The Patriarch excerpt: How JFK’s attempt to distance himself from the Catholic Church backfired.

JFK made history as the first Catholic president. But his father never forgave the Church.

Robert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy in 1963
Robert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy in 1963

Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers.

The following is the third of three articles adapted from David Nasaw’s The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, out now from the Penguin Press.

On Election Day 1960, the Kennedys gathered at the family’s compound on Cape Cod, Hyannis Port, Mass. “People filtered in throughout the afternoon and evening,” Ted Sorensen recalled in his memoirs. “We dined on Maryland crabs and then found comfortable places for viewing the returns, most of us at Bobby’s house next door,” which, Ken O’Donnell and Dave Powers later wrote, had been converted into “a communications and vote analysis center. Downstairs on the big enclosed porch there were telephones, staffed by fourteen girl operators, to be used for calling party leaders and poll watchers all over the country. In the dining room, there was a tabulating machine, more telephones connected to direct lines from various Democratic headquarters, and news service teletype machines.” Lou Harris, the pollster, had taken over “the children’s large bedroom, where the cribs and playpens had been cleared away to make room for tables full of data sheets and past election records.”

It was going to be a long night. The early returns—from the Northeast—were positive. But as the votes were recorded in the Midwest and border states, it became clear that Jack Kennedy was not going to do as well as he had thought he would. “For once,” Jack’s mother Rose remembered, “there wasn’t much kidding or much gaiety. The race was extremely close, and there was tension in the air. Now and then people came over to our house for a sandwich or a drink or a change of scene. Jack would come in to tell his father about a new development. And Joe and I would be wandering in and out of Bobby’s house. He and I had very little conversation that evening. He was trying to get the latest exact figures and to project from them how the counts in critical districts were likely to develop. I didn’t want to interrupt his train of thought.”

They watched and listened and analyzed the votes as they came in. By 11 or 12, “everyone knew that it would be an all-night thing.” Jackie, who was eight months pregnant, was, she later remembered, “sent up to bed. … Jack came up and sort of kissed me goodnight—and then all the Kennedy girls came up, and one by one we just sort of hugged each other, and they were all going to wait up all night.” At 3 a.m. a haggard-looking Richard Nixon appeared on television to say it appeared that Kennedy was going to win. Still he refused to concede. At about 4, Jack went to bed. Bobby stayed up. We don’t know when or if his father went to sleep that evening or if he was awake when, just after 6 a.m., a detail of 16 Secret Service agents quietly formed a cordon around the three Kennedy houses.

The president-elect was awakened at about 9:30 and told that he had carried Minnesota and won the election. There was no concession from Nixon. After breakfast with his wife and daughter, Jack Kennedy took his daughter Caroline to his parents’ house. She spent part of the morning riding with her grandfather. At about 1 p.m., the Kennedys reassembled to watch Nixon’s press secretary concede the election. Jack’s photographer had tried desperately but failed to get the group to sit for a family portrait. He now appealed “to the Ambassador, the patriarch Joe Kennedy. … He agreed it would be the only chance and announced that a photograph was to be taken prior to the trip to the Armory,” where the president-elect was to hold his first press conference. Everyone was herded into the library except for Jackie, who had gone for a long walk by herself. Jack went down to the beach to get her. “When Jackie, having changed clothes, finally arrived at the door … the entire family rose and applauded.”

Joseph Kennedy helped position his family for the photograph. Jack was placed, standing, in the middle; his father sat next to him, on the arm of Rose’s chair, dressed in a dark suit, his tie perfectly tied, his white handkerchief in his pocket. He smiled wanly, more exhausted than joyful. After the photographs were taken, they all moved outside, where the cars had assembled to take them to the armory. “We all got into the caravan of cars in the circle in front of the house,” Jack’s sister Pat recalled, “everybody but Dad, who was on the front porch, back a little in the shadows, looking very happy. … He had decided to stay at home out of the range of photographers and reporters. Jack suddenly realized what was happening. He got out of the car, went back up to the porch, and told Dad to come along and hear his speech. Jack insisted on it. And finally he talked Daddy into getting into our car.”

Arriving at the armory, Joseph Kennedy trailed behind his son, daughter-in-law, and wife, hanging back a step, just out of the cameramen’s range. He looked near enervated, shrunken, frail. As the family took its place on the “bunting-draped stage,” he positioned himself on the outside of the row of wooden folding chairs set up on either side of the podium. When the president-elect’s brief speech was concluded and the family posed for photos, Kennedy hung back again.

The reporters who covered the president-elect’s acceptance speech at the armory were struck by the fact that the “Kennedys showed no evidence of jubilation. All wore expressions of solemnity. Mr. Kennedy’s margin of victory was too slender to stir much elation.” The president-elect, when pressed to comment on the size of his victory, had nothing to say. Neither did his wife. When asked how she had felt watching the returns, she responded only that it had been “the longest night in history.”

Kennedy, who had expected his son to win easily, would never quite recover from the ordeal of waiting for the returns to come in, then waiting for Nixon to concede. When his son Ted joked that he had been so sure of his brother’s victory that he had “placed a Las Vegas bet on it … [his father] hit the roof. ‘This is just—this just makes no sense!’ he fulminated,” his anger out of all proportion to the crime. “ ‘Foolish! I’m appalled that you’d get into this kind of thing!’ … He really went after me tooth and nail.”

A month after the election, he was still troubled by the results. “I didn’t think it would be that close,” he confessed to Hugh Sidey in an interview for Life magazine. “I was wrong on two things. First, I thought he would get a bigger Catholic vote than he did. Second, I did not think so many would vote against him because of his religion. ”

“All of us,” Ted Sorensen recalled, “predicted his proportion of the two-party popular vote would be in the 53–57 percent range.” This was indeed what the University of Michigan political scientists tracking the campaign (with the most sophisticated techniques then available) had also predicted. That prediction was remarkably accurate with respect to the congressional vote, which broke 54.7 percent for Democratic candidates. John F. Kennedy’s vote for the president was 49.8 percent, a full 5 percent below the vote for other Democratic candidates.

