Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Kenny O'Donnell, JFK and the launch of political handlers

By Ann Connery Frantz

Worcester native Kenneth O'Donnell Sr. was well-known during the 1950s and '60s for his unique position in John F. Kennedy's campaigns and, later, as a key presidential adviser.
Lesser-known is the crucial role Worcester played in Kennedy's ascent to power. O'Donnell was responsible for it. He suspected Worcester would be critical to JFK's 1952 Senate victory (while no one else even considered the overlooked city) and pushed to focus there. After JFK beat Henry Cabot Lodge in a huge upset victory, he remarked to O'Donnell: "You are either a political genius or the luckiest SOB on the planet." Kenny told him it was the latter.
Helen O'Donnell, Kenny's daughter, tells that story as part of "The Irish Brotherhood: John F. Kennedy, His Inner Circle, and the Improbable Rise to the Presidency," her just-published history. It's based on lengthy tapes with O'Donnell, presented to her by broadcast journalist Sander Vanocur.
She provides a fascinating glimpse into the Kennedy campaigns and the people dedicated to steering JFK into the White House by 1960. Helen was drawn into historical writing by those who sought to tap her father's recollections, like political pundit Chris Matthews (host of "Hardball"), with whom she worked in the writing of his "Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero." Before she finished transcribing Vanocur's extensive interviews, Helen had learned much more about her father's relationship to the Kennedy family.
"A Common Good: The Friendship of Robert F. Kennedy and Kenneth P. O'Donnell" became her first book. In March, Counterpoint Press released her second, "The Irish Brotherhood," which details campaigns between 1952 and 1958, up through 1960 and the early days of JFK's tenure as president. It is a story that divulges Robert F. Kennedy's importance to the JFK campaigns as well, revealing Bobby's character in equal depth. But mostly it is a book about the roots of modern-day campaign handling.
"You think you know all these stories, know what happened … but I really didn't," she said. "It's really a great — what they say in Hollywood — a great backstory. It was much grittier and more hard work than they ever let on to get him into the White House."
She recounts the amazing rise to power of John Kennedy, assisted by a dedicated, unpredictable, bull-headed but politically savvy group of hand-picked staff members, many of them World War II veterans, like JFK. He trusted their strategies, though his brilliance often put him ahead of them.
They weren't the predictable campaigners of old, she writes; they were a new breed, and their efforts yielded an entirely new kind of campaigning. They set a new standard for political handlers, using blue-collar roots and know-how to fight an upward battle in a political world suspicious of Irish Catholics— especially one whose father was Joseph Kennedy.
Kenny O'Donnell ate it up. "Dad was all about politics, but he saw his job as getting Jack Kennedy across the finish line," Helen said.
The brotherhood — O'Donnell, Larry O'Brien, Dave Power and Bobby — learned how to climb the political ladder, pulling and squeezing where they needed to, and working around the clock for a candidate with one big count against him: his religion. Few Catholics who had risen to powerful positions were about to jeopardize their well-being for an upstart politician. Striving to overcome perception and political cowardice were people like O'Donnell, whose hard-nosed, aggressive campaigning meshed well with this "Irish mafia."
The book is not for those seeking another JFK biography. It is, instead, a fascinating look into the pioneering roles of media handlers, whose existence today is taken for granted in political campaigns. Their ploys, their struggles and their overriding dedication to Kennedy made new men of O'Donnell, O'Brien, Bobby and their associates, as they moved every political boulder they could to facilitate the path JFK had chosen. (Bobby alone, it seemed, had a dedication as well to social justice, and would pursue that in his own way.)
Kennedy would have had a much harder time achieving the presidency without this group. O'Donnell was a loving father and husband, but in his work, he pursued the group's goals with a dogged aggression — he was brazen, with the ability to learn quickly from mistakes — there were plenty — and alter their course.
The campaign, improbably, took off in Worcester, where O'Donnell urged Kennedy to campaign hard before his 1952 election date.
"They (the Kennedys, Larry O'Brien) would have overlooked it, but he understood the changing demographics of that time, and how important Worcester was to the state. They never considered Worcester the key element that it was. Part of that was their sense of Worcester; it was not a small town, but people sort of perceived it that way. My dad and mother were from Worcester. They understood the politics of the city, and how much of the city's voters would be JFK voters if he were just exposed to them.
