Interview of Senator John F. Kennedy by Walter Cronkite, September 19, 1960

MR. CRONKITE: How are you, Senator?

SENATOR KENNEDY: Walter, I'm glad to see you.

MR. CRONKITE: It's good to be with you.

SENATOR KENNEDY: Thank you very much. Won't you sit down and perhaps we can talk right here.

MR. CRONKITE: Thank you. Is it convenient?


MR. CRONKITE: Senator, you know we feel sometimes that the candidates get lost behind the campaign posters, so we thought we'd just talk to you today about Kennedy, the man, if that's all right with you, sir.


MR. CRONKITE: Your grandfather, Mayor John Fitzgerald, of Boston, is once supposed to have said, "Come in first; second place is failure." You certainly seem to have lived up to his maxim so far. At 26 - I mean, at 29, in 1946, you were elected to Congress, and in 1952, that upset when you defeated Senator Lodge, now the Vice Presidential candidate, on the Republican side, for his Senate seat, in Massachusetts. And, of course, your sensational string of primary victories leading to your nomination in July.

Now, if you are elected, at 43, you will be the youngest man ever elected to the Presidency of the United States. And of course this whole matter of maturity has come up somewhat in the campaign.

I'm just wondering if you don't feel you've aged a little bit in these last three weeks of active campaigning.

SENATOR KENNEDY: Yes. Well, we've been campaigning for a long time. I ran in seven primaries and of course the responsibility is much greater and therefore the pressures are greater. Theodore Roosevelt was younger than I was when he became President, but of course he became because of the death of the President, and he was Vice President.

I've been in Congress for 14 years, which is a long time, particularly compared to the amount of time that other Presidents have served.

It's always interesting to realize that Lincoln was in the House, but when he ran for the Senate in 1858, he was defeated. Yet he emerged, I suppose, as one of the two or three greatest Presidents we have had. So, it really depends, in the final analysis, on the competence and responsibility of the individual.

MR. CRONKITE: Senator, do you ever wish that you looked older?

SENATOR KENNEDY: Well, I suppose you have what - I've gotten along reasonably well. As it is, I think the people can make a judgment as to whether the candidate is able to meet the responsibilities of whatever office he holds. I ran against Senator Lodge back in '52, which was eight years ago; and I met some of the same problems then. But of course this is the great test.

MR. CRONKITE: Senator, there's one little item that has come up I've always wondered about, and stop me if you've heard this one, but the change of the hair style to get away from the forelock, was that a considered political opinion or is that your own?

SENATOR KENNEDY: No, I've been cutting it the same way for about six or seven years, but - even longer, but unfortunately, when you run for the Presidency your wife's hair or your hair or something else always becomes of major significance. I don't think it's a great issue, though, in 1960.

MR. CRONKITE: Senator, Mrs. Kennedy said, in one interview, that you prefer, rather than social engagements, to prop up in bed and read, biographies being your favorite reading, she said; and some of your biographers have noted, that you are not necessarily the gregarious type. I wondered if you, yourself, feel any sort of sense of shyness about meeting large crowds and the constant handshaking which is part of the political decorum.

SENATOR KENNEDY: No, I don't. My grandfather, I guess, was a much more natural politician than I was, I'm told. When I was at school I never thought of going into politics. I always wanted to write or practice law. But now I've run and I don't - people are very - particularly in recent years I think they are interested in politics in the sense of being concerned about the issues which affect them and their lives, and so they are friendly and interested and I don't find it difficult to go around. But I'm not, in fact I would say, looking over the United States Senate, that the old-time image of a back-slapping politician is faded. Most of them are quiet and serious and interested in their work. It's a very - the issues we deal with, compared to the issues which were before us in the Nineteenth Century, Daniel Webster and Calhoun, all the great figures in the Nineteenth Century, really dealt with about four or five great issues in their whole career - tariff, the expansion of the West, slavery; and we deal with matters which are extremely technical and sophisticated, they come across our desk day by day and week by week. I think the needs of politicians have changed. I think there has to be a good deal of serious interest in the complexities of the problems which face the United States and people aren't as interested in back-slapping politicians.

MR. CRONKITE: Senator, you said that you hadn't planned on being a politician. And we, of course, have heard the story many times, occasionally from your own lips I believe, but that you got into politics sort of take the place of your other brother, Joe, who was killed during the war.

