ON a golden autumn morning in October 1958, with all the smells of the New England fall in the crisp air, I went nervously to a grand apartment in the smartest part of historic old Boston.
I was a 24-year-old working class provincial graduate from Oxford spending a year on scholarship to Harvard University. An American friend who knew my passionate interest in politics had recommended I should ‘take a look at’ the young junior senator for Massachusetts who was then campaigning for re-election to Congress –‘he is quite special’. So through a Boston Irish girl friend of his in John F Kennedy’s campaign team, it was all fixed up.
I was shown into a classically furnished study where Kennedy sat at a desk covered in paper. Slim, taut and casually elegant, he gave me that famous toothy grin. In his flat Bostonian accent he asked me about Oxford and British politics under Harold Macmillan, of whom he seemed very aware. He then explained our plan for the day’s campaign. With his typically American relaxed manner, he made a young nobody feel important. His charm was overwhelming, to me as well as to so many of the opposite sex.
Before we set off in a large black saloon car – I don’t remember the make, possibly a Cadillac since the American rich were not ashamed to show their symbols of success – his wife Jackie came in.
Tall, stiff, edgy, clearly posh, ignoring me, she commented sharply on not having seen him at breakfast and asking when he might be home. It was the only uncomfortable moment of the day. She was the first seemingly unhappy politician’s wife I had then met – but was far from the last.
We visited a couple of industrial towns in mid-state Massachusetts, run down and with none of the prosperous glitz which was then just beginning to bloom in much of 1950s America. Classic Democratic Party political territory. Although himself wealthy and nouveau upper class, Kennedy seemed comfortable there, talking casually to people on the street, always with the ready smile and the glad handshake. He was a completely natural politician. I watched with growing admiration, never having seen such political confidence at work in one so young (he was then 41).
He was both classy – in speech, dress and the way he carried himself – and yet populist, reaching out to all races and types. He appeared comfortable with everyone he met and made them feel immediately comfortable.
Most impressive to me, as someone who loved poetry (but had always felt embarrassed to reveal this to ordinary British working people), was when he addressed a crowd of workers dashing away from a scruffy boot and shoe factory to get lunch.
He was just standing on the pavement beside a modest banner with his name and portrait stating he was running for Congress. Once a small crowd had gathered out of curiosity, he began to speak, saying why the election mattered to them and to him. Then he quoted from Robert Frost, the great and still living New England poet. I think it was from The Road Not Taken. That struck me as brave, to tough working men in a hurry. I am not sure many British politicians, then or now, would have risked that.
At lunch, in a simple diner, just the two of us and an aide of his eating hamburgers, he chatted about politics, showing a clear knowledge of the British political scene.
Finally, cautiously, nervously, I asked him if he had his life again, aware of how his national political ambitions would develop, would he have chosen to remain a strong Roman Catholic? He went quiet for a while, reflected, and then replied ‘yes, absolutely’. But he thought about it.
He finished campaigning around tea time and we drove to his headquarters in downtown Boston. I stepped aside and watched as he walked in, with his team lined up applauding him. Halfway down the line, he briefly whispered something to one of the female staffers.
Afterwards, I spoke to the gritty Miss Hennessey who had arranged my visit. After thanking her and expressing my admiration for her candidate, I asked her – as an after-thought – what he might have said to the girl in the line? In a very matter of fact way she confidently replied: “Oh he was giving her his hotel room number.”
I was so impressed by Kennedy’s political quality – and as a hopeful future journalist – that I immediately dashed off an article, called Boston Stomp, concluding with youthful naive certainty that John F Kennedy might well be the next and 35th President of the United States of America. In it I made no mention of his whisper to the girl in the staff line – inhibited by the discretion and decency which some journalists then curiously displayed. I sent it to the Spectator magazine. A couple of months later it was returned together with a polite letter of regret and rejection from the then editor and proprietor Ian Gilmour who became a Cabinet minister in Margaret Thatcher’s first government.
Some decades later in the library of the House of Lords, where we sometimes chatted, I mentioned my article to the now Lord Gilmour. He looked abject. “I remember it well,” he said to my astonishment. “I wanted to publish it, and we faxed it to our Washington correspondent. He said don’t publish, Kennedy has absolutely no chance as a Roman Catholic. It was his territory so we accepted that.” So much for political experience.
Since 1958, I have met every British prime minister and two US presidents. All were impressive in different ways, but none quite had that immediate charismatic impact, that mixture of class and popular touch, of charm and cold toughness, of fun and menace, of mischief and selfish calculation, of radical courage and conservative instincts, of pure political genius as JFK. I cannot claim that I spotted all that at the time, but he was clearly really special.
• Bernard Donoughue is a Labour peer who headed the Number 10 Policy Unit during the Harold Wilson and James Callaghan premierships.