"He (Kenny) took a gamble, based on his knowledge of the city. It was critical for him, because he and Larry both knew they were going to be short on the numbers in '52 and they needed that Worcester voting block to push him over the edge. They were right. They took a hell of a gamble, but they won."
That win launched JFK into the rare thin air of national campaigning, proving himself a viable candidate for higher office.
O'Donnell lived on Clinton Street — "1301, at Tatnuck Square," Helen said. "The house is still there. He grew up there and maintained connections with a lot of Worcester people for years. He loved it."
Kenny worked by JFK's side from 1952 until his death in 1963, and knew family members well. They trusted him. He knew them for who and what they were, respected that, and kept confidences to himself. He adored Jackie Kennedy, who was cut from a different cloth. There's an interesting quote in the book, reflecting her father's understanding of the family: "The Kennedys always think of themselves first." That may seem callous, but it's candid.
"My father was sort of cold and practical about that; it was one of the reasons he insisted Bobby come run the campaign in 1952," Helen said. "He said to Bobby, you need to come to campaign because only a Kennedy can tell a Kennedy no. There was a line beyond which only another Kennedy could take across Jack or Bobby." That relationship served them well in crises.
"They were raised that way, and I think it's still true today. Anyone who thinks otherwise is foolish," Helen said. "They were raised to win the race. It's kind of an ethic of theirs."
The brothers were a good pairing, she said. "Bobby had a reputation for being the tough guy, ruthless, but in reality, my father said on the tapes, Jack was much tougher. Jack had steel that came from his own battle with survival all his life. When Jack Kennedy said 'no' or this guy's gonna go (from the campaign staff), that was it. Whereas, he said, Bobby would try to find a million reasons to save the guy before he'd drop the ax on him. Public perception is one thing, but the reality was different."
O'Donnell has not stopped writing; she has 200 taped interviews to draw from, most of which she has already transcribed. She's also writing a short book between Kennedy works. This will be about Frank Sinatra and Jack Kennedy; their friendship drew the nation's notice. "It's a small book, a novel, because I found out these great stories in Los Angeles that I couldn't use in either book. So I'm working on that right now."
"The Irish Brotherhood" will be succeeded by a book on the next segment of the Kennedy era, 1960-1963 — when the president was assassinated and Lyndon B. Johnson took the reins of office.
"I always loved to write," she said. "I was raised with news and history with my dad, but never thought that much about (doing) it. I was working in D.C., and Michael Kennedy (Bobby's son) asked me to write something for him — I assumed he had a speech to give. I had worked for Ted Kennedy, and sometimes Kennedys will do that when they need information. Then he called and said it was so good that he'd sent it to an agent and sold it for a first book. I told him I'd never written a book! And he said "You're smart, you'll figure it out." That was around 1998."
She lives in Washington, D.C., now, and visits the Cape when she's able.
Her father was, literally, in it to win it. "He did love it all. My mother was all in for Jack Kennedy too; she believed in what my dad was doing, but he never appreciated what she sacrificed. He was gone from home all the time. He'd been gone for years. When they finally won, and my mother was in that hotel in Hyannis, she was thinking he's 'finally' home. Then she learns he's going to the White House — right away. Dad and Jack had Bobby call my mother and tell her!"
He stayed in Washington for some time. "His last year at the White House he was executive director of the Democratic National Committee, trying to build up the modern DNC. I think he'd be pleased by how it's turned out. He was a political specialist listening to Lyndon Johnson. That was a complicated relationship, but Johnson trusted him."
Kenny O'Donnell passed away in 1977, when she was only 13 or 14. "He was really my hero. There was a lot of sadness around that time," she said. "One of the things I try to do with my writing is focus on the good times; there's a lot of tragedy, but these guys had a hell of a good time."
He died at 53, of heart and liver failure. But perhaps heartache as well, she said. "He just never recovered after Bobby's death. And my Uncle Warren was shot in a robbery in Worcester, and didn't live long. That devastated my dad; he never quite recovered from all that."

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