SENATOR KENNEDY: Yes. He was going to be a politician I think. In fact he was a delegate to the 1924 - 1940 Convention when he was only 24. And then he was killed in the war and I came back from the war and I was in the hospital for a while and his seat became vacant. I worked for a newspaper for a while and I decided to run, and - here we are.

MR. CRONKITE: Was it a conscious feeling on your part of taking Joe's place?

SENATOR KENNEDY: No, but I - I never would have run for office if he had lived. I think he was - destined to be very successful in politics. But, I was, at the end of the war I was interested in politics, at least in the issues the country faced. I had been a reporter at the United Nations Conference and then at the Pottsdam Conference in Germany in '45. And when the Congressional seat became vacant, as I had grown up in an atmosphere where government and politics were followed by both my grandfathers and my father and my brother, and there I was so that I never would have imagined before the war that I would have become active in politics but everything seemed to point to it in '46.

MR. CRONKITE: You don't have any sense of being a stand-in for Joe in this Presidential race?

SENATOR KENNEDY: No, I don't. Time has moved on. I once said that I thought that - I think he would have done very well and would have been very successful, but I have sort of made my own career now. But then I always feel that he would have done very well indeed.

MR. CRONKITE: Senator, actually, the Presidency has been mentioned around the Kennedy family for quite a while. Joe, Jr.'s stated ambition, even before Harvard, was that he wanted to be President of the United States. And, of course, your father was mentioned quite prominently in the 1940 campaign before Roosevelt decided to run for a third term.

SENATOR KENNEDY: That's right.

MR. CRONKITE: You were 23 in that year of the '40 campaign.

SENATOR KENNEDY: That's right.

MR. CRONKITE: Did you have any great ambitions for your father to become President? Do you remember your emotions at the time?

SENATOR KENNEDY: No. Actually I don't think he ever would have thought he would be nominated. There were other potential candidates for the Democratic nomination and of course there was no indication that President Roosevelt would not run. So that while his name appeared in the paper, I don't think he ever inhaled the atmosphere.

MR. CRONKITE: Visions of those famous Kennedy touch football games on the White House never danced through your head?

SENATOR KENNEDY: No - no - no.

MR. CRONKITE: Senator, you mentioned that if Joe had lived and become a politician you possibly wouldn't have. And yet now we find your brother Bob quite prominent in government affairs in Washington, and your younger brother, Teddy, is talking about a political career.

SENATOR KENNEDY: That's right.

MR. CRONKITE: Do you have any concern about the effect on the electorate of the possibility of an incipient Kennedy dynasty?

SENATOR KENNEDY: No, no. Neither one of them have run. If my brother Teddy does into politics, I think he is going to move out West and start on his own. Politics or really government work is, I think, the most fascinating career. In the first place, all of us are concerned about what is happening to our country and all of us have strong feelings about what our country should do and should be and therefore the decisions of government are going to affect the security of us all and it's natural that any young man who has been exposed to government life and who is deeply concerned would want to play a part in it. So that - but neither one of them have run and I don't think my brother Bobby will run, but he did work for the Rackets Committee. He worked for the Department of Justice before that. And I think he continues to like to devote his life to some kind of public service.

MR. CRONKITE: Would you feel any restriction against naming a member of the family to the Cabinet, for instance?

SENATOR KENNEDY: I think it would probably be unwise. But I would hope that if I were successful that they would contribute - be able to contribute their services. I think they are both very able and they both worked extremely hard. My brother Bobby was my campaign manager in '52, and he has been my campaign manager since I started to run and he is terribly single-minded in his interest in public affairs and being of service and I would hope he could be. Merely because I happened to hold office I don't think should bar him. We are going to need all the people of dedication we can get.

MR. CRONKITE: Senator, what about the part that the family's quite enormous riches have played in your life? Could you say how you feel they have influenced your life?

SENATOR KENNEDY: Well, I suppose that they've made it - my primary interest of course is to work in the government. I think my father did well in this country, he started out with - without any resources and he has done extremely well. I would like to have worked in the government, to be of some service. So that I feel that probably his success in business has made me more anxious to be of some - to work in the government.

MR. CRONKITE: Do you feel that financial independence gives you political independence?

SENATOR KENNEDY: Oh, there isn't any doubt, of course, that it's a great deal of help to anyone, but I don't know whether it follows necessarily. I don't think of it - after all, poor man, rich man, middle-income men have succeeded. Some have succeeded and some have failed. I don't think there is a common denominator, tracing the history of our Senate, Governors, and the Presidency, that you can find any one ingredient. Financial resources, Franklin Roosevelt had financial resources and did well, Harry Truman had none and did well. While Eisenhower was in the service all his life, and he has done well. So I don't think that that is a common denominator.

