THE PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY – AND YOUR VOTE
You all know what brings me to this state: I am a candidate in your primary for President of the United States. And I would like to take this opportunity to talk with you—not about my own candidacy, but about that Presidential primary, how important it is and how important your individual vote will be. For I strongly urge every citizen of this state—Republicans, Democrats, or Independents—whomever they may support—to go to the polls this spring and cast that all-important vote.
“In every American election,” wrote James Bryce more than 80 years ago, “there are two acts of choice, two periods of contest. The first is the selection of the candidate from within the party by the party; the other is the struggle between the parties for the place. Frequently the former of these is the more keenly fought over—[and] the more important.”
Never was this process of selecting a candidate more important—more meaningful—than today. For during the coming year we will select not merely a party favorite, but a potential national leader for the fabulous sixties. We will not merely reward faithful service—we will choose a man to be the center of energy and activity in our entire governmental system. Only if the parties choose their candidates well—only then will the American people next November be able to select a man equipped with the qualities which our country, and our age, demand.
In this all-important process of nomination the American people are entitled to a voice. The people of this state—and the people of other states—are entitled to be heard. Fifty years ago, when New Jersey was attempting to establish a Presidential Primary law, one well-known political boss was indignant. The Legislature, he said, as a spokesman for the voters, “has no more right to attempt to fix by law the method of selecting delegates to a national convention than it has to attempt to fix the method of selecting delegates to an Eagle Convention or a Rotary conclave.”
But today we know that national conventions are not social gatherings. Political parties are not private clubs. They are at the heart of the democratic process—they are the instrument of the popular will—they are the method, and the best method yet devised, by which the people rule. When they act, they act not merely for themselves but for millions. And their actions must be responsive to the will and needs of those they represent.
The days when Presidential candidates—unknown and untested—can be nominated in smoke-filled rooms, by political leaders and party bosses, have forever passed from the scene. Our last experience with such a nomination resulted in the disaster of the Harding Administration. But even Harding entered and won at least one contested primary.
For 50 years, no Republican or Democrat has reached the White House without entering and winning at least one contested primary. No man has won a national election who was unwilling to test his candidacy with the people. No man has occupied the post of Chief Executive until he first occupied one of several places on the primary ballot.
It is true that conventions have occasionally chosen a candidate who never ran in a contested primary—but such conventions have never produced a President.
THE OREGON PRIMARY
In the development of this important primary process, the State of Oregon is entitled to major credit for its own leadership. For it was here in this state that the Presidential Primary was born. It was here in this state, on April 28, 1908, that Senator Jonathan Bourne read in the Oregon Journal an editorial noting that the Alabama supporters of William Jennings Bryan were asking that State’s Democratic Committee to put his name on the primary ballot. Perhaps, said the Journal, this points the way to “a new method of nominating Presidents.”
Senator Bourne clipped that editorial out and went to work. With the help of the People’s Power League, he developed and championed the nation’s first Presidential Primary law. And in 1910—not through the legislature but through popular initiative—it became the law of the state. Within five years, 21 other states—joining the progressive reform movement behind Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt or LaFollette—had followed Oregon’s lead.
For 50 years, the Oregon Primary has been a major influence in the nominating process of both parties. No other state of this size has played a comparable role. Because the Oregon Primary is so historic—because it inevitably brings a real test between the real contenders—and because, as this year, it is one of the last significant primaries to be held—the results in Oregon have almost always been decisive. During all those 50 years, only one man was ever elected President without winning the Oregon primary—and that man was Warren G. Harding. Every other President of the United States—Wilson, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower—won the Oregon Presidential Primary on their way to the White House.
So this is not a primary to be by-passed or treated with indifference. It is not a primary to be abused or twisted, by entering the names of those who are not likely to be both serious and willing contenders in the convention. For the voters of this state have the right to make a meaningful choice. When Charles Evans Hughes, reluctant to admit that he was willing to be a candidate, tried to have his name removed from the ballot here in 1916, the Oregon Supreme Court refused, saying that the rights of Oregon voters were paramount. When some Oregon delegates pledged to Teddy Roosevelt by reason of his victory in the 1912 primary sided with President Taft on the Convention chairmanship issue, they were denounced throughout the state. When Senator Robert Taft’s supporters in 1952 tried to avoid an Eisenhower primary victory by running a separate slate of Taft delegates, the voters defeated the entire slate at the polls.
Oregon is proud of its primary. The whole nation recalls the Dewey-Stassen debate of 1948, and the Stevenson-Kefauver contest of 1956. Equally important were Al Smith’s victory here in 1928, President Coolidge’s hard-pressed triumph over Hiram Johnson in 1924 and Woodrow Wilson’s win over Champ Clark in 1912. In fact, except for Harding and the two compromise Democratic candidates of 1920 and 1924 (Cox and Davis), no one has even been nominated in these 50 years without his name being entered in the Oregon Primary. I know of no other state in the nation which can boast of such a record.
Let us hope that this year’s Oregon Primary can also be significant, with every serious candidate discussing the issues in this state. If this is true, then no doubt once again the historical line will remain unbroken—and the winner of the Oregon Primary will be elected President of the United States.
So it is no exaggeration to say that every Oregon voter on May 20th can help select the next President. And it is only by taking part in this campaign that every voter, as well as every candidate, can help discuss and decide the vital issues that affect the future of this state and nation:
—whether we can achieve a world of peace and freedom in place of the fantastically dangerous and expensive arms race in which we are now falling behind.
—whether older and retired workers in Oregon and other states can obtain decent Social Security benefits, decent medical care, and a decent, dignified way of life.
—whether the wheat, dairy and other farmers of Oregon, neglected by Secretary Benson, can obtain some relief from the agonizing squeeze of ever higher costs and ever lower income.
—whether our food surpluses can help us build a more stable peace abroad and feed our own hungry here at home instead of wasting in warehouses at taxpayers’ expense.
—whether the children of Oregon and the nation can obtain safe, decent, adequate public school facilities, with competent well-paid teachers.
—whether the development of more low-cost power, more economical transportation, more effective controls of racketeering and monopoly, lower interest rates and lower utility prices can help the Oregon consumer battle the high costs of “inflation.”
EDUCATING THE CANDIDATES
These are some of the issues of importance to your state in 1960. These are some of the issues I intend to discuss. And I regret that more candidates in both parties will not join me here in that discussion. For primary contests not only educate the public—they educate the candidate as well.
For if a candidate wishes to understand the needs and aspirations of the people he seeks to serve—he must go among them. He must view the cities and towns and factories and farms firsthand—not merely read secondhand reports from local supporters or look at the nation through the wrong end of a television camera. He must campaign in all sections of the country—the East, the West, and the Far West—if he is to understand the problems of all sections—and not merely his own. He must listen as well as talk, see as well as be seen, learn as well as teach. And the primary is the greatest instrument there is for that kind of education. For after the nomination it is often too late—for the candidate and for the country.
I am sorry that in 1960 there are some in both parties who regard Presidential primary contests with indifference. They have forgotten the lessons of history—that only those candidates with faith and confidence in the people and their wisdom can count on receiving that faith and confidence at the polls in November. They have forgotten the words of Thomas Jefferson that there are always, in effect, “two parties. Those who fear and distrust the people and wish to [take] all power from them—[and] those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them as the most honest and safe depository of the public interest.”
Jefferson would have approved of this primary. He would have urged you to cast your ballot in it. I hope you will be true to that heritage.
Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 906, "Oregon Chamber of Commerce, 10 February 1960." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.