May 29 is the centennial of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s birth. We’re going to take a look at JFK and some of his ties to Nevada. We’ll start with running for president.
In 1958, the Kennedy family was gearing up for the 1960 presidential race. Attorney Hy Raskin visited Nevada as the point man for the western states. Raskin worked on Adlai Stevenson’s campaigns in the 1950s and was for Kennedy in 1960. In 1958, Nevada was having a Democratic primary for governor. Raskin talked with representatives of the candidates. He decided the one to support was Grant Sawyer, who won the primary. JFK campaigned for him that fall. Sawyer won the election and became governor. The Kennedys also got to know the newly elected attorney general, Roger D. Foley. Both Sawyer and Foley were on board for Kennedy in 1960.
Early in 1960, Kennedy spoke at a joint session of the Nevada legislature. Sawyer told the story in his oral history that the candidate and his entourage arrived at the governor’s mansion early to find Bette Sawyer, Nevada’s first lady, in curlers. As for Sawyer, as he said, “I was taking a shower when Bette came upstairs and said, ‘Senator Kennedy is here.’ I said, ‘Well, tell him to come in.’ He came in and sat on the toilet while I finished my shower, and we talked a little. Then he changed his clothes and I got ready for the reception.” Then came hundreds of people who got to shake hands with a presidential candidate. As Sawyer put it, “He was everything that any young political figure aspires to be—sophisticated, bright, very witty, good looking—and his personal magnetism was as strong in private as it was in public.”
But he wasn’t magnetic enough to attract Nevada’s two U.S. senators, Alan Bible and Howard Cannon, to his side. They liked Kennedy, and served with him. But they were close to Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, who was a reluctant candidate. He didn’t campaign so much as wait for the other candidates to fall by the wayside. Instead, when Kennedy got to the convention, he had the nomination just about locked up. He was chosen on the first ballot—as you would expect today, but not back then, when party leaders had more power and the conventions often included a lot of deal-making.
The 1960 Democratic convention had its deals. To everyone’s surprise, Kennedy asked Johnson to be his running-mate. To everyone’s surprise, LBJ said yes. And it turned out the Nevada delegation … barely gave a plurality of its votes to Johnson. He got one more than Kennedy, while Adlai Stevenson and Stuart Symington picked up a few delegates. The Bible-Cannon forces and the Sawyer people would have some harsh words for one another over it, but that November, Kennedy won Nevada with just over fifty-one percent of the vote. But he and Nevada would have much more to do with each other. More on that next time.
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