mean, running in Wisconsin? And what do we do about Mike DiSalle? And how can it be handled?
Cannon: There are 175,999,995 people who aren’t interested in it. You say, “What could be more interesting?” Why are you this interested, and the rest of the millions aren’t?
JFK: Well, if they were in it. I mean, their lives are interesting to them. I’m having the same struggle that they’re having in a different sphere, but in the most sort of dramatic way, for the great effort, the presidency of the United States, my checkerboard struggle is going on. As I say, what is sports, spectator sports, the same thing. Johnny Unitas, he might find it interesting to play in a sandlot team, in front of four people, but he’s playing for the Colts, the best team in the United States, for the world championship. I mean, I must say, he must find that very absorbing. I’m not comparing the presidency with that, but I’m just saying that, how could it be more fascinating than to run for president under the obstacles and the hurdles that are before me.