“Any Democratic aspirant,” John F. Kennedy said when he announced his presidential candidacy 60 years ago, “should be willing to submit to the voters his views, record and competence in a series of primary contests.”
Nothing in Kennedy’s words would seem strange today; Americans vote for president by first voting for party nominees. But in 1960, his declaration was historic. For more than 120 years, national political conventions were where governors, mayors, members of Congress and their cronies gathered to negotiate policy and cut deals while knitting together presidential tickets—without much direct input from the public. Primaries had been an innovation of the Progressive Era, but remained relatively rare through most of the early 20th century. In 1920, for example, just 18 states held contested Republican primaries, and Sen. Warren Harding won only his native state of Ohio. But as Harding’s campaign manager, Harry Daugherty, explained, it was the party insiders who really mattered. “About 11 minutes after 2:00 on Friday morning of the [Republican] convention,” Daugherty told reporters, “when 15 or 20 men, bleary-eyed and perspiring profusely from the heat, are sitting around the table, some of them will say: ‘Who will we nominate?’”
“At that decisive time,” Daugherty added, “the friends of Sen. Harding can suggest him and afford to abide by the result. I don’t know but what I might suggest him myself.”
Harding was in fact nominated that year, on the 10th ballot, after GOP leaders literally met in a smoke-filled room at Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel and settled on him as a compromise candidate. That’s how things worked: Party leaders like governors, senators and big-city mayors controlled convention delegates. And successful candidates were typically officeholders from large states who spent years working their way through party machinery and building networks of regional alliances before emerging as potential nominees.
Eventually, the rise of mass communications and transportation made it much easier for politicians to build support beyond their local bases. And as Americans grew more prosperous and educated, especially after World War II, voters began to shake off the political influence of big-city bosses. A few ambitious and prescient candidates sensed these trends and ran for president while circumventing party insiders.
But no full-blown outsider succeeded until Kennedy.
When JFK announced he was running for president in 1960, he didn’t have the support of a single major Democratic constituency or interest group. Organized labor and civil rights organizations backed Sen. Hubert Humphrey, a redoubtable liberal from Minnesota. White-collar liberals, including Eleanor Roosevelt, adored Adlai Stevenson, the intellectual former governor of Illinois who had lost presidential races to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Congressional Democrats and many southerners favored Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. Harry Truman, the most recent Democratic president, was for Sen. Stuart Symington, who shared his home state of Missouri. It was easy for party elders to see Kennedy as little more than a collection of downsides: an absurdly young millionaire playboy Roman Catholic junior senator.
In addition to his family’s money, however, Kennedy had one great asset: himself. Before he formally launched his candidacy, Kennedy spent nearly five years developing a national campaign. Through harnessing volunteers, consolidating his local political base, delivering speeches around the country, publishing a hit book and magazine articles and making television appearances, Kennedy did everything he could to build, in today’s terms, a powerful personal brand. He attained a level of celebrity matched by few Americans, inside or outside of politics. He put it to the test in a series of primaries. And he wielded his victories as a giant magnet, pulling old-guard Democrats looking to support a winner into line. By the time JFK gave his acceptance speech calling on citizens to face the challenges of the “New Frontier” at the 1960 Democratic convention, he had already kicked the struts out from a power structure that didn’t realize how close it was to collapse. Kennedy forever changed the presidential nominating system—probably his least-understood significant political accomplishment.
Afterward, as American politics accelerated its shift toward equating legitimacy with popularity, primaries and caucuses effectively took the place of successive rounds of convention ballots. Establishment favorites, like Walter Mondale in 1984 or Mitt Romney in 2012—or Joe Biden this year—would have to slug it out in the field with insurgent opponents to demonstrate they deserved nomination. When competitors offered starkly different visions for their party, as George W. Bush and John McCain did in 2000, it was voters who would decide which prevailed. Relatively little-known but talented candidates, like Bill Clinton in 1992 or Barack Obama in 2008, could build name recognition and support through early-state wins.
And with the brakes off, parties would follow their bandwagons, wherever they led. As one candidate described the modernized nominating standard: “Our campaign received more primary votes than any GOP campaign in history. No matter who it is, no matter who they are, we received more votes … The only way you could have done it.” That winner was Donald Trump. Galling as it may be to many JFK fans, Trump won by applying a lesson that Kennedy was the first to learn and exploit: Presidential nominations are now popularity contests.
