By Bill Minor
JACKSON – I knew American history would be written on Jan. 20, 196,1 when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as 35th president. For several reasons I was determined to be there, even in 10 inches of snow, to see this 43-year-old Irishman take the oath as the leader of the free world.
As JFK memorably declared in his inaugural address, that day “the torch was passed” to our generation. Kennedy had fought in World War II on a small ship in the Navy, in the South Pacific. So had I. He was a Catholic. So was I.
Actually, I became a Jack Kennedy admirer in 1956 when I met him through my good friend, Frank Smith, then Mississippi’s 2nd District congressman, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Smith and Kennedy became fast friends as freshman House members in 1948.
In an unusual move in 1956, presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson threw open to the convention selection of his running mate. Kennedy, then a freshman senator, jumped into the veep race against several veteran senators favored by Stevenson. Kennedy visited Mississippi’s delegation, and at the urging of Smith and then-Gov. J.P. Coleman, the state delegation voted for Kennedy in his losing bid for the No. 2 post.
Again, when Kennedy came to Jackson in 1957 in a thank-you gesture, Coleman put him up for the night at the Governor’s Mansion and arranged for me to spend quality time with him.
My Times-Picayune colleague in Washington, Edgar Poe, got inaugural press credentials for me. My chair was not more than 70 feet away when Kennedy said his oft-quoted words “ask not what your country can do for you … ask what you can do for your country.” Many commentators last week remarked on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s inaugural address that Kennedy’s 14-minute speech has become the most quoted of all presidential addresses.
So bright was the sun following the previous night’s snowfall that the young president’s thick mane of dark brown hair glistened as auburn in the frigid air.
Heavy snowfall began mid-afternoon on the 19th, quickly gridlocking traffic on DC’s streets. I had been visiting, along with Coleman, in Sen. John C. Stennis’ office. After the snow began, Stennis and his son, John Hampton, volunteered to drop us off at the Mayflower Hotel where Coleman was staying. I was spending the night in the Arlington apartment of former Jackson newsman Phil Stroupe, who was Stennis’ press man. With John Hampton at the wheel, we joined the traffic snarl. Some frustrated drivers began to pull out of the traffic lane and go under overpasses the wrong way. “Poppa, you think we ought to try it?” John Hampton asked the always-cautious senator. “Let’s do it,” came the surprising reply. So, wrong way we went and lived to tell the tale.
The snow kept falling relentlessly, so the senator asked if he could drop off Coleman and me three blocks from the Mayflower. Fortunately, back at the hotel, some of Coleman’s Ackerman friends had stocked the room with bourbon and mixers. Hardly on a second round of drinks, the phone in Coleman’s room rang. It was John Hampton and his dad down in the hotel lobby. Their car had died and they abandoned it in the snow.
Inviting the two Stennises to come on up, Coleman tells me, as keeper of the booze, to get it out of sight in respect for the abstemious senator. I stood guard over our stash in the bathroom as the senator walked by. When John Hampton followed I caught his eye and showed him the bourbon.
“Poppa, would you like a little toddy?” John Hampton sings out to his dad. “I believe I would,” the senator answers in his well-known rich, deep Southern voice. Immediately, I brought out the booze and good cheer flowed thereafter.
A handsome young president and a regally beautiful wife naturally prompted a feeling that the Kennedy era would sparkle like America’s Camelot. No one foresaw that within months a clownish Mississippi governor would threaten another Civil War over enrolling one black man at the state’s all-white university, or that the world would be brought to the brink of a nuclear crisis when Soviet missiles were installed in Cuba.
Much less, that an assassin’s bullet would end his life 1,000 days later.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.