A new book on the 1960 presidential election is more misleading than informative. Since it is written by the man who served as Barack Obama’s religious advisor in the 2008 campaign for the White House, the misdirection—whether it be the result of superficial research or political intent—does not make for a good omen.
In The Making Of A Catholic President: Kennedy v. Nixon 1960, Shaun Casey of the Wesley Theological Seminary points to Catholic John F. Kennedy’s win over Protestant Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, D-Minn., in the West Virginia primary as pivotal to the success of the former candidate’s run for president. That JFK was able to win in a state that was then only 3 percent Catholic helped prove to other Democrats at the party’s national convention that his religion posed no barrier to his candidacy.
Nevertheless, Casey stops short of showing how the Massachusetts Democrat racked up the win. He writes that “Direct mail to clergy, a national speech to the press itself on the topic of the media’s coverage of religion, and a statewide television show devoted primarily to addressing the religion issue all combined to turn things around for Kennedy in West Virginia.”
At the Center for American Progress (CAP) on February 9, Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, who moderated a discussion with Casey, wryly pointed to the Kennedy wealth as a variable that affected the outcome of the contest, specifically “Joe Kennedy’s money.” As it happens, both men fall short of crediting the man who was really responsible for the denouement—the Mafia boss of Chicago.
You can actually find a neat little précis of what happened in Nancy Sinatra’s book on her father. Although, as the title suggests, Frank Sinatra: An American Legend, is a glowing tribute to her dad, the lady does attempt a warts-and-all approach, even acknowledging underworld associations the singer and his kinfolk had theretofore downplayed or denied outright.
In her chronological chronicle of her father’s life, she notes in an entry for February 1960: “Joseph P. Kennedy, U. S. ambassador to England during World War II and father of Jack Kennedy, met with Dad to ask for his help in West Virginia, where JFK had to win the primary election in order to win the Democratic nomination for president.”
“Since anti-Catholic sentiment ran high among voters there, the senior Kennedy suggested that my father ask Sam Giancana for help in swinging the election; if JFK won West Virginia, he would be considered an electable candidate despite his religion.”
“My father approached Giancana, an old acquaintance, making it clear that this was a persoanl favor to him and not a quid pro quo with the Kennedys, and Giancana dispatched the 500 Club’s Skinny D’Amato to get local sheriffs and powerful coal miners’ unions to deliver 120,000 votes—and the election—to Kennedy.”
Every major Sinatra biographer in the past quarter century has elaborated on this story, with quotations and citations, aided by unsealed FBI files. Yet and still, few treatments on JFK, particularly the academic ones, acknowledge that it happened.
Arguably, Nancy Sinatra herself only dealt with it after it had already been documented and recounted widely. To her credit, she is more willing to admit to skeletons in her storied dad’s closet than JFK’s media and academic admirers are to notice decay in their hero’s armor.
In this instance, Sinatra was clearly a supporting actor in the drama in which the Kennedys, père and fils, played leading roles. As we can see from the above account, it wasn’t the godfather who made the West Virginia overture but JFK’s father.
It could be said that Nancy Sinatra’s account of how West Virginia Democrats aided JFK’s ascent is more complete than Casey’s because she had at least one more primary source. Nonetheless, Casey does offer at least a singular insight on a group that pops up in the news frequently.
Whenever efforts are underway to sandblast the Ten Commandments from a public building, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) can usually be found cheering on the blasters, along with the ACLU. Casey shows in his tome that AUSCS did not always embrace diversity as fervently as it now claims to.
“Americans United for Separation of Church and State used to be Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State, united in their anti-Catholicism,” Dionne observed at the CAP lecture.
“Yeah,” Casey chuckled. “Barry Lynn gets very nervous when you mention Protestants United.” And well he might.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.