John F. Kennedy first ran for public office in 1946, the year after World War II ended, with the slogan: “The New Generation Offers a Leader.” He realized, earlier and better than his political rivals, that the war was the defining experience of young adults born in the 20th century. Sixteen million Americans had shared military service and defeated fascism, and were ready to take on new challenges, from raising families to rebuilding Europe and Japan to launching rockets that could reach space. Kennedy spoke to them in a pragmatic liberalism that was shaped by that service. “Most of the courage shown in the war came from men’s understanding of their interdependence on each other,” he said in that 1946 congressional campaign. “We must have the unity we had during the war.”
Kennedy served three terms in the House of Representatives, then won election to the U.S. Senate in 1952. But before he could advance his ambitions for national office, he had to overcome two serious obstacles. One was his health. For most of his adult life, JFK was far sicker than he ever let on. He had Addison’s disease, a degeneration of the adrenal glands whose diagnosis was usually fatal until doctors discovered in the 1940s that it was treatable with cortisone. Kennedy was also wracked by agonizing back pain, which continued after he had a herniated disc removed in 1944. He suffered from allergies, digestive issues and venereal disease. As Robert Kennedy once joked to a friend, “If a mosquito bites my brother, the mosquito dies.”
Forced to use crutches during and after his 1952 Senate campaign, Jack Kennedy decided to risk spinal fusion surgery in October 1954 rather than continue hobbling through crippling discomfort. His resistance reduced by his adrenal insufficiency, Kennedy contracted an infection that nearly killed him. He received the last rites of the Catholic Church twice, needed a second operation the following February and wasn’t able to return to the Senate until May 1955.
During his protracted recovery, however, while he was often barely able to move, Kennedy finished work on a task that would mark him as someone special in the national consciousness: Profiles of Courage, a book that detailed critical events in the lives of eight U.S. senators who risked (and sometimes lost) their careers to stand for what they believed was right. At various points in his research, Kennedy wrote on a board while lying flat; at others, he dictated to stenographers brought to him by his tireless aide Ted Sorensen. The final result, which owed at least as much to Sorensen as JFK, was a best-seller in 1956, quickly finding a sweet spot with a reading public interested in both history and aspirational stories. Profiles in Courage then won the Pulitzer Prize for biography. And rather suddenly, to Americans of any political stripe, Kennedy wasn’t just a good-looking war hero and young father, but also a public intellectual.
To go national, Kennedy also had to master the politics of his own backyard. From the days of his earliest campaigns, Kennedy strove to keep his own burgeoning organization apart from the patronage-driven bosses who ran Democratic politics in Massachusetts. Men like House Majority Leader John McCormack of Boston, who was personally a quiet and polite man, but whose brother Edward, nicknamed “Knocko,” was a 300-pound bootlegger-turned-barkeeper and bookmaker who intimidated opponents on his brother’s behalf. Or William “Onions” Burke, a fleshy, flashy farmer and tavern owner whom McCormack installed as state Democratic chairman. JFK wanted to make a generational break from shabby Irish Catholic pols, not to tangle with them. And for a while, he and the machines coexisted.
But in the spring of 1956, after Kennedy, then a U.S. senator, had already endorsed Adlai Stevenson’s bid for a second Democratic presidential nomination, the conservative Boston Post encouraged readers to vote for McCormack as a favorite son in the Massachusetts primary. After McCormack crushed Stevenson by more than a dozen percentage points, Burke let loose. “Anybody who’s for Stevenson,” he said, “ought to be down at Princeton listening to Alger Hiss,” referring to the accused spy and convicted perjurer who had just been released from prison and given a talk at his alma mater. To anybody attuned to political insult, the chairman of the state party had pegged its U.S. senator as a communist sympathizer, if not a traitor. JFK’s response was straightforward: He would destroy Onions Burke.
Gunning for Burke’s ouster as state party chairman, Kennedy had his staff spend the next three weeks researching the personal lives and habits of each of the 80 members of the Massachusetts Democratic state committee. The senator visited dozens of them to lobby for Burke’s replacement, and the battle quickly became what Kennedy called “a brawl of monumental proportions.” His foes, who initially held an edge in committee votes, loudly accused him of bribery and job-trading. And when he met Burke for breakfast and suggested the chairman resign, Burke responded by saying that if Kennedy tried to take him down, JFK would have his brains knocked out.
Jacqueline Kennedy remembered this fight as the only time she saw her husband really nervous, and it climaxed at the state convention in Boston on May 19, 1956. Burke, Knocko McCormack and their pals barreled out of an elevator at the Hotel Bradford and stormed past off-duty cops hired by the Kennedy team, into the room where Democratic committee members were gathered. “The two candidates for state chairman almost settled matters by fistfight,” said JFK aide Larry O’Brien. “There was shouting and confusion, and as the roll call began, one member who’d gotten drunk attempted to vote twice.”
With the senator waiting anxiously in a suite upstairs, his forces prevailed. A Kennedy man became chairman, meaning JFK would control the state party and the Massachusetts delegation at national conventions in 1956 and beyond. Today, the whole episode is hardly part of the JFK legend. To the extent historians bring it up at all, it’s to show how Kennedy proved he could get down and dirty and battle street-level pols on their own turf. But it’s likely that Kennedy himself took another lesson, just as critical: He should never have allowed McCormack to win the Massachusetts primary in the first place. Letting a powerful rival gain that kind of public edge had empowered McCormack’s ally Burke, and drawn Kennedy into a fight he couldn’t afford to lose. Ever afterward, as JFK relentlessly built his own celebrity, he would use his own popularity to intimidate opponents, and never again permit the reverse. Eventually, the alternate organization he assembled became a new Democratic machine, at least in Massachusetts, based less on old forms of patronage and more on his own appeal.
As the 1956 Democratic national convention approached, Kennedy began generating serious buzz as a potential running mate for Stevenson. JFK was intrigued enough that he had Sorensen compile and leak a 16-page memo arguing that putting a Catholic on the ticket could be a net gain for the Democrats, by helping to win back some of the millions of urban and suburban voters who had abandoned the party for Eisenhower. But the politics of religion were complicated. Only once had a Catholic ever run for national office: former New York Governor Al Smith, who was crushed by Herbert Hoover in the 1928 presidential race. Many Protestants—southern evangelicals as well as liberal intellectuals—still believed the Vatican would influence or even control a Catholic president, and surveys showed 25 percent of Americans wouldn’t vote for a Catholic candidate.
So Kennedy let slip his interest in the vice-presidency, but he was very wary of doing or saying anything that might suggest he would try to appeal to Catholics as a bloc. As he later wrote to Sorensen: “The question is how many will vote for Kennedy, who among other things, seems to be a Catholic. … Once we get into the argument about there being a Catholic vote … we are on very treacherous grounds indeed.” The answer extended Kennedy’s demolition of the Boston Irish stereotypes embodied by Onions Burke and Knocko McCormack: JFK would transcend tribal identities by running as a star.
Kennedy impressed national television audiences twice at the 1956 convention: He narrated a documentary history of the Democratic Party, and he gave Stevenson’s nominating speech. Stevenson, not the most decisive of politicians, then jolted the proceedings by announcing he would leave the choice of his running mate to the delegates. For the next 12 frenzied hours, half a dozen Democratic rivals worked to whip up support, genuinely unsure what the results would be. That was barely enough time to get “Kennedy for Vice-President” banners printed. And the following night, Sen. Estes Kefauver, a Tennessee populist who had run against Stevenson in the primaries and who was better organized for such a fight, narrowly beat JFK for the VP slot.
Kennedy “won by losing” in 1956, as former Boston Globe columnists Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie have written. For one thing, he didn’t land on a ticket that won just seven states in November. More important, the brief, intense battle showed JFK that inside the Democratic Party, while some influential governors, mayors and congressmen were anti-Catholic, others simply worried that religion would prove to be a losing issue. Still others who were Catholic themselves were eyeing their own runs for higher office and didn’t want any co-religionist to short-circuit their plans. But all of them shared one ambition: staying in power. And they would support whatever national candidates would get them and their local allies the most votes in November. As Kennedy intimates Kenneth O’Donnell and David Powers explained the lessons they learned: “Whether or not John J. Smith will make a good President or Vice-President is beside the point. Will his name on the ticket help Joe Blow, my candidate for governor in Maryland or North Dakota?”
And that meant there was no reason to wait for an even bigger prize. “I learned,” JFK said three weeks after the convention, “that it should be as easy to get the nomination for president as it was for vice president.”
Kennedy made more than 150 speeches in 24 states over the six weeks following the 1956 convention, working for the Democratic ticket—and building his own connections to voters and politicians around the country. When Stevenson lost to Eisenhower by an even bigger margin than he had in 1952, nobody blamed Kennedy, whose popularity just kept growing, and who never really stopped campaigning. In 1957, JFK was on the cover of Life in March and Time in December. The educational TV program “Omnibus” dedicated an episode to Profiles in Courage in February, while an ABC show called “Navy Log” dramatized Kennedy’s PT-109 heroics in October. Kennedy gained a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and—astonishingly, to his Irish Catholic family and friends—the Harvard Board of Overseers. He got invitations to more than 2,500 speaking engagements that year, and accepted nearly 150 of them—not including campaign speeches around Massachusetts, where he was up for reelection in 1958.
For that Senate campaign, Kennedy left no stone unturned even though he was a prohibitive favorite. He started early, blanketed the state with reports of what he was accomplishing for Massachusetts, spent nearly every weekend talking to local groups and cultivated Republican-tilting newspapers. He deployed his personal political organization, where top supporters in every city or town were called “secretaries,” to drive up turnout among independents as well as traditional Democrats. And he won re-election with more than 73 percent of the vote; his 873,000-vote margin was the biggest in the country in 1958, and in the history of Massachusetts.
Kennedy’s Senate reelection bid was nearly round-the-clock, media-savvy and centered on the candidate, not his party—“running alone,” said historian James MacGregor Burns. Burns didn’t mean that as a compliment, but it accurately described Kennedy’s template. And as it became clear that he was aiming even higher, JFK and his brother and campaign manager Robert added three more innovations, essentially creating the modern presidential campaign. For one thing, with Sorensen’s help, Kennedy landed appearances and bylines not just in policy journals like Foreign Affairs, but also in magazines that weren’t conventionally political at all, like Redbook and Living for Young Homemakers. This was part of his political marketing—a tactic that was still in its infancy, and that some candidates still dismissed. Stevenson, for example, had complained in 1952 that “The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process.” In contrast, Joseph Kennedy Sr. said about his son: “We’ll sell him like soap flakes.”
For another, in December 1958, Sorensen met with Louis Harris, one of the nation’s top pollsters, and soon afterward, Kennedy guaranteed Harris $100,000 for political surveys and analysis. While some savvy earlier politicians had used polls to gauge their standing with voters, JFK and his advisers took opinion research to another level. Harris took 66 polls for Kennedy during the 1960 campaign. And his reports offered more than horse-race snapshots: They guided JFK toward issues, such as support for Medicare, that primed his image as a forward-looking candidate. (Wild but true: Richard Nixon, who was Eisenhower’s vice-president, also relied on polls, and before he and Kennedy were opponents, their two staffs occasionally and secretly traded data.)
Finally, in 1959, the still-unofficial Kennedy campaign took over a private jet Joe Kennedy had bought. Jack Kennedy named the twin-engine Convair after his newborn daughter Caroline, and the plane made it much easier to travel long distances. So JFK was able to spend even more time hopping from state to state, rather than crafting legislation or attending hearings, in utter contrast to rivals who were also senators, like Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey. (Kennedy missed 93 of the 117 meetings the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee held in 1959.)
By the turn of the decade, through remarkable charm, hard work in precincts all around the country beyond Washington, D.C., a feel for where the nation was heading and boatloads of cash, Kennedy had amassed widespread popularity and established connections with local Democratic networks, yet owed virtually nothing to the national party or its chieftains. This seemed an optimal combination—yet JFK understood it could all mean nothing unless he could demonstrate its power. “If he swept the primaries,” as Sorensen wrote later. “Only in this way could [Kennedy] demonstrate his electability, prove that a Catholic could win, scatter the favorite-son candidates, pick up a bloc of committed delegates and knock one or more competitors completely out of the race.”
A few earlier candidates had tried to wrest presidential nominations by appealing directly to public opinion. In 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt turned on his successor and battled William Howard Taft for the Republican nomination. Primaries were just coming into vogue, and of the 13 he entered, Roosevelt won nine. But Taft kept his grip on state conventions where local leaders chose delegates, and repelled the challenge.
In the spring of 1940, businessman Wendell Willkie registered at just 3 percent among Republican voters in the Gallup poll. But as Nazi armies stormed across western Europe, the internationalist Willkie made a string of high-profile speeches, launched a heavy advertising campaign and gained the support of important media outlets, such as Time, Look and the Saturday Evening Post. Willkie figured out how to use magazines as well as radio to his advantage—he even appeared on Information Please, the Jeopardy! of its day (and he did well)—and rode his rising profile to the GOP nomination. But he lost the general election to Franklin Roosevelt.
In 1952, Senator Kefauver, who made a national name for himself by holding anti-corruption and antitrust hearings, beat President Harry Truman in the New Hampshire primary, after which Truman announced he wouldn’t run for a third term. Kefauver, who campaigned in a coonskin cap and sometimes on a dogsled, won most of the primaries that year, but Adlai Stevenson, who hadn’t even run in the primaries, gained the Democratic nomination anyway, because Truman and other party leaders backed him. In 1956, both men tried again. And even though the bosses still hated Kefauver, they couldn’t simply block him. By then, American politics had evolved to the point where a candidate had to show strong public support for his nomination to be acceptable. Stevenson was compelled to enter the primaries, where he won a majority of votes.
By 1960, party leaders were more susceptible to public opinion than in Teddy Roosevelt’s day. And Kennedy was more popular than either Willkie or Kefauver were when they launched their bids. JFK planned to exploit both sides of that equation, becoming, as he put it, a “total politician.” Privately, Kennedy would use his popularity to pressure insiders into supporting him. And publicly, he would keep building that popularity through primary wins.
His first major triumph came after a secret winter meeting at a Pittsburgh motel with Ohio Gov. Mike DiSalle, a Catholic who had toyed with backing another Democrat or running for the nomination just to keep hold of Ohio’s delegates. Kennedy bulldozed DiSalle by telling him that unless DiSalle endorsed him, he would enter the Ohio primary himself—and he shared a batch of Harris polls predicting Kennedy would beat DiSalle in the governor’s own backyard. DiSalle gave in, and in January 1960, he became the first big-state leader to throw his support to JFK. (When DiSalle died in 1981, the first line in his New York Times obituary called him “a champion of the Kennedy political fortunes.”)
Kennedy’s most important primary contests were two now-famous battles with Humphrey. In Wisconsin, Humphrey, an ally of farmers who was from the neighboring state of Minnesota, was like a third senator. But he was soon overwhelmed by Kennedy surrogates and Kennedy money. “I feel,” he said, “like an independent merchant competing against a chain store.” On April 5, Kennedy won 56 percent of the primary vote—though Humphrey carried four of Wisconsin’s 10 congressional districts, and his supporters were able to claim his loss reflected a Catholic-Protestant split in the electorate.
Thus Kennedy was forced to proceed to West Virginia, whose population was 95-percent Protestant. Humphrey was backed by John L. Lewis, the revered leader of the United Mine Workers; JFK got the endorsement of Franklin Roosevelt Jr. (The Kennedy campaign even had Roosevelt’s letters of support postmarked in Hyde Park, N.Y., birthplace of FDR, who had died 15 years earlier.) Humphrey unsubtly chose “Give Me That Old-Time Religion” as his campaign song, and Kennedy’s polls showed wildly fluctuating results. But JFK had far more money for TV advertising, bested Humphrey in their televised debate, and found West Virginia voters willing to give him a hearing. “Nobody asked me if I was a Catholic when I joined the United States Navy,” he said at a rally in Morgantown, directly confronting the religious issue for the first time—and the crowd seemed impressed. On May 10, Kennedy crushed Humphrey, 61 percent to 39 percent, in the primary.
Meanwhile, Kennedy’s other potential opponents—Johnson, Stevenson, Symington—stayed out of the fray, hoping he would stumble and they could broker deals for the nomination. Kennedy foresaw this development even as he considered it fatal for their chances. “If the voters don’t love them in March, April or May, they won’t love them in November,” he said on the campaign trail. And Democratic voters did love Kennedy. He rolled up huge totals as a write-in candidate in Illinois (65 percent) and Pennsylvania (71 percent) without even campaigning in either state. He got 81 percent of the vote running against two local candidates in Indiana. On the same day as West Virginia, he gained 89 percent in Nebraska, which was contested only by Symington. A week later, he collected almost four times as many votes as Sen. Wayne Morse in Maryland. And on May 24 in Oregon, he had to face Johnson, Humphrey, Symington and favorite-son Morse, all on the ballot because that state uniquely required all candidates to be listed, whether or not they formally entered the primary. Kennedy won a 51-percent majority.
Kennedy’s primary wins shattered doubts about his electability. National polls that included all potential candidates had shown Kennedy and Stevenson running neck-and-neck among Democrats throughout 1959, but by the end of May 1960, JFK had built a two-to-one lead. And local Democratic leaders began to line up for him, one after another. On May 15, Carmine DeSapio, who ran the Tammany Hall machine in New York City, threw his support to JFK. In Michigan, polls showed Kennedy with more support than all other Democratic candidates combined, and on June 2, its Governor G. Mennen Williams pledged 42 of his state’s 51 convention delegates to Kennedy. JFK and his inner circle took particular pleasure in corralling the support of Pennsylvania Gov. David Lawrence, a Catholic who firmly believed the country at large would not tolerate a Catholic president. Kennedy’s massive write-in showing and endorsements from party officials in Philadelphia forced Lawrence to realize that whatever he said, his state’s delegates were going to vote for JFK. So just before the Democratic national convention in Los Angeles in July, he hopped aboard, announcing that “it would be running against public sentiment if we didn’t support Kennedy.”
When Stevenson finally decided, at the convention, to throw his hat in the ring, he asked Chicago Mayor Richard Daley how much help he could get in their home state.
“Governor, you’re going to look foolish running for this nomination, because you’ll get no support from Illinois,” Daley replied, according to O’Donnell and Powers. “These delegates weren’t for you in 1956, either, but I made them vote for you then. I can’t do that again.”
After Stevenson’s name was put up for nomination, the convention delegates went crazy, cheering, chanting and stomping for nearly half an hour for the man who had twice taken on the phenomenally popular Eisenhower. But their support was almost entirely sentimental. Kennedy, watching on TV, reassured his father: “Don’t worry, Dad. Stevenson has everything but the votes.” He was correct.
Lyndon Johnson did take some serious old-school shots at Kennedy during the 1960 convention. Talking to delegates and reporters, LBJ attacked Kennedy’s truancy in the Senate and brought up his faith. He also questioned JFK’s health, once calling him “a scrawny little fellow with rickets.” But by summertime, it was far too late for Johnson’s game of trading chits and charming-slash-bullying fellow pols into coalitions. And Kennedy knew why. “Could you imagine me, having entered no primaries, trying to tell the leaders that being a Catholic was no handicap?” he asked. “When Lyndon said he could win in the North, but could offer no concrete evidence, his claims couldn’t be taken seriously.”
Even in states without primaries, even for an uber-boss like Daley, even for a master insider like LBJ, control of presidential nominations was slipping away, from party elders to the public. And the tipping point had arrived. Kennedy got 806 votes, a majority, on the first ballot of the 1960 convention, Johnson 409, Symington 86, Stevenson 79.5.
Every now and then since 1960, national parties have tried to insulate nominations from raw public opinion. For example, in the 1980s and again over the past decade, Democrats added hundreds of “superdelegates,” essentially party insiders who are free to vote as they please, to their conventions. And every four years, pundits and consultants love to chatter about brokered conventions, as though the brokers retain their old authority. But nobody has been able to put the genie back in the bottle. Candidates who organize early, develop name recognition, raise money, fight for support and build national popularity are hard to stop, whatever their insider support or ideology, especially when they run against fractured opposition. And those who hold plurality support among voters by the time the primaries end have proven impossible to stop. Party elites couldn’t halt Barry Goldwater or George McGovern or Jimmy Carter or Donald Trump. By themselves, they couldn’t beat Bernie Sanders or nominate Michael Bloomberg in 2020, either. Beginning in South Carolina in February, Democratic voters took their party’s nomination and handed it to Biden.
Talking with his friend Jack Kennedy in 1962, Ben Bradlee, then the Washington bureau chief for Newsweek, cracked a joke about the qualifications of the president’s brother Edward, who was running for the U.S. Senate at the age of 30.
“What do you mean?” JFK asked sharply. “He has to win three separate contests: the convention, a Democratic primary and then the election.”
Winning was itself the real qualification. Winning would define both legitimacy and strength—and lead to more winning. That’s never been truer than in the age of Trump—and it became irreversible under Kennedy.
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