MR. CRONKITE: Senator, regarding the whole Kennedy family history, all of your brothers and sisters have succeeded in their own lives, in their personal lives and in the public image. Do you have an idea of what the thread is that runs through the Kennedys that makes - that gives you this success?

SENATOR KENNEDY: Well, I grew up in a very strict house, and one where - there was no, there were no free riders, and everyone was expected to do, give their best to what they did. And I think that that spirit has been built into all my brothers and sisters. I hope we do well, but I think the idea of making, putting your best effort into whatever you do has been pretty deeply ingrained. And I think, I hope that - I think my brothers and sisters are trying to do the same in their families. There is no sense in trying to do anything unless you give it your maximum effort. You may not succeed, but at least the effort and dedication and interest should be there.

MR. CRONKITE: The thing has been mentioned quite frequently of a sense of competition within the family, friendly competition quite obviously. Do you think this has been a major ingredient?

SENATOR KENNEDY: No, actually the family has been tremendously mutually supporting, but I do think that there was constantly drilled into us, as I say my mother and father were both very strict and firm, the necessity of doing each task in the most competent and effective manner, so that that - there was a constant drive for us for self-improvement.

MR. CRONKITE: Senator, since we are mentioning the family, if I may throw a parenthetical thing out here, those of us who were watching the Conventions carefully and narrating them as they went along, were somewhat surprised that your father was not present for your acceptance speech. Could you tell us why that was?

SENATOR KENNEDY: Well, Friday he had gone - he went to Europe the next morning, he was at the Convention the night I got nominated, and I think he felt that was probably the climax. He was in Los Angeles watching on television. I think he thought that was the climactic moment. I think he is anxious to see us all make good on our own. He has been successful and wants us to have a chance to do it ourselves, but his interest is constant.

MR. CRONKITE: What single person has been most influential in the development of your own personal philosophy?

SENATOR KENNEDY: Well, I think the family atmosphere has been, my mother and father, I think, have been, in the sense that I have already described. I think they've had a great influence. Once I came into politics and political life, then of course you are on your own, and your judgments are your own. My brother has been a great support to me, but I will say finally that you have to decide, yourself.

MR. CRONKITE: Speaking of judgments being your own, I just happen to have a quote on that that you made in your biography. And you said, "There comes a point in your life when you know your judgment is the only judgment for you."

That point in your life you mentioned, have you, I assume, reached that point?

SENATOR KENNEDY: Yes. I think that no one is ever right all the time, but you have to have some confidence in your own judgment. You ask people for advice but you get as many different pieces of advice as you ask different people, ordinarily, especially if it seems difficult. So if you have reasonable confidence in your own judgment, you probably have given the matter more thought, I would say that you, by and large, in the final analysis, have to stick to your view. I think it's good to get other opinions, but you have to choose what opinion you want to go with.

MR. CRONKITE: Can you pinpoint any moment when you came to this decision that it had to be your decision and yours alone?

SENATOR KENNEDY: After you go into politics, I probably voted on thousands of issues, making decisions every day that Congress was in session one way or another and in a decision that was very close involved many factors, so I think you begin to feel that - I find that the more people you ask for advice the more confusing it finally becomes, so I think you do better making up your own mind.

MR. CRONKITE: Senator, within the framework of your own personal and political philosophy, do you have any ideas now as to how we can deal with these people of other nations who don't have the same ethic and moral code that we have in this country?

SENATOR KENNEDY: Do you mean the Soviet Union or the -

MR. CRONKITE: Primarily, of course.

SENATOR KENNEDY: Well, I think that if the United States is strong, I would say that, of course, militarily so that it can't be challenged successfully in any military action, or at least there is not much hope of success, if we make our commitments very clear and precise - I think World War I and World War II showed the great danger of not making very precise commitments. If the Germans had realized in World War I that the British would come to war if they invaded Belgium, or if they had realized ultimately we would have come in, I don't think we might have had a war in World War I, and might not have had in World War II. So that I would say that commitments have to be very clear, you have to draw the line of where you will protect your interests and where you won't in a very responsible manner and maintain your commitments with the strength to back them up, and then I think you ought to try to indicate your desire to live in peace, once you have that strength. Theodore Roosevelt's "speak quietly and carry the big stick," I think sometimes we have reversed that, and speak loudly and our strength isn't as big as it should be.

