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A Truman-Kennedy connection endures

The Examiner

Eight once and future U.S. presidents have visited the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum since its establishment in 1957. One of them was Sen. John F. Kennedy, who toured the Library and visited with Harry Truman in November 1959, as he sought his support for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination the following year.

Sam Rushay

In August 1960, following his nomination, Kennedy returned to the Truman Library. There he attended a press conference in the auditorium, along with Truman, Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri, and Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson of Washington. The press conference was designed to be a show of party unity.

Public appearances aside, however, there was a considerable backstory surrounding the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination. Harry Truman initially backed Symington, Missouri’s favorite son and his former secretary of the Air Force, for the nomination. Initially, Truman did not support Kennedy’s candidacy. He felt that the Massachusetts senator was too young and inexperienced for the presidency.

Truman insisted that Kennedy’s Catholicism was not an issue for him.

“It’s not the pope,” he said, “It’s the pop,” referring to his intense dislike for Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, the former U.S. ambassador to Britain.

For his part, Kennedy dismissed Truman's criticism of his inexperience, pointing out that he had served more time in Congress than Truman had before he became president in 1945.

In an interview he gave in 1959, Truman gave his lukewarm support for Kennedy. He granted that Kennedy had important political experience, especially in the area of labor relations, although he noted that Kennedy’s home state was “rather far east for the Middle West….”1 However, he wasn’t so sure that Southern voters would accept Kennedy’s Catholicism. (Source: Ralph Weber, ed., "Talking with Harry: Candid Conversations with President Harry S. Truman," pp. 212, 305.) Once Kennedy was nominated, Truman campaigned for him energetically. In September 1960, Robert Kennedy, John Kennedy’s younger brother, visited the Truman Library while campaigning for his brother in Independence and Sugar Creek.

In the presidential election in November 1960, Kennedy defeated his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, by a very narrow margin. In March 1961, Harry and Bess Truman were invited to the White House, their first return there since their departure in January 1953. Harry and Bess, along with their daughter Margaret and her husband, Clifton Daniel, had dinner with the Kennedys.

Kennedy’s presidency lasted less than three years. In November 1963, he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. In her biography, “Harry S. Truman,” Margaret Truman wrote that her father was “deeply grieved by President Kennedy’s assassination.”

The Truman Library’s association with the Kennedy family did not end with President Kennedy’s death. In March 1964, Senator Edward Kennedy, the youngest brother of John and Robert Kennedy, visited the Truman Library.

When Harry Truman died in December 1972, Kennedy’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, sent a heart-felt condolence letter to Bess W. Truman. When Bess Truman passed away in October 1982, Mrs. Onassis sent a condolence letter to Margaret Truman. Both letters are in the archives of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.

In 2006, Caroline Kennedy, President Kennedy’s daughter, attended the opening of a Truman Library exhibit featuring the doll collection that she had acquired as a young child living in the White House during her father’s presidency. Ms. Kennedy took the occasion to give a public program and to sign copies of her book, “A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children.”

Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.