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John F. Kennedy, Part 2

President John F. Kennedy arrives at the Las Vegas Convention Center, September 28, 1963.
Photo credit: Milt Palmer, Las Vegas News Bureau.

President John F. Kennedy arrives at the Las Vegas Convention Center, September 28, 1963.

Last time, we talked about John Kennedy’s political connections to Nevada during his presidential campaign. May 29 marks the centennial of his birth. He had some other ties to Nevada beyond that campaign.

Soon after JFK’s inauguration, Attorney General Robert Kennedy wanted to raid Nevada casinos as part of his effort to crack down on the mob. Governor Grant Sawyer was upset. First, he was already trying to clean up the gaming industry. Second, he had backed JFK to the hilt for president. His reward was the Kennedy administration attacking his state’s main industry. So Sawyer and state Attorney General Roger D. Foley flew to Washington. They met with Bobby Kennedy. Sawyer said RFK treated him like he had just stepped out from behind a crap table, as if he was a mobster too. Sawyer then went to the White House. He told JFK about the raid and objected to it. The raid never happened.

Another connection between JFK and Nevada may have started during the campaign. He came to Las Vegas in February 1960 while the Rat Pack was performing at the Sands. His sister Patricia was married to Rat Pack member Peter Lawford, who Frank Sinatra used to call the brother-in-lawford. The Rat Pack raised money and performed for JFK, during the campaign and at his inaugural celebration.

Sinatra also introduced JFK to a young woman named Judith Campbell.  Kennedy and Campbell had an affair. Sinatra apparently also introduced Campbell to Sam Giancana, the Chicago mob kingpin. Giancana and Campbell also had an affair. Rumors still swirl that she was a go-between for them.

In any case, Sinatra and Giancana remained friends, creating another situation involving Kennedy. In 1960, Sawyer’s gaming regulators created the Black Book, a list of people not allowed to set foot in a casino. Giancana was on it. But in 1963, Giancana visited the Cal-Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe. Its owner was Sinatra, whose license was in serious trouble as a result. Sinatra wound up in a conversation with Ed Olsen, who Sawyer had appointed chair of the Gaming Control Board. We’ll leave what Sinatra said to your imagination. Besides, the FCC wouldn’t let us repeat it.


A few weeks later, in September 1963, John Kennedy visited Las Vegas. He was gearing up for his reelection bid in 1964. Kennedy and Sawyer were concerned about the president’s popularity, but Las Vegans filled the Convention Center to hear him. When JFK arrived, though, Sawyer was in for a bit of a surprise. As he recounted it, they were en route to the Convention Center. Kennedy turned and said, “What are you guys doing to my friend, Frank Sinatra?” Sawyer replied, “Mr. President, I’ll try to take care of things here in Nevada, and I wish you luck on the national level.”

Instead, less than two months later, JFK was assassinated. Speculation persists that mobsters, some with Las Vegas ties, were involved. We do know this: John Kennedy was a more controversial president than people realize, but he helped inspire a lot of younger people to be more involved in politics, including a senator who now spends his time reading scripts about history for Nevada Public Radio.