Truman and Kennedy: The Old Guard Yields to the New
Monte M. Poen
"I have been blue as indigo since the California meeting in L.A.," Harry Truman lamented following John F. Kennedy's nomination as the Democratic party's 1960 presidential candidate. "It was," he complained, "a travesty on National Conventions."1 For Truman, a more humiliating political defeat could hardly be imagined. Shortly before the Democrats had convened in Los Angeles, the former president had made a bold, last-ditch effort to stop Kennedy. Calling a news conference, Truman labeled the forthcoming convention a "pre-arranged affair," "a mockery" wherein "men of modest means" would be denied a chance to compete. He would not attend the convention, he announced. Then, squinting into the television cameras, the seventy-six-year-old former president asked Kennedy: "Senator, are you certain that you are quite ready for the country, or that the country is ready for you?"2
In light of subsequent events (wherein Harry Truman recanted, campaigned effectively for Kennedy's election, and ultimately developed a close, albeit uneven, rapport with the young president), the reasons why Truman resisted, than yielded to, and eventually embraced, JFK's claim to presidential stewardship deserve analysis. So too does President Kennedy's accommodation to the man from Independence.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Theodore Sorensen, and, most recently, Herbert Parmet cite John Kennedy's Roman Catholicism as the chief reason why Truman objected to his candidacy. 3 True, as a young man, Truman was prejudiced toward various religious groups, including Catholics; but his interaction with people of diverse backgrounds while serving as an artillery commander during World War I matured him. Indeed, after the war, when Truman opened a haberdashery business (and went broke in it), he did so with a Jewish business partner, and when he entered politics it was through sponsorship of a Catholic friend, Kansas