The conclusion Joseph P. Kennedy reached, which was also that of the professionals and the academics, was that despite his son’s performance in Protestant West Virginia, despite the speeches and the interviews and the press conferences and the reassurances he gave over and over that he was not the Catholic candidate and would not think or act as a Catholic president, huge numbers of Protestant voters refused to believe him. “There can be little doubt,” the University of Michigan political scientists concluded, “that the religious issue was the strongest single factor overlaid on basic partisan loyalties in the 1960 election.” They calculated that John Fitzgerald Kennedy had lost 6.5 percent of the national vote of Protestant Democrats and independents and 17.2 percent of the southern vote because he was a Catholic. He was the first president elected with a minority of Protestant votes. That their defection had not cost the election was due to the fact that Jewish and black voters supported him in larger than expected numbers.

The vote was so close, especially in Illinois and Texas, that Nixon supporters across the country and Sen. Thurston Morton of Kentucky, the Republican National Committee chairman, urged legal action. Nixon remained silent on the issue, but Kennedy, fearful that he might change his mind, called Herbert Hoover to ask him to arrange a meeting between his son and Nixon, which he hoped would put the matter of contesting the election to rest forever. Jack Kennedy flew to Key Biscayne, Fla., where Nixon was vacationing, “The meeting,” Chris Matthews has written, “accomplished just what the Kennedys intended: providing a photo op to showcase the image of loser meeting winner. … The results had been validated by the face-to-face meeting on Nixon’s own turf.”

Joseph Kennedy was, at one and the same time, overjoyed that his son had won the election, bitterly disappointed that so many Democratic Protestants had voted against his son, and infuriated by the absence of the Catholic landslide he had hoped would compensate for it. His son had polled 80 percent of the Catholic vote, but that was only slightly more than Democratic congressional candidates, most of them non-Catholic, had polled in 1958 or than Lyndon Johnson would poll in 1964. Kennedy understood that Cardinal Francis Spellman, the most influential Catholic in the country, was much more conservative and anti-Communist than he or his son. Still, he had hoped that Spellman’s ties to the Kennedy family and the millions of dollars the foundation had contributed to his favorite projects in New York City and in Italy would hold sway. As the campaign proceeded, there had been abundant opportunity for Spellman to do the right thing or at least to dispel the notion that he favored Nixon. But he had not.

On Jan. 6, almost two months after Election Day, Kennedy wrote Enrico Galeazzi, the only person to whom he could express his anger with Spellman and the church. “I have a very strong feeling that the time for friends to be together is when you need them the most. I have never asked for many things, but I needed all the help I could get in this campaign. I don’t think he [Spellman] gave the help he should have and I think we did as badly in New York amongst the Catholics as we did anywhere in the country. He was asked to do two or three things and he just didn’t deliver. In my book we are all even for past services and I haven’t any interest in the future. … As far as I am concerned, I am through working for them or with them, with the exception of Cushing in Boston. For him I will do anything and for anybody else, I am not interested. … Don’t think that I am irrational or too mad about the situation. I am just fed up with the whole crowd.”

Galeazzi was close to Spellman and could not bear the thought of any permanent estrangement between Kennedy and the cardinal or Kennedy and the church. He tried to mend fences, but he failed, in large part because Spellman, having attempted (Kennedy believed) to sabotage Jack’s candidacy, now set out to undermine his presidency. On Jan. 17, three days before the inauguration, the cardinal “assailed” a proposal by President-elect John F. Kennedy’s “task force on education” to provide federal aid for public but not parochial schools. The cardinal, the New York Times reported in a front-page story on Jan. 18, had “rarely … taken so strong a stand on a legislative proposal.”

The president-elect had no comment to make, nor did his father dare say anything publicly. Only to Galeazzi did he let down his guard in what would be his last word on the subject. “And now I am going to write you once more about our friend, and I will not write you ever again about it. … I was shocked by his attitude in the Presidential campaign. I was shocked at the reception Jack got at the Al Smith dinner, and with many other incidents about which I have written you. That last fit of temper in which he came out publicly against the Task Force Report on Education, and on which report the President had not expressed any opinion whatsoever, and considering that Eisenhower has personally made this recommendation for the last five years, and our friend has never opened his mouth, I consider it another exhibition of the judgment of a man who should know better. As far as I am concerned, I am disgusted, and I prefer not to have any further contacts. … If we can continue our friendship without any further mention of your friend, there is nothing in God’s world I would like better. But if my attitude makes you unhappy, I will quite understand it, and my friendship for you will never die.”

Galeazzi did not give up. He invited Kennedy to Rome and to meet the new pope, John XXIII, but to no avail. “I know that I shall not go back to Rome much any more. I will leave that to Rose and the children.” As to further relations with Spellman or other members of the church hierarchy, in America or the Vatican, “I am sorry to say,” he wrote Galeazzi in late October 1961, “I am less in the mood than ever to ‘straighten the matter.’ I am not like my older son who makes up to the people who attack him. When I have a bad experience, I remember it forever. It is very bad, I realize, and I know that I should be more charitable in my old age, but I seem to get worse instead of better.”

Joseph P. Kennedy had finally, through his son, accomplished all he had hoped for. The Kennedy family had completed its four-generation journey from outsiders to insiders, but at a cost greater than Kennedy had ever imagined. The Catholic Church, its American hierarchy, and the Vatican, instead of supporting the family’s journey from East Boston to the White House, had stood in its way. And this the patriarch would not forget or forgive.