Now, that's as it applies to the Soviet Union. In addition, of course, we are going to have a competition between our two systems in Latin America, Africa, and Asia for these people who are newly emerging to determine which way they will go, will they go with the Communists as a way to the future, or will they come with us. I think we have to hold out the hand of friendship and we just can't attempt to enlist them in a cold war, but demonstrate an interest in their problems. What concerns me now is not only the Castro in Cuba, but the spread of Castroism among the young groups, the intelligentsia, and the intellectuals, the students through many countries of Latin America. The candidates who are running in Brazil now are running on an anti-American platform. Why should we who desire their freedom and independence become the adversary while the Communists who are the real imperialists attract the country of the future. I think one of the problems has been that the United States has not given off an image of vitality here at home and abroad.

MR.CRONKITE: Senator, do you feel that we have time to convince people of the moral strength behind their commitments, though at this time - that is if their -

SENATOR KENNEDY: - physical and moral strength. But you know, I am Chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa of the Foreign Relations Committee and we have really given very little attention to Africa and now suddenly 25 per cent of all countries in the General Assembly are going to be African. The reason, in my opinion, that Khrushchev, in fact more than any other, is coming to the United States is because he realizes that they stand in a very powerful position today, and we have ignored them for years, and yet they will be voting on all these matters and he wants to extend his influence to them. But you can't treat people with indifference, in Latin America, which we have for the last years, or in Africa, and then suddenly expect in a moment of truth that they are going to feel that you're their friend.

MR.CRONKITE: In regard to convincing the Soviet Union of the moral strength behind our commitments, here is a nation that hasn't any moral standards -

SENATOR KENNEDY: I don't think - I don't think the word "moral" applies to the Soviet Union, as I think they have to feel that we have the physical power and will - the will. They are not going to be interested in our, they may be impressed by the moral force of the United States and so will other countries and that is a very important part of our strength. But I do think it's the will, the sense of public support for, public willingness to serve the country and to maintain our commitments and to recognize that we live in a hazardous world.

Any politician who runs for office now saying if they are elected, life will be easy, is just not telling the truth.

MR.CRONKITE: Senator, there's an awful lot of mudslinging and charges and counter charges and truths and falsehoods and something in between in a political campaign. What accusation against you has hurt you most personally?

SENATOR KENNEDY: My skin has gotten thicker over the years and I don't really - I can't say that I've been particularly, I don't think I've been unfairly treated in the last months. I think the religious issue is frustrating in that I've made my views clear month after month and year after year. I've answered every question. My public record is spread out over 14 years and yet, I spoke about it again in my acceptance speech, spoke about it in Houston, but it seems difficult to ever give some people the assurances that they need that I'm as interested in religious liberty as they are. It's frustrating, but after all, the Presidency is a powerful office, and I'm asking their support. I'm the first person of my faith, the second one to ever run and they have a right to ask me questions and to have reassurance. But after giving the answers and after my public record indicates that what I say I mean, then it becomes somewhat disappointing that I am not able to get it across more effectively. However, I haven't been - on the whole, I've been fairly treated.

MR.CRONKITE: Does the thing that used to come up occasionally about softness towards McCarthyism, does that bother you at all - personally?

SENATOR KENNEDY: No, because I - (inaudible).

MR.CRONKITE: This one rolls off?

SENATOR KENNEDY: I've been against nearly every legislative act that came up, so I don't - but those things, they say everything about everybody. I just don't feel that, on the whole, I don't feel that I have been - the people make the judgment, and I have been fairly judged so far.

MR.CRONKITE: Senator, one final question: What single quality do you think will be the most important that you take to the White House?

SENATOR KENNEDY: Well, I think I've had - a historical view of the United States and of its relations through the world. I've been interested in it really since I was very young, and I think a sense of the past where we have been in this country, the relations in Europe, will be a great help in the future. I remember a story about many of the papers prepared by some talented young men at the Versailles Conference, on the future of Europe, were based on recommendations by Tallyrand at the end of the Napoleonic Wars at the meeting at Vienna. I think that Lincoln said, "Until you know where you have been, you don't know where you are going." And that's the way I feel. I think a, of course, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of great interest in our country, and also a sense of the historical past here and through the world, I think are very valuable for the future.

MR.CRONKITE: Thank you much, Senator John Kennedy, for spending this time with us.

SENATOR KENNEDY: It's been good to have you with us. Thank you.

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 911, "Presidential Countdown as broadcast on CBS, 19 September 1960." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.