Alan Littell covered John F. Kennedy's 1958 Senate race, and he remembers the former president in life, and death

Nov. 22, 1963. Planet Earth didn’t spin out of its gravitational orbit on a collision course with Mars. But make no mistake. Something had happened that day to change the way we view our world. It was a not-so-subtle change, a palpable shift in attitude. At least that’s the way it seemed to many of us now old enough to remember that sudden, cataclysmic act of violence of late November 1963.
A lone assassin had shot and killed, in Dallas, the president of the United States. And in the seconds it took for the news bulletin to flash across the country, millions of people cashed in their share of a nation’s hope and optimism for the tarnished currency of pessimism and despair.
Today, most Americans of a certain age can recall exactly where they were and what they were doing at the very instant John Fitzgerald Kennedy was gunned down. But my own thoughts about Kennedy go back to yet another November, five years before Dallas.
Working then as a reporter for a Boston newspaper, I came in contact with the man we knew either as “Senator” — U.S. senator — or more familiarly as “Jack,” as if for this particular Jack any other identifying label would have been superfluous, a waste of breath.
Of all the John Kennedys living in Massachusetts, the one-and-only Jack was that singular figure known to us in the press as war hero, consummate politician, compulsive womanizer and Harvard-educated end product of the 19th-century Irish diaspora: grandson on his father’s side of an East Boston saloon keeper and ward boss named Patrick Joseph (“P.J.”) Kennedy, and, on his mother’s, of the dapper, impish showman and onetime Boston mayor called “Honey Fitz” — John Francis Fitzgerald.
Save for remnants of the old Protestant ascendancy — the scattering of leafy residential precincts in Back Bay and on Beacon Hill inhabited by rulers of the great banking, mercantile and insurance houses — Boston, especially in its politics, was an Irish Catholic town.
Honey Fitz, for example, had been born on Ferry Street, in the city’s North End, a slum of ramshackle wooden tenements not much different from the rest of immigrant Boston in the mid-to-late 1800s. Earlier, in the decade before mid-century, famine-producing failures of Ireland’s staple potato crop had spurred the start of a massive population exodus from that country to the United States.
Once arrived — and Boston was a key point of entry — the newcomers were quick to seize and hold elective office. For the ill-fed and ill-housed proletariat of this particular seaboard city, a grip on political power was a matter of survival.
The city’s ward bosses, Jack’s grandfather Kennedy among them, were the undisputed chieftains of Boston’s teeming ethnic neighborhoods. They demanded of their communities total loyalty. And loyalty meant heavy turnouts in state, local and national elections. It also meant voting the straight Democratic ticket.
What the bosses dispensed in exchange were jobs, food, coal and clothing. They took care of doctors’ bills. They supplied eyeglasses, even dentures. Immigrants themselves or the sons of immigrants, they had names like Joe Corbett, Martin Lomasney, Smiling Jim Donovan, Joe O’Connell, Pea Jacket Maguire and the irrepressible James Michael Curley, a Robin Hood character who in later life would be elected mayor of the city while serving 6 to 18 months in federal prison for mail fraud.
By the late 1950s, my own time in Boston, not much had changed. The ethnic imprint remained deep. Except for an Italian-American governor, Foster Furcolo, the roster of key city and state politicians included Boston Mayor John Hynes and a cadre of statewide officeholders whose names were Edward J. (“Eddy”) McCormack Jr., Edward J. Cronin, John E. Powers, Thomas J. Buckley, Robert F. Murphy.
The most famous of them all, of course, was Jack Kennedy, U.S. senator from Massachusetts since 1952.
In October 1958, I was assigned by my paper, The Boston Traveler, to write the Democratic half of a paired set of page-one “Political Battlefield” columns. The copy would appear daily in the final weeks of the year’s state-and-local election campaign.
Democrats Kennedy, Furcolo and Eddy McCormack, the state attorney-general, headed the ticket. But, for me, the star attraction could only be Kennedy. My new assignment meant seeing up close that elusive, enigmatic and almost mystical figure of Massachusetts politics.
I knew the 1958 election would be an historic event. Kennedy, though running ostensibly for a second Senate term, was in fact laying the groundwork for a much bigger prize, the 1960 presidential nomination. To anyone who read a newspaper, none of this would have come as a revelation.
In my column of Oct. 15, 1958, for instance, I reported that Gov. Furcolo had “urged for Sen. John F. Kennedy the ‘largest vote in the history of the state — to start him on his way to being the next president of the United States.’”
On Oct. 16, I wrote: “Sen. Kennedy quickened an already furious campaign pace by flying to Iowa for a round of speeches and rallies.”
And on Oct. 20: “Kennedy was working without letup for a vote that will project him to a position of prominence for the presidential nomination in 1960.”
On Oct. 23, I reported that the head of one of the largest federal-government worker groups in Massachusetts had urged his members to give Kennedy, “for his future,” the biggest Senate vote “ever accorded a public figure in this state.”
And on election eve, Nov. 3: “State Democrats are looking toward election day tomorrow with absolute confidence…. Gov. Furcolo told reporters he expects ‘to win by between 75,000 and 90,000 votes’ and he added that Sen. John F. Kennedy should coast in ‘by an 850,000 vote margin.’”
And so it proved. Kennedy’s senatorial opponent had been a little-known Boston attorney named Vincent J. Celeste. In the biggest plurality in Massachusetts history, Kennedy polled 1,363,000 votes (in round numbers) to Celeste’s 488,000 — a stunning reelection victory.
In the 1960 presidential race, against Richard M. Nixon, Kennedy again took Massachusetts handily, by 1,487,000 to 977,000 votes. Nationwide, however, it was a different story. Kennedy — the first Catholic to win the White House — carried the country by only 113,000 votes, one of the slimmest such margins ever recorded.
Shortly before the earlier, 1958, election, I chatted briefly with Kennedy on an open-air platform at Boston’s South Station. He, Furcolo and Eddy McCormack were waiting for a train bearing Harry S. Truman. The ex-president was traveling to the city to support the ticket. McCormack happened to be the nephew of U.S. Representative John W. McCormack, a top Democratic power-broker with close ties to Truman.
Kennedy, I recall, had a lined, weathered face, signs of premature aging that belied his 41 years. Despite the late-October chill, he wore no overcoat. He was bareheaded. After a word or two with me about the campaign, he turned away to talk to another reporter.
I would remember that encounter when, a few years later, I read something Joseph Kennedy, Jack’s father and a former U.S. ambassador to Britain, had told author William Manchester in the opening year of his son’s presidency. The elder Kennedy was talking about what he described as Jack’s luck.
“I see him on TV, in rain and cold, bareheaded — I don’t worry. I know nothing can happen to him. I tell you, something’s watching out for him. I’ve stood by his deathbed four times. Each time I said good-bye to him, and he always came back.
“In that respect he is like (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt). Because F.D.R. went to the edge, and he came back, too…. It’s the same thing with Jack…. What can hurt (him)?”
We know now that Joseph Kennedy was wrong. On that terrible day in 1963, his son’s luck had run out.

Alfred resident Alan Littell wrote for The Boston Traveler from 1957 to 1960. Littell is the former travel editor